26 April 2003
Published — Saturday 26 April 2003
Last Update 26 April 2003 3:00 am
As the dust settles over Iraq and the cacophony of excited voices on our television screens dies down, the Arab world has begun to stir from the confusion into which the swift fall of Baghdad had thrown it, to take a good look at itself and take stock.
The political repercussions, as ever in the Arab world, are not easy to ascertain, but the fallout for the media is all too evident. To put it bluntly: A great many journalists and media outlets have been left with egg on their face. From accepting the wild claims of Iraqi minister of information Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, to wildly predicting a jihad among the Iraqi people, very little the Arab media speculated on had, when push came to shove, anything to do with reality.
But good may come from bad, as people often say. The main subject now is as much the appalling coverage of Iraq — and by implication the serious shortcomings of the Arab media in general — as Iraq’s future after “liberation”. Does the Arab media have a future in its present form? What is certain is that the confidence of Arab readers, and the millions who tune into Arab satellite channels, has been severely undermined.
During the war, everyone in the Arab world agreed that US news networks such as Fox TV and CNN had dangerously — and not infrequently ridiculously — confused patriotism with reportage; and they were right. After the war, however, most Arabs have come to recognize that they were throwing stones while sitting in glass houses.
In the Arab media, it wasn’t so much a question of confusing patriotism with reportage as confusing news with wishful thinking. In a word, what was lacking was objectivity and critical self-analysis.
This, of course, is nothing new. For decades it has been difficult to find anything in the opinion pages of the Arabic language press that did not concern Israel. Every problem faced by Arab societies was blamed, in however obscure or far-fetched a way, on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. The issue served as a sort of lowest common denominator, satisfying many journalists who were not equipped to write about anything else as well as many of those who rule the Arab world and who would prefer Israel — rather than their own shortcomings — to be the subject of heated discussion in the “Arab street.”
It is one of the many ironies of the US-led attack in Iraq that Crown Prince Abdullah’s historic “peace with reform” initiative was marginalized, with the “pact for reforming the Arab world” being postponed for discussion by the Arab League.
In fact, in the wake of the sudden disappearance of Saddam and his Baathist regime, the political and media vacuum in the Arab world is wider than ever, and it is now that Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace with reform program would not only fill the void that gapes in the center of the Arab world, but also fill it with something tangible and workable.
The days when the Arab world could just scream “Israel”, as if that one word were sufficient answer to every question about every problem that came its way — as though saying that one word could deflect all further inquiry — are over. The time for peaceful coexistence, internal reflection and healthy, progressive thinking has come.