The Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram did the unthinkable for the official Arab press in its 12 February 2011 issue: its huge front-page headline declared: “The People Overthrow the Regime.” The thick red text, above Al-Ahram’s logo of three pyramids, hinted at the symbolism of the moment; Egypt’s most widely read newspaper was not only acknowledging but also wholeheartedly endorsing the people’s decision.
Only a few months earlier, this same government publication published a doctored photograph in which it had moved now-former President Hosni Mubarak from the back of a group shot of visiting heads-of-state to the front; the new version has him leading Benyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah. Other newspapers ran the original, unaltered photo, and Al-Ahram’s photoshopping was quickly exposed. The paper defended itself by claiming it had intended to symbolically show Egypt as a leader, not a follower.
More curiously, however, Arab journalists seemed unable to come to a consensus and denounce what was a blatant attempt to mislead readers—a completely amateurish one at that. Many sided with Al-Ahram, arguing that the editors acted from good intentions, well aware that Egyptians would be displeased to see their president standing not only to the right of Netanyahu, but also at the back of the pack. Thus, rather than currying favor with the regime, they argued, the editors were flattering the national ego. The episode reveals much about the dominant professional culture of the Arab media—which lacks a sense of accountability and a critical attitude, which are supposed to be at the heart of good journalism.
Following Mubarak’s resignation, the state-run press was forced to acknowledge the fact that the people had overthrown the regime. As would later become clear, Al-Ahram’s trumpeting of the revolution’s success was more of a revolutionary moment than a genuine coup against the status quo. But the post-revolutionary upheaval in the Egyptian media—with its wave of mass resignations, firings, and revelations regarding pro-Mubarak journalists—opened a door that can no longer be closed.
The second game-changer for Arab media has come out of the Syrian uprisings. While Egypt, like Tunisia before it, had young demonstrators making heavy use of social networking sites, these activists never truly competed with satellite channels and international press; news stories still came from accredited correspondents and were backed up by the editorial decisions of a newsroom. News from Facebook and other websites only served a supplementary role. As such, editorial staff generally had the luxury of being able to either independently confirm tips from social media sources or else to do without them—and enjoyed a broad margin of freedom. Even online activists and demonstrators were ready to conduct traditional interviews with journalists and give their candid opinions (with some perhaps excessively fond of the limelight).
Syria, however, proved different; professional journalists have been unable to follow developments, and breaking news is all but impossible without a distinct reliance on Facebook and YouTube. Because of ongoing physical threats against sources in Syria, correspondents have fallen hostage to a regime that holds them personally accountable for what their media outlets publish—even if they did not file the story themselves. Fears for the safety of in-country co-workers and contacts have made the attribution of news to sources outside Syria quite common. Reuters and AFP, for instance, have regularly based their Syria stories on sources in Paris and London, and the major Arabic newspapers like Asharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat are now following suit. Given the heated race between media outlets for Syria scoops, a reliance on YouTube (as if it were an accredited news agency) has become commonplace.
At the outbreak of the uprisings in Syria, TV stations often were caught between the inability to verify the sources of videos, their time constraints, and the reluctance to pass over a potentially crucial news items. Over time, it has become apparent that many stories broadcast and figures cited—such as the number of victims or the size of demonstrations—were not completely accurate. Additionally, overall video and audio quality has declined, with stations airing material that they never would have accepted from their actual correspondents even in the most difficult wartime circumstances. In normal circumstances, one of the first rules of television journalism is that a news report end with a correspondent’s face clearly visible, the geographic location identified, and the names of the correspondent and news organization, but in the Syrian case this is more the exception than the rule. It has become routine to see a masked speaker going by a pseudonym reporting via Skype, transmitting the latest developments from Idlib, Homs, and elsewhere.
Even so, the time to hold the media professionally accountable has not yet come, given that Syria has shifted tack from its original course of peaceful demonstrations. Every time the violence appears to have peaked, it surges yet again to a new high, and journalists breathlessly try to keep pace. Meanwhile, the press has improved its ability to sift through the information sources and has built relationships with online activists—effectively rendering them similar to accredited journalists.
The challenges posed by the Syrian revolution to journalistic professionalism are not limited to television. Print has also been forced to reexamine many questions taken for granted before—such as whether to publish journalists’ real names or whether to adopt social networking sites as primary news sources. During the much shorter Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings (and despite the high level of online activism occurring) newspapers were never forced to take such measures.
One of the main fears surrounding coverage of Syria is that it will become a “normal” news story and no longer generate interest; the body count will become a mere grim statistic of a civil war, and the original reasons behind the uprising lost. Many outlets have begun asking themselves whether or not the latest developments in Syria deserve headlines, or whether the daily death toll has become numbingly repetitive, not entirely unlike news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This editorial decision appears closely tied to political decision-making, and the existence of support for a Syrian revolution, rather than according to a professional standards of pure reportage. News from Yemen, for instance, had already faded from the headlines before the events on the ground had quieted down, much like with conflict in Bahrain and Iraq.
Undoubtedly, the Arab revolutions have imposed themselves on the traditional media and forced it to change its methods. Al-Ahram shows that the media is trying to catch up with the street and make the public, rather than government officials, its primary audience. The struggle for power within the Arab media is ongoing, and the generation gap is widening daily between the old guard of official sources and the newcomers in the field who rely on social media and YouTube. The traditionalists, who are dominant among senior editorial staff, might respond to a revolution with the occasional dramatic headline, but there is no hint that, at present, they are willing to fundamentally alter the power structure of the institutionalized Arab media.
Bissane El-Cheikh is a Beirut-based reporter for the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat. She edits the paper’s weekly supplement on youth.
* This article was translated from Arabic.