Media Should Stop Feeding Arabs on a Diet of Illusion
Zainab Hefni, Arab News
JEDDAH, 22 April 2003 — A wound may be patched and treated by a doctor so that with the passage of time it becomes only a memory except when the spot where it was is accidentally touched. Only then does the patient remember the pain, but it soon fades into memory. However, a word freely spoken lingers on after the speaker has gone because truth is inherited in the same way wealth is. Material wealth may be dispersed but the riches of the mind remain for generations, passing from one to another. How many burning expressions have helped liberate nations from injustice and slavery? How many impassioned words have led to the launching of the beacons of freedom, justice and equality?
This is a fact which is recognized by many. It is a fact which has motivated Arab regimes which believe in the theory of repression so they have tried to curb free speech in any media under their control.
This curbing has led to the underground tendency to give free rein to inciting public opinion and telling people facts that they should know.
For example, this became clear in the war on Iraq during which Sahaf, the Iraqi minister of information, stormed into the Al-Jazeera TV offices in Baghdad. He carried a Kalashnikov and threatened to kill the station's employees, cut off their arms and throw their corpses into the desert if they reported that the American forces were approaching Baghdad. Such behavior is considered to be a model of the policies followed by the Arab media. Only the forms vary from place to place.
From a study of Sahaf's antics and fiery pronouncements on TV, some people launched an Internet site in his name and, I am sorry to say, such reactions are proof that the Arabs have been brought up on the culture of illusion. It is also proof that they have minds well trained to swallow empty words as truth and accept the hollow pomp.
These are minds which are drawn even to the chants of vendors in the streets; such people will fall in step with any drumbeat that comes along, no matter how dissonant or discordant. There is nothing more dangerous than the poisoning of minds, because the looting of the intellect is the beginning of the dissolution of morals. It is also the beginning of political corruption leading to extremist beliefs and the cracking down on the media, obliging them to serve the state's special interests. In other words, they are obliged to peddle the ruler's political beliefs and to falsify the facts. This is a great crime against peoples' rights. With the passage of time, eventually an Arab media will come into being which is both free and independent. It will be a responsible media which serves the interests of the people rather than the ambitions of the rulers. It will also be a media which will attempt to be open and transparent, one which deals with the defects of Arab societies, a media which does not make itself subservient to the pronouncements of dictatorial regimes. This is on condition that the media does not stir up sectarian chauvinism and civil strife in the name of freedom of action and speech.
Today we need a media which will send coded messages to public opinion in the West. The messages would clarify our positions and bring our problems to the fore in such a way that we would be able to stop those who seek to defame us.
We will one day have a media which is capable of creating channels of information in English which will act as the connecting link to the world. We are not complaining about the paucity of channels but we want to examine the appropriateness of the channels' contents. The prime example of this is the breadth of distribution which Al-Jazeera achieved in Arab countries in just a few years.
Whether or not we agree with Al-Jazeera's points of view, its success in attracting millions of viewers is undeniable. This is what motivated the creation of the "Al-Arabia" channel to compete in the Arab street in the hope of achieving the same degree of success. This is a harbinger of a new cleaner atmosphere in the land, an atmosphere which is based on transparency and a respect for the Arab viewer's mentality. It will be a media which performs in the interests of the Arab individual, giving him the credibility which he seeks unsuccessfully through official channels of information.
I know a "Qatari Secret" which is always being repeated: It is that Qatar is very proud that Al-Jazeera is affiliated with it but is displeased with the fact that this channel sheds light on the negative aspects of Arab countries in general while abstaining from any talk about the negative aspects of life in Qatar. Al-Jazeera does not discuss the deterioration of public utilities in Qatar nor does it talk about the rise of unemployment or the families which are approaching the poverty line. This raises a big question mark about the station's desire to clean up its own house before dealing with the faults of others by tearing down protective walls and sowing discord.
There are many negative aspects to the Arab media because it is a media with a disturbed intellect, handicapped in its extremities. So much so that ArabSat refused an American request to reconnect the Iraqi space channel. This is considered to be very courageous since ArabSat must someday come to an agreement with the legal Iraqi government. They hope to make that government understand that the "word" has a stronger effect on societies than magic. America is now attempting to broadcast its messages on Iraqi television.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa gave his opinion of the killing of correspondents in Iraq. He said that it was a very serious matter because the journalists were doing a noble job in presenting facts from the battlefield. Here I find myself in a very confusing position — wondering about the noble roles and the heavy price that some of them have to pay to bring the "facts" to the world. Is it enough for us to bite our lips in rage at what is going on in various parts of the world in order to obliterate the facts? Or to wipe away our tears and bury our victims in a desperate attempt to move forward with enlightening words which will be the guiding lights leading the future generations along more secure and peaceful paths?
(Zainab Hefni is a Saudi journalist. She is based in Jeddah.)