For so many years, Lebanon has had a reputation for being an exceptional beacon of freedom and openness, and to an extent, democracy in the Arab world. Lebanese bookshops used to display controversial books about sex, atheism and political radicalism that were banned in neighboring Arab countries. There were neither taboos nor censorship in Lebanon. Or so I thought.

Although two of my early articles, one about the Lebanese diva, Fayrouz, and another about the manipulative role Iran has been playing in Iraq after the war in 2003 were published immediately in the renowned An-Nahar and Al-Hayat, my article about the necessity of separating church/mosque and state did not appear anywhere. I thought something must have been wrong with the way it was written, but a Lebanese friend advised sending it to the anti-Saudi Al-Akhbar, and explained that many famous newspapers and television channels in Lebanon today are controlled—often owned—by Arab investors from the Gulf, who effectively shut down any contradictory discourse. Sadly, the longstanding free Lebanese media are neither free nor Lebanese.

That was how I discovered what I call the distribution of loyalties in the Arab Media. Some newspapers and television channels are Saudi-Emirates affiliated; others, Iran-Syria affiliated. Funded by their states’ massive oil and gas revenues, the Qataris are also major players in the media game. Unlike their Saudi neighbors, they are less interested in investing in Lebanese media and prefer to focus on promoting their agenda in their own. Al Jazeera, for instance, has played an obvious role in igniting the Arab Spring. It seems to have set a goal for itself of whipping up demonstrations in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and now Syria, urging the masses there to topple their secular dictators from power and replace them with Islamist ones.

Al Jazeera broadcasts in Arabic and English in more than a hundred countries around the world, including New Zealand, where I now live. It fervently advocates democracy and respect for human rights in “other” Arab countries through its different programs, accusing their governments of being puppets in the hands of the Zionists and the Americans. But what about democracy in Qatar? What about respect for human rights there? What does Al Jazeera say about Qatar’s hosting the largest American military base in the whole region? Nothing. Absolutely nothing!

During the war in Iraq almost a decade ago, when sometimes hundreds of civilians were killed daily in car explosions and suicide bombings, Al Jazeera would refer to the Iraqi deceased as “casualties,” whereas it insisted on referring to the victims of violence in Palestine as “martyrs.”  Although I’m against the excessive use of the words “martyr,” and “martyrdom” in general, but I was outraged by Al Jazeera’s flagrant and shameful discrimination and wrote them a letter of protest, demanding an immediate correction. I never received a reply.

It would be naïve to suggest that media bias is plaguing only Arab newspapers and television channels. In fact, there may be no such thing as truly free and unbiased media. Not in the Arab world, nor anywhere else. There should be, however, a minimum standard of professionalism. It is ironic that Saudi news network Al-Arabiya dedicates long hours to criticizing the “brutal” and “inhumane” practices of the Assad regime in Syria. Bashar is unquestionably a tyrant, but is he the only one? What about the suppression of Saudi political dissidents and the total ban on political parties and demonstrations in the country? Al-Arabiya would never discuss any of that.

Hezbollah’s Iran-funded television channel, Al-Manar, at the other end of the scene, enjoys attacking the Saudis for intervening in other countries’ internal affairs and exporting violence and extremism. Seriously? What has Iran been doing in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain?

Double standards raise serious questions about the integrity and credibility of the hundreds of journalists — many of whom have impressive credentials—from all over the Arab world who earn their living by writing reports, analyses or even opinion articles for these newspapers and television channels. How does working as propagandists make them feel about themselves? Don’t they realize that they are being used to distract readers and viewers from the problems in their own backyards by imputing them to others? Maybe they do realize that, but do not mind it so long as they are being paid handsomely? Questions like these filled my head as I watched and read about the activities of the thirteenth Arab Media Forum, recently held in Dubai.

While the once-pioneering Egyptian media is being preoccupied with post-revolution internal squabbles, and the Iraqi media burdened with a heavy legacy of strict government control during the Ba’ath reign; thankfully, freelancers such as myself still have the wonderful—albeit less prestigious—choice of voicing our thoughts online. We can still choose our forums and do not need to fabricate or twist facts to sustain our families. Nevertheless, not many Arab commentators and journalist can afford to do the same thing—even for the sake of truth.

Ali Shakir is an Iraqi architect and writer. He is the author of A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the Twenty-First Century, a memoir that reflects on the relationship between Western and Middle Eastern Culture, life in Iraq before U.S. intervention, and the misconceptions and controversies of Islam. He currently resides in Auckland, New Zealand.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s another revelation of the bitter reality. As known history is written by historians on the side of the winners. And similarly, media houses are needed to sustain that past effort. Be it Lebanon, or european or asian country. Be it in the time of Jesus or Krishna, the loyalty is always not free or cheap. It is always Paid by those who can Pay FOR LONG AND FOREVER 🙂

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