One cannot effectively address the intricate subject of political, social and economic reforms anywhere in the world, without unwittingly stumbling on issues of relevance to freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the media. A free media is both a requisite and a product of a truly democratic society. This issue cannot be more applicable in the case of the Arab World.
The traditional role of media in the Arab World has been bound for generations as a tool of propaganda. Such a concept doesn’t only carry the negative overtone of propaganda as an instrument of mind control and a way to garner conformity and compliance. But some Arab countries, following their independence after often bloody yet successful drives for freedom, even toyed with the idea of utilizing the medium of mass communications (primitive as they were) to achieve national unity.
It was only a matter of time before propaganda reclaimed some of its more traditional roles that intended to stifle freedom, gagging the opposition while endlessly hailing the ruling elites. While it delivered amazingly similar results – as a tool of crowd control – to the craftier methods of propaganda utilized by some Western powers, including the United States during and after World War II, the style and presentation differed greatly.
In the United States for example, consent among the public was mostly achieved through more scientific methods of propaganda and the dangerous matrimony of the business and political elite. It closely followed the method of agenda setting, a role that was willingly filled by a few on top, while those at the bottom carried on with their lives according to those predetermined agendas, believing whole-heartedly that they had complete freedom of choice all along.
Among Arab states, propaganda was anything but benign either. Although it was equally effective, it was crude and oppressive. The ‘unruly’ segments of society were suppressed by violent means and had to operate underground. The Arab media seemed as if it was invented with the sole purpose of praising the ruler and the miracle of his mere existence.
Nowadays change seems inevitable. The mediums of communications have themselves changed. It was no longer possible to cut off an entire nation of its regional and international development. It was no longer feasible to convince the multitudes to expect little from their leaders, now that they had learned of international standards of governance.
Moreover, there is the rhetoric of democracy everywhere. The mere possession of the product of democracy is enough to enhance every aspect of an individual or even a nation’s well-being. The US administration has shrewdly chosen to pose as a bringer of democracy to the Arabs, for it knows too well that you can never go wrong introducing so murky a concept. Unlike the WMDs pretense, with a limited life span, the democracy pretext is ageless and largely immune to scrutiny.
Such reasoning – improved communication technology and accessibility coupled with outside political manipulation – compounded the already existing pressure on many Arab governments, forcing them to ease their overpowering control over the media, to accommodate the new reality. However, this should not suggest that the unavoidable change is not itself orchestrated to maintain the status quo of the highly contrasted relationship between the governing and the governed.
Undoubtedly, there is a transition in some Arab states in regards to the media. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that proves such a transition is in fact inspired by the realization that media freedom is a central component to political accountability.
The challenge facing some Arab governments is indeed formidable. The Arab populace can be suppressed to conformity, as history has shown, but they cannot easily be duped into it, especially as the connection between Arab peoples and their governments is marred with suspicion and mistrust.
Whereas one can comfortably observe the easing of the state’s tight control over the media in some Arab countries- evidently for the purpose of adopting more scientific control mechanisms – one can hardly be confident predicting the future of this transition. Although the people of the Arab World yearn for the freedom to express themselves and articulate their grievances unhindered and free of intimidation, the state has boundaries that cannot be crossed; for crossing these boundaries, it is believed, will compromise the ruling elite’s everlasting reign.
Consequently, scores of Arabic channels are now free to air uncensored hip-hop obscenities as well as vulgar and often violent American television re-runs. Arab audiences are free to select from among the thousands of products, mostly junk food and useless gadgets. Private television enterprises are equally free to duplicate high rating American shows such as “Survivor”, “American Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” However, serious and meaningful debate regarding the social, economic and political deficiencies facing the Arabs are largely absent, and for good reason, for they are likely to threaten the existing, delicate balance that delineates the relationship between the haves and have-nots, the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the traditionally oppressed.
Even the often called upon media examples, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, to demonstrate that a considerable freedom course has been chosen, seem, in the eyes of many Arabs, to counter the status quo selectively and for a political end. Their worth would have to be questioned against the backdrop of social and political development in the Arab world, not simply as agitators, taboo breakers or anti this and pro that. Such designations no longer suffice if the Arab media is to distance itself from hidden political agendas.
Communication is obviously a two way street. However, in much of the Arab world, only governments and large businesses seem to enjoy the benefit of the mass media, with minimal space available for any contending views, whose task is to validate the media as all encompassing and democratic. Yet, if Arab media, in its current setting, is entrusted with the task of contributing to the quest of political reforms throughout the Arab world, the end product can be highly predictable, for the status quo shall continue under different a name and designation.
-Ramzy Baroud, a veteran journalist, is editor in chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He is the author of the upcoming book, “A Force to Be Reckoned With: Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising,” to be published by Pluto Books in London.