Friday, 24 August 2007

The Low Standards of Media in the Gulf Arab Countries

The past decade has seen a proliferation in the number of satellite TV channels broadcasting from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Some like Al Jazeera have through government sanctioned freedom become international household names for breaking regional news stories and the airing of exclusive audio and video tapes from the likes of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. This freedom, which has drawn praise and criticism from around the world, however has not been extended to covering local issues which remain off limits even in those countries that have enjoyed a relatively high degree of media freedom for several de­cades.

Recently Saudi Arabia and some of its senior princes have been under the international spotlight as a result of the botched Al-Yamama weapons deal cover up by the former Prime Minster of Britain. Although this news item was reported throughout the Gulf countries just like many parts of the world, it had not received any mention in the dozen or so newspapers and TV channels based in the Saudi Kingdom until Prince Bandar, who is accused of profiteering to the tune of $2Bn, published a denial several weeks after the initial allegations surfaced.

In Qatar, the country that hosts Al-Jazeera, the famous or notorious 24 hour Arabic news channel depending on which side of the political fence you see it from, the private affairs of the state go unreported and uncriticized. The issue of the Al-Murrar tribe of the peninsular nation, in which several thousand members were accused of plotting against the government and had their passports and property seized, wasn’t featured on any local newspapers, radio or TV channels save for Al-Jazeera who posed it as a passing question to the current prime minister on a talk show. This cause was championed by the channel’s arch rival, the Saudi owned and Dubai based Al-Arabiya, which featured it repeatedly on its news headlines, talk shows and on its popular website allowing bloggers to publicly condemn the Qatari government’s action. This was also considered payback for what the Saudi regime considers outright attacks by Al-Jazeera on its royal family.

In Bahrain, which has suffered from government corruption and repression of the Shia majority rights, significant local events are left for the international news agencies and opposition party’s media to report. Recently, a member of the Bahraini opposition uncovered satellite pictures through Google Earth of the residences of some of the royal family estates that show opulent beach facing palaces surrounded by giant walls that bar the lower income mostly Shia villages access to the sea which is a vital source of their livelihood. The Bahraini government reacted by blocking the website; however, the photos are still found circulating email boxes throughout the Gulf.

In Kuwait, the country with the highest degree of media freedom in the region only a single independent TV channel exists. The local press is clearly divided into pro and anti Salafist Islamist members of parliament that is evident in the extreme op-ed pieces in which the liberal Dr. Ahmad Al Baghdadi called for scrapping of Islamic education and replacing it with music lessons juxtaposed by praise concerning a new law banning women from working after 8pm.

But even in this oasis of freedom the issue of the stateless Bidouns has received less that its fair share of coverage. As their numbers exceed the 100,000 mark out of a population of indigenous 700,000 Kuwaitis the media clearly avoids presenting opinions that call for solving the question once and for all. All this leaves 20,000 families with no papers and no higher education, leading to a dimmer future in the perpetual waiting room of government bureaucracy and parliamentary debate side by side with other issues such as the giant oil deregulation bill known as Project Kuwait which has stalled for two decades.

In Oman independent media, just like its neighbor to the east, exists so long as the official government lines are followed. The notorious case in which two writers, M. Al-Harthi and A. Al-Ryami have been barred from publishing their work in the local media after they cast doubt on the government’s determination for reform in a telephone interview with Al-Alam, a government of Iran funded and run television news station broadcasting in Arabic.

Finally in the UAE, the federal government does not allow any negative news coverage on various issues unless it was officially sanctioned before hand while local newspapers seem compelled to publish the government press releases verbatim. Foreign journalists and freelancers based in the country are free to write and publish on issues ranging from prostitution to human rights and the so called slave labor conditions of the majority Asian workforce, a privilege not extended to local based journalists, even though these articles feature in newspapers that are sold side by side in the emirates’ news stands. No where in the Gulf is press self-regulation more practiced than in the UAE, hence it is less likely to improve here than in any of the other Gulf nations despite assurances from the country's Prime Minister on his very own website that the country "will accept and respect all opinions and views".

As the countries of the Gulf continue their break neck speed of economic progress they will eventually be required by their citizens to offer a voice that does not adhere to the official government stand and act as a conscientious reminder of important issues such as the stalled actions on education reform, environmental matters and their human rights record. Allowing independent media to freely cover this economic development will, as in the case of other developing nations, compliment its progress and hopefully allow the countries’ moral development to grow side by side with it.


Nek said...

The world can be divided in two camps (in terms of media):

1. The everpresent snooping everywhere and having no respect for anyone or anything media (UK, USA, Israel [to a lesser extent] and the like)

2. The oppressive "nothing is ever wrong at home" media (Russia, Venezuela, Gulf countries)

Which way is better? I have no idea, what I do know is that nowhere in the world the media can find that golden middle ground...

Sultan Al-Qassemi said...

I suppose you are right, there is no "middle ground" but surely considering the sad state of media in our region one can aspire for a "higher ground", don't you think?

Nek said...

I found your post even more timely today after I saw this article

As for "higher ground", I hold the same belief as I hold for anything else: by aspiring to better yourself you can only benefit the society you are in. (It is, however, quite difficult to better oneself from a prison cell...)

Sultan Al-Qassemi said...

The link was corrupt. Do resend pls