Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:52 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:52 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Freedom of the Arab press


Rodger Shanahan


20 June 2008 14:02

My recent post, which referenced a couple of articles in Arab newspapers, brought this response from a reader:

Does the contributor know of the biases, if any of the originating newspaper — who funds it, etc.?

The short answer is that Ash-sharq al-Awsat is a Saudi owned, London-based newspaper. But this question raises a broader issue of the freedom of the Arab press, rarely addressed by the proponents of the so-called Middle East democratization project.

While there is some degree of journalistic independence in the Arab world, it is very patchy at best. Governments, or individuals closely linked to governments, are the owners of the majority of print and electronic media, as this article shows. In some cases, even where pan-Arab newspapers have moved their headquarters offshore (often to London, as is the case with the widely distributed ash Sharq al Awsat and al Hayat) their absolute editorial independence is compromised by their ownership. In the case of the aforementioned newspapers, both are owned by Saudis and are hence unlikely to criticize the Saudi ruling family or its policies.

Formal government censorship may not always be necessary either, as self-censorship plays a large role in the media of many Arab countries. Dominated by autocratic (benevolent or otherwise) governmental systems, most Arab press never criticizes the government of the day. For example, while al-Jazeera caused bilateral relations with giant neighbour Saudi Arabia to nosedive after an item critical of the Saudi royal family was run, it has never voiced similar criticism of the Qatari ruling family. One notable exception to this rule is Lebanon, where political groupings often run their own media outlets and hence feels free to criticise everyone other than themselves. Little wonder that Lebanon opposed a recent draconian move on the part of Arab states to regulate satellite TV stations.

While there are attempts to highlight the lack of press freedom in the Arab world, little notice is taken outside of submissions to Western governments or conferences on the issue. But if there is to be any hope for a move towards democratization in the Arab world, a free press must be a prerequisite.