Newspapers in the Arab countries can mainly be divided into three categories: those that are government-owned (together with semi-official papers such as al-Ahram in Egypt), those owned by political parties, and the “independent” press.
Very few of the privately-owned newspapers can be considered editorially independent; they are often owned by wealthy individuals who have political aspirations or seek to wield influence. Qatar, for instance, has six newspapers – all of them technically independent but actually owned by members of the ruling family or businessmen with close ties to the ruling family.
In the light of this it is scarcely surprising that the Arab public is badly served by the press. With a few heroic exceptions, the idea that newspapers should perform a watchdog role, speaking truth to power and holding governments and officialdom to account is largely absent. Instead, newspapers are often viewed – especially by the authorities – as an institution charged with upholding the status quo. In a speech to a conference on Arab news agencies in 2012, for example, the prime minister of Bahrain said the "interests and unity" of the "Arab nation" should be "defended by everybody each according to his capacity and position and that an efficient media is the prime defence line".
Thus, journalists who ask awkward questions and report critically are liable to be viewed as harming the national interest and, quite possibly, accused of working for a foreign power.
While the system of ownership means that Arab newspapers are not, on the whole, inclined to cause trouble, a number of bureaucratic and legal devices help to keep them under control.
In most Arab countries newspapers and magazines cannot be published without a government-issued licence, and in some cases the licensing requirement also applies to printing presses and even journalists themselves.
Basically, licensing creates an appearance of freedom by allowing independent newspapers to exist without direct government censorship, while creating a regulatory system which facilitates various kinds of government interference – the ultimate sanction being withdrawal of a licence. This provides the authorities with a variety of tools for exercising control in ways that appear less crude than formal bans and direct censorship – though the effect is much the same. It means newspapers can be disciplined on technical grounds for infringing the terms of their licence, even if the real reason is that they have offended the government.
The closure of Addomari (the Lamplighter), a satirical weekly in Syria, was one example. Launched in 2001 shortly after Bashar al-Asad became president, it was the country’s first independent newspaper in thirty-eight years and for a while each issue sold more copies than all the official dailies put together.
By 2003 the regime had taken a dislike to it and the information minister demanded to see the content of each issue before publication. Its owner, Ali Farzat refused and temporarily suspended publication. Later, when he tried to publish another issue without submitting it for approval, the authorities prevented its distribution. A government decree then rescinded its licence on the grounds that Addomari had “violated laws and regulations in force by failing to appear for more than three months” as required by the conditions of its licence.
Obtaining a licence ranges from straightforward to almost impossible, depending on the country and/or the background of the applicant. Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian editor who was planning to launch a weekly news magazine, described his visit to the Higher Press Council, the official body that grants licences to publishers in Egypt – if and when it feels inclined to do so.
A polite bureaucrat met me and explained the licensing procedures. I needed nine other partners holding equal shares to be listed on the licence application. We would need to deposit LE100,000 (approximately US$25,000) for a monthly publication, LE250,000 for a weekly, and LE1 million for a daily.
The money would be set aside in a designated account and no interest would be paid on it while the application was being processed. Applicants could withdraw the money at any time, but in that case the application would immediately be nullified …
The problem was, as I explained to the polite bureaucrat, that I did not know nine other people who might be interested in investing in a startup press business with me. He told me I was lucky, because a recent amendment had reduced the total of founding members from two hundred to ten.
I asked him about the time frame for processing the application and he replied that he had not the slightest clue…
I asked, “When was the last time a publication was granted a licence?” He said he could not remember.
I asked when the Higher Press Council had last convened. “Two years ago,” he said.*
Recognising that in the previous ten years only four political weeklies and one monthly had been granted licences, and that the founders of all four weeklies had strong connections with the government, Kassem decided not to bother applying for a licence. Instead, he did what most independent publishers in Egypt do, and established his magazine, the Cairo Times, across the sea in Cyprus. Flying the printed copies back to Cairo was expensive and turned it into a “foreign” publication (meaning that each issue had to be approved by the censors before being allowed into the country), but at least it made publication possible.
Most Arab countries have press laws imposing boundaries on what may or may not be said in print. The rules not only tend to be very broad but are often vaguely drafted, allowing ample scope for arbitrary interpretations. The Yemeni Press and Publications Law approved in 1990, for example, included the following prohibitions:
Anything which prejudices the Islamic faith and its lofty principles or belittles religions or humanitarian creeds;
Anything which might cause tribal, sectarian, racial, regional or ancestral discrimination, or which might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people or call on them to apostasise;
Anything which leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni revolution, prejudicial to national unity or distorting the image of the Yemeni, Arab or Islamic heritage;
Anything which undermines public moral [sic] or prejudices the dignity of individuals or the freedom of the individual by smears and defamation;
To criticise the person of the head of state, or to attribute to him declarations or pictures unless the declarations were made or the picture taken during a public speech. This does not necessarily apply to objective, constructive criticism.
These reflect the typical areas of sensitivity in most Arab countries. Similarly, the “reformed” Kuwaiti press law, issued in 2006, criminalises the publication of material criticising the constitution, the emir, or Islam or inciting acts that offend public morality or religious sensibilities. This might be considered an improvement on the previous law in that it meant offenders would face heavy fines instead of jail sentences.
Needless to say, the vagueness of the rules encourages self-censorship, with editors and publishers usually preferring to err on the side of caution.
Direct censorship is usually confined to material entering the country from abroad (this can apply to books and music CDs as well as newspapers and magazines). In Saudi Arabia, for example, offending material in newspapers – such as advertisements for alcohol or pictures of “inappropriately” dressed women – are obliterated with marker pens, or entire pages may be removed.
Harsh defamation laws are often used to protect high-ranking officials from media criticism. Defamation is – or ought to be – a civil matter between the parties concerned but in many Arab countries it is punishable by imprisonment. In 2009 a report by the International Press Institute noted:
Defaming or insulting state officials continues to carry prison time in many MENA countries. In Algeria, defamation of high officials and state organs has been criminalized since 2001, and as of February 2006, it is illegal to criticize actions during the 1990s by security forces in that country. In Jordan, defamation is punishable only with a fine; however, insulting the King or the royal family carries a sentence of up to three years. Criticising the head of state, undermining public morality, defaming individuals or misrepresenting Yemeni or Arab heritage are all illegal in Yemen. Similar legislation also exists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Chad, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.
In some instances the defamation concept has been extended beyond individuals to cover “defamation” of a country or religion. One famous case in 2008 involved an Egyptian democracy activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was sentenced to two years in jail for “defaming Egypt”.
Beyond government interference
A well-functioning press has an important role to play in any society by asking awkward questions and teasing out the answers. Despite some significant steps forward during the last decade or so, this is a goal that the Arab media as a whole is still a long way from reaching. It is also a role that it would still be ill-equipped to perform even if all the government restrictions were suddenly lifted tomorrow.
This is due to a number of factors: lack of expertise, the difficulty of obtaining information in a political system that is particularly opaque, and social conditions that discourage a “culture of questioning”.
Another crucial factor is that Arab newspapers are in a parlous state: hardly any of them pay their way financially. The official press is heavily subsidised, both directly and indirectly. In Syria, for example, only a tiny fraction of the official newspapers printed are sold to the public on the streets; vast numbers are purchased by the civil service and the military in the hope that soldiers and pen-pushers will feel dutiful enough to read them. “Independent” newspapers are subsidised too, either by their owners for reasons of prestige and influence, or by other means. Lebanon, with its multi-faceted politics, has a tradition of media diversity and relatively little control by the state, but that does not necessarily bring independence. Magda Abu-Fadil, director of the Journalism Training Programme at the American University of Beirut, explained:
When there was only print, assorted Lebanese newspapers were the mouthpieces of regional governments – pretty much all of them. Lebanon being such a free country, they all started bashing each other through Lebanese media. They couldn’t do it on their own turf, and Lebanon was the perfect playground for that back in the 1950s and 1960s, what with Arabism and all the different “-isms”.
Paying newspapers to provide the required slant – by ignoring some stories and covering others, or covering them in a certain way – is a long-standing practice and “par for the course”, according to Abu-Fadil.
When the Lebanese civil war broke out some of those media moved to Europe and carried on the tradition. In fact, they wouldn’t have survived otherwise because it’s just so expensive to operate in Britain and France and Italy where they established their respective headquarters.
Payments would be channelled through proxies so as not to be directly attributable to their source, though the real source was usually obvious from the content of the papers. Along with the newspapers themselves, writers and editors sometimes received subsidies too: the Saudis in particular were noted for their “envelope parties” for Arab journalists working in London. To what extent these practices continue today is difficult to judge, though gossip within the profession suggests they are not particularly uncommon.
How many Arab newspapers actually make a profit? Very few, according to Abu-Fadil. Asked if she could name any that definitely do, she replied:
Not really. I’ll tell you why, because in most of the Arab world the main media are state-owned – the subsidy comes from the government. What exists as so-called independent media can barely eke out a living (a) because they don’t have enough of a following, (b) because of government restrictions, bans, constraints, harassment and assorted other obstacles, (c) because advertising isn’t enough and they certainly don’t have enough circulation [revenue] if we’re talking about print.
It’s even more difficult for broadcast and unless they have adequate subsidies – usually from different sources – there’s only so much in the advertising pie. If there is a falling out between one country’s government and another, advertising from that country dwindles to a trickle.
Advertisers’ influence can have a damaging effect on the media’s independence anywhere in the world but the problem is exacerbated in the Arab countries because their advertising markets are more politicised than most. Not only are publishers and broadcasters susceptible to pressure from advertisers but advertisers themselves are susceptible to pressure from governments and politicians. In addition to that, governments and people associated with them are often major advertisers in their own right.
This is one reason why al-Jazeera television, despite its vast region-wide audience, has trouble attracting advertising. Al-Jazeera, of course, is lucky in that it can survive without – thanks to a generous benefactor in the shape of the emir of Qatar. A small weekly magazine in Lebanon, however, was less fortunate. “At one point it was very left-wing and very anti-Hariri [the late Lebanese prime minister],” Abu-Fadil recalled. “Being the multi-billionaire that he was, who bristled at criticism like any other politician, Hariri saw to it that advertising halted – what little advertising there was for the magazine. So they almost went under.” At that point, Hariri came to the rescue and bought up the magazine. “After that it was all accolades and praises and cheerleading for Mr Hariri.”
Without financial viability or a hands-off benefactor it becomes extremely difficult for the media to assert any kind of independence. That, in turn, lessens credibility in the eyes of the public – which keeps sales low and perpetuates the need for subsidies.
Unfortunately, though, it is not the only problem. To do their job properly, journalists need facts, and for Abu-Fadil this raises a series of questions: “Do they know how to dig for facts?”, “Have they been trained adequately?”, “What facts are there that can be obtained?” In most cases, she said, facts are few and far between – “and especially from official sources, basically because people like to cover up misdeeds and all sorts of problems”. As with the economics of the media, this creates a vicious circle: when facts are hard to come by there is not much point in making the effort to find them. The result, much of the time, is a bland style of reporting based on statements, meetings, conferences and other set-piece events, with little attempt to probe beneath the surface by explaining the significance and the issues at stake or scrutinising the validity of what has been said.
Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).
* Kassem, Hisham: ‘How the Cairo Times came to be published out of Cyprus.’ Chapter in The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development. Washington: World Bank Publications, 2003.