Though celebrity Western journalists like CNN’s Anderson Cooper, ABC’s Christiane Amanpour and Fox News’ Greg Palkot thrust the press into the limelight by being attacked by pro-government mobs in Cairo, the role of Arabic media in the current crisis has been much less reported.
This is not insignificant because the Middle Eastern press arguably has been a key force in sinking Hosni Mubarak’s presidency and setting off a chain reaction of unrest throughout the region.
Though the world rightly applauds a free press, the concept of free doesn’t necessarily equate to truthful, accurate or ethical.
This is particularly the case in the Middle East, where journalistic standards can be decidedly different from those in the United States and Europe. Perhaps this is most apparent in the dueling version of events as depicted by Egyptian state-run media and the notionally independent pan-Arab press, especially Al Jazeera. A satellite television network based in Qatar, Al Jazeera has enjoyed more freedom in places such as Egypt than state-run counterparts, though both sides routinely cast aside the concept of objective reporting.
In Mr. Mubarak’s worldview, Al Jazeera, with its inflammatory and at times untruthful coverage of his U.S.-friendly regime, is squarely to blame for inciting the current unrest. Several days into the mass protests, Mr. Mubarak boldly shuttered Al Jazeera’s office in Cairo, which subsequently was burned by an Egyptian mob.
Mr. Mubarak and his supporters were outraged by Al Jazeera’s continuous spotlight on the protests, accompanied by anti-government commentary often based on dubious assertions - actions the Mubarak side felt magnified the size and scope of the demonstrations. Al Jazeera’s preposterous assertion that Mr. Mubarak would seek refuge in Israel is a telling example.
Meanwhile, Egyptian state-run media have downplayed the protests to such an extent, either by not showing the demonstrations or labeling them “pro-government,” that their credibility pales in comparison to Al Jazeera’s. Notably, the deputy head of Egypt’s Nile TV, Shaheera Amin, resigned in protest, telling the BBC she could no longer be a part of “their propaganda machine.”
In their efforts to prop up Mr. Mubarak, Egyptian state media have a history of miscues, embarrassing themselves and calling into question their ability to report the facts.
For instance, in September, Egypt’s state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram, doctored a picture taken at the White House during the Middle East peace talks. In the original photo, President Obama is walking front and center, leading heads of state from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt into a press conference. In the altered photo, passed off as genuine, Al-Ahram editors cut and pasted Mr. Mubarak’s image from the rear left to front and center, ahead of the pack, making it appear that Egypt was the de facto leader.
Some state-run press in the Middle East play fast and loose with the facts, but in countries with U.S.-friendly governments, harsh criticism of the West is often muted.
As a corporate network serving all of the Middle East in Arabic and worldwide through the more moderate English-language channel, Al Jazeera has no such restraints.
As I worked closely with Al Jazeera during my four years as the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere, notably including Guantanamo, its coverage reminded me of “The Amityville Horror” of journalism: fiction based loosely on actual events. In my live television interviews from Guantanamo, Al Jazeera’s Qatar-based anchors generally were confrontational and invariably came back to the same unfounded allegations of torture - regardless of the facts and no matter what question they had asked originally.
Though Al Jazeera was hardly alone in unfairly portraying Guantanamo, its reporting on other U.S.-terrorism related topics stood out as unique.
Many Egyptians I spoke with on a visit to Cairo in late 2009 said that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had been orchestrated by the CIA, that 3,000 Jews had been told to stay home from work that day and that the plot had been carried out so that George W. Bush would have an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Their reported source? Al Jazeera.
So, while many in the West applaud the downfall of an autocratic strongman and the potential domino effect in other undemocratic Middle Eastern countries, we may live to regret the Arab street taking over in Cairo and, possibly, other capitals.