In today’s WSJ, Jon Alterman voices his own concerns:
- new communication technology has changed the information environment in the Middle East, as it has around the world, remains a valuable thing. Government information bureaucracies, which once sat back smugly and told their populations what they wanted them to know, now face unprecedented competition for their citizens’ attention. Not only does satellite TV provide more than 200 Arab channels–and even more international channels–but TV must compete with videocassettes, cassette tapes, photocopies, faxes and, for some, the Web.
The Qatar-based channel al-Jazeera has been the trend setter in many ways, highlighting field reporting, lively talk shows and aggressive interviews with political leaders. Certainly, the network and its competitors have strained governments that relied on censorship to control their populations. With so many outlets for information, it is much harder to keep a secret in the Arab world today.
….a funny thing happened on the way to the Arab media bazaar. Rather than contribute to a public debate on the ills of the Arab world, Arab media have concentrated much more on the ills of the non-Arab world. Rather than help Arab publics articulate their grievances toward their governments, they have nurtured Arab grievances against other governments. Arab media have gone a long way toward building solidarity among Arabs, but, to an extraordinary degree, that solidarity is treated as an end in itself rather than as a means to achieve some other goals.
Ultimately though, Alterman is optimistic:
- Arab media are not destined to slide ever further into nihilistic mediocrity. There is, among international Arab journalists, a cadre of intelligent, thoughtful and well-trained individuals. But as one leading Arab journalist told me last winter, “We are judged on a political basis, not a professional basis.” The reward system is skewed toward those who build Arab solidarity, not those who are the most professional.
The solution is twofold. First, we need to hold journalists to account. They need to know that as international figures, they have an audience in the West as well as back home. More importantly, we need to have our journalists interact with theirs, making the case that professional respect can only come to those who act professionally. International Arab journalism is still in its youth, but it needs to work through its adolescence. We cannot expect to like everything that appears in the Arab press. But that press has an opportunity to play a constructive role helping to build better societies and better futures. This role has too often been abandoned, but it need not be forever.
We keep hearing about various aspects of Islamic/Arab society being 1000 years behind for this (individualism) and 500 (religious reformation) years for that, and be patient, you can’t make up 200 years (democracy) in a decade, and the like – I’m not sure the world can afford to be patient.