Dilemmas of a free media

Editor, Khaleej Times, Dubai

Freedom of the media, as we understand it, does not exist in the Arabian Gulf. The surprise is not that this is so, but rather in how new shoots of a more tolerant and liberal era are beginning to sprout.

I would ascribe the new phenomenon to the advent of satellite television and the Internet Age. Restricting access to these media is at best a difficult and self-defeating task and the cliché of the global village is true inasmuch as the vast numbers of tourists and business travellers coming to the region and Gulf nationals going abroad cannot but have an impact. And in the Gulf, we must also take into account the large number of expatriates who reside, ranging from unskilled labour to highly qualified professionals and businessmen.

I am confining myself to the Gulf, rather than the wider Arab world in the Middle East, because I am more familiar with this milieu and the countries of the Gulf share many characterists in the media, as in other fields.

There are differences as well between one Gulf state and another. Some have taken a bigger leap while others are more cautious and unsure of themselves in political experimentation and in the media.

Kuwait is, in relative terms, the most free, a fact that stems from an elected National Assembly, however circumscribed its rules may be. Alone in the Gulf, Kuwaiti newspapers do not fight shy of reporting the hard-hitting speeches of opposition spokesmen, and even their other local coverage tends to be more aggressive.

Other Gulf countries have found other ways of compensating for the restrictions they impose on the media. There are two striking examples. In Qatar, a country not renowned for its free media, the most free media in the Arab world has taken shape in the form of the satellite television channel al-Jazeera which has won an enthusiastic regionwide audience.

In Saudi Arabia, whose restrictive norms are well known, some of their innovative leaders have gone to a Western capital such as London to be able to report frankly on Arab developments while observing discretion in relation to events in Saudi Arabia. The popularity of newspapers such as al-Hayat in the Arabic-speaking world is testimony to readers’ endorsement of their form of reporting.

In the United Arab Emirates, I can testify that a sea-change has taken place in recent years over the leadership’s tolerance of dissenting views on different world issues outside the immediate area. Guidelines on local and national coverage, however, are the rule, rather than the exception.

The UAE Information Minister, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has suggested that Press freedom was also linked to emiratisation, "It is difficult to speak about local Press freedom while the media machine is not run by local journalists". He freely acknowledges the problem. He told a recent gathering, "Media institutions that serve only to offer echoes of self-serving applause are of no value to government or to the people. I freely admit that such an approach requires changes both in government attitudes and in those of the media institutions".

The problem thus lies in implementing reforms even when regional leaders see the need for such reforms. There is also a hankering after the media expressing national identity.

Generally, the leaders in the different countries are mindful of two risks as far as the media are concerned. They feel that foreign, specially Western, values could undermine their traditions and roots. Second, they would like to maintain their citizens’ respectful attitude to their leaders, governed by tribal and religious guidelines. Support for freedom of the media is therefore circumscribed by caveats, the traditional one of "national interest" being only one of them.

Gulf reservations were perhaps best expressed by Oman’s Information Minister, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al Rowas. He said: "We have a duty to immunise ourselves the way you immunise yourself against diseases.. .We monitor the foreign media and react to it according to our needs".

My six years in the Gulf have taught me that changes in political liberalisation will go hand in hand with a loosening of controls over the media. As women are given more political space and citizens’ participation is encouraged through the institution of more representative bodies, the media will be able to breathe more freely.

In any traditional system, the concept of giving access to information to all takes time to implant. All too often, information is seen by the bureaucracy that is delegated power as a privilege to be doled out in small, selective doses. And all too often, an unpleasant incident is sought to be suppressed because of the belief that if it is not reported, it simply did not occur. Other societies have learned the hard way that rumour can be a more deadly weapon than the honest reporting of a bomb explosion or a fire.

The Gulf has a long way to go to catch up with the Western world and other areas in giving freedom to the media. These countries face many dilemmas, among them the need to maintain their heritage and traditions in a fast-changing world, with their oil wealth having given them the comforts and benefits of modern living and conveniences. The leaders realise that their societies will change, but they do not wish the changes to be disruptive, leading their people to the agonies of rootlessness or worse.

In managing the change, the Gulf states have decided that they must also, in varying degrees, manage the media. The publication of Arabic newspapers abroad and starting a free and saucy satellite channel serve as safety waIves, but the question those in authority must ask themselves is that if Kuwait can live with a relatively free Press, what prevents them from emulating it?

This paper was presented to the International Press Institute's seminar on Media and Democracy in the Arab World, Amman, Jordan, 3-4 February, 2000.

S. Nihal Singh has been editor of Khaleej Times, Dubai, since January 1994 and was previously editor of the Calcutta Statesman, editor-in-chief of the Indian Express and founding editor of the Indian Post. He was a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Internation Peace in New York and Project Director of New York’s Twentieth Century Fund in Paris on Unesco. He won the International Editor of the Year award of the Atlas Press Service in New York for his role as editor during India’s Emergency in the midSeventies. He is the author of several books, including ‘The Yogi and the Bear’ on Indo-Soviet relations, ‘The Rise and Fall Of Unesco’ and ‘The Rocky Road of Indian Democracy’.