- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

It is rare we get an opportunity to read a critique of the Arab press, as it competes with the mosque and with dictatorial governments for popular influence.

A comparison by an Arab media expert of Arab and Western journalism, using Western journalistic standards, has just been published in a London Arabic-language daily under the “tell-all” title, “There are no journalists in the Arab world.”

The comparison concludes with a scathing attack on today’s Arab journalism. The writer, Mamoun Fandy, quotes an Arab publisher’s sneering complaint: “We have authors, but no journalists.” The article may explain why creating Middle East democracies is difficult — lack of a free press.

The writer says with great candor Arab journalism will remain dismal until Arab newsroom culture changes. Such a change, I believe, could occur in embattled, democratizing Iraq. Until the fall of Lebanon to terrorist gangs in the 1970s, that nation had a lively, competitive press.

Mr. Fandy told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the London Arab daily, that judging from “the Arab media coverage of events such as the trial of Saddam and the situation in Iraq in general, this lack of [Arab] journalists is embarrassingly obvious…. The main [problem] is that we still have no professional journalists.” (Translation by Middle East Media Research Institute.)

He writes: “It would be interesting to know why Arab journalists have not succeeded in conducting hundreds of interviews with people who knew Saddam up close, or with entire families that were victims of the Saddam era. Weren’t some 300,000 Iraqis buried in mass graves? Or is this, too, an American lie? Didn’t [the victims] have families and relatives who can be interviewed, or aren’t their pain and their lives important?

“It would be interesting to know, for example, about the life of a woman whose husband and children were murdered by Saddam… Thousands of stories should be written on the lives of Iraqis — but where are the journalists? Is it [because of] the lack of professional journalists that these journalistic stories remain unknown?”

The author implies much important news is suppressed because “our newspapers will focus only on heroic deeds and overcoming difficulties, [ignoring] personal defeats, retreats and torments. And we must let those who have experienced them talk about them,” meaning, of course, such stories never even get written. Mr. Fandy also says Arab journalism permits no dissident opinions and favors “a certain group of people [who] exclusively represent the views of all Arabs.”

The questions raised by Mr. Fandy are really first-year journalism school problems: “Why, for example, doesn’t a soldier who has confronted [terrorists] write about terrorism? Why can’t we hear the opinion of the commander of the urban patrol of an Arab capital where there are clashes with terrorists?… Up until this very moment, we have heard no detailed explanation of the commander’s view.”

Mr. Fandy raises an even more pointed question: Arab statesmen rarely if ever write for an Arab journal to explain their policies. He contrasts that to Secretary of State Colin Powell who, he says in a rhetorical flourish, writes “an article about every three months in The Washington Post and the New York Times. Why does he write an article as long as an entire study for Foreign Affairs? Powell and [Donald] Rumsfeld write to persuade the public of their policy, and if they feel that the public grumbles after one article, they write another one.”

Mr. Fandy contrasts American officials’ behavior with the Arab official who “sees no need to explain his policy because he thinks the people support him unquestioningly and that there is no need for explanation and no need to seek their support.”

Something is astir in the Arab Middle East, as the article on Arab journalism shows. Whether it portends real modernizing change in the Islamic Arab world remains to be seen.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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