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Media Wars in the Middle East: Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel

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Protest in Egypt

Protest in Egypt

Extreme editorial bias, formal and informal censorship, and political interference is a bane of journalists in the Middle East, both local and international. At times, this results in ambiguous or clear battle lines being drawn between media houses that have become partially or fully politicized. The traditional media of print, radio, and television is, however, being challenged in some places by a rise of alternatives provided by the Internet.

In many cases, the state has not yet had an effective response to control these new mediums of communication, and the traditional media is increasingly being influenced by independent journalists, and political activists via blogs and social networking sites. It remains to be seen if states adapt and develop new modes of control over freedom of communication, and if the Internet proves to be an effective long term medium of political comment and organization.

Below is information on the state of the media in Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel taken from a number of studies and posts.

Egypt

In November 2007, two Egyptian police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for torturing a minibus driver. What makes this case exceptional is not the fact that police were held accountable for their actions, though that is indeed rare in Egypt. Rather, this case is exceptional because bloggers were largely responsible for bringing it to the public’s attention and for providing much of the evidence used to obtain the conviction.

The above quote, from Tom Isherwood writing in Arab Media & Society, highlights the impact that the blogosphere has had on Egyptian politics. The youth-bulge in the Middle East has proven to be a favourable climate for the rise of new Internet based media, such as the blogosphere. These youth grew up with Internet, were exposed to it early in Universities and youth tend to have much higher IT literacy.

Compared to other forms of mass media, the Internet has not reached a very high level of penetration in Egypt. However, looking purely at the numbers online misses the point. For instance, there are fewer Internet users than there are TV viewers, but Internet users have truly global access compared to a more local or regional set of programs that one receives on television. The interactive nature of the Internet also distinguishes it from television and radio.(1)

Blogs also have a multiplier effect “because they influence the print media, email newsletters, and satellite television, which all reach larger audiences.”(2)

Throughout 2005, 2006, and 2007, one of the ways that activists were made aware of upcoming protests was through posts on blogs. These notifications of upcoming political action would spread virally, moving from blog to blog, as each blogger learned of the event. This all could change, however, as the state becomes more adept at Internet surveillance.(3)

In countries with heavy censorship, information flows inward from the diaspora to the activists in the country. Information also flows outward from activists to the diaspora, keeping them connected to what is happening. (4)

Does blogging change established political practices and processes or is it merely a new forum for old practices to continue? The answer, as demonstrated above, is that blogging has indeed changed the way politics is conducted in Egypt. However, in most cases, it has done so not by dramatically altering or revolutionizing politics, but rather by intensifying and speeding up trends that had already begun with satellite media and the opposition press. (5)

Blogging has furthered this trend by providing an outlet for any story or opinion that is too controversial even for such newspapers. Similarly, blogging has made political organizing easier by moving much of it online. (6

Meanwhile social network sites have made a splash on Egyptian political activism as well. David Faris writes in his report on the subject that:

Esraa Abdel Fattah probably had no idea she was going to create a global phenomenon when she started a Facebook group in March of 2008. The group was devoted to a sympathy strike with textile workers in Mahalla al-Kobra in the Delta. The workers of Mahalla had chosen April 6th as the day to go on strike to protest declining wages and rising prices, and together with other creeping developments in the Egyptian economy and political system, the strike had the potential to develop into something much larger than an isolated labor protest.

…Within two weeks of forming the group, Esraa’s Facebook group had more than 60,000 members, quite astounding given that only approximately 790,140 Egyptians are even members of Facebook to begin with.[vi] The idea was for the group members to stay home on the day of the strike, April 6th and the idea soon took on a life of its own.

…As the group got larger and larger it appeared that more young Egyptians were willing to disregard their fear of state retribution and join the group. After all, as strong as the Egyptian state might be, it cannot go around arresting 70,000 people, many of them wealthy and connected elites, particularly if all they’ve done is stay at home. And indeed in parts of Egypt the strike seemed to be successful, with high rates of absenteeism reported on the 6th and with countless reports of deserted streets and abandoned shops.

Kenneth J. Cooper has written the following after conducting a multi-year study of three of Egypt’s largest traditional newspapers, al-Ahram, Almasry, and Daily News:

The papers seldom ran stories about the same event on the same day. In 2 ½ years, such a front-page match occurred among all three papers just seven times, or about 1 percent of the combined total of their front-page stories.

Coverage of business and the economy is relatively abundant in the Egyptian dailies. Official sources dominate that coverage, allowing the government to essentially shape coverage of its ongoing economic liberalization program. Nearly two-thirds of business stories cited officials as the main source.

By western standards, the private papers are not all that free either, given the constraints of Egyptian laws and the self-censorship practiced to avoid violating them or “red lines” around the military, the president and his family.

Samir, who has been an editor at Almasry since it started publishing, said the paper had never heard from the government’s unofficial censors before publication, but has received “reactions” afterwards. “But we are our own censors,” he said, to uphold high journalistic standards and avoid breaking laws or taboos”.

Lebanon

Within Lebanon’s factionalised political and social life, the media has also picked sides and is actively engaged in what is becoming a media war.

Paul Cochrane’s study of the Lebanese media quotes Ramez Maalouf, Professor of Journalism at the Lebanese American University, as saying “The more divided the audience became, the more people navigated to the channels that reflected their views. For instance, the tenser it became, the more Christians watched OTV, which they didn’t watch much usually.”

In the same report, journalist Habib Battah is quoted as saying, “Lebanese TV is no longer just biased, it is one of the most important weapons in the hands of political groups… This has led some Lebanese politicians to justify attacks on the media, and unfortunately this is now accepted by many of their constituents.”

Cochrane’s article includes the concerns of an FTV employee from Lebanon:

“FTV went from being biased to being extremely biased… For instance, they transcribe a speech and then the editor underlines the words you can use, five words here and 20 words there, and this changes it all, it becomes a different speech. The management and the news directors also started saying [March 8 media] are lying in news bulletins and creating this story, so it’s ok for us to do whatever. I think this is the worst effect of what happened.”

Israel

Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, writes in his blog, Checkpoint Jerusalem:

Most people living in the Gaza Strip are fighting to get out of the isolated, Hamas-controlled Mediterranean region.

Journalists in Israel find themselves in the surreal position of fighting to get in.

Israel has barred reporters from entering Gaza for more than three weeks, prompting international criticism and a case before the Israeli Supreme Court.

…Israel has barred reporters from entering Gaza for more than three weeks, prompting international criticism and a case before the Israeli Supreme Court.

…As Jo Floto of the BBC noted today, the only place its correspondents are banned are North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.

“We don’t want Israel to join that very select and regrettable club,” Floto said today at a news confererence held to discuss the ongoing Israeli ban.

Steve Gutkin, the AP bureau chief in Jerusalem and head of the Foreign Press Association (of which McClatchy Newspapers is a part) questioned Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.

“We believe the current denial of access amounts to a serious violation of freedom of the press, and runs counter to Israel’s own claims that it is a democracy that respects media liberties,” Gutkin said today at the news conference.

So far, Israel has failed to present a coherent reason for barring reporters from Gaza.

In a related post, Nissenbaum writes:

This week, Haaretz weighed in with an editorial urging Israel to lift the ban.

“Shutting out foreign journalists is an act of punishment that gives Israel and her democracy a bad name,” the editorial states. “Freedom of the press is freedom of the press, and any infringement on it is grave… A Gaza Strip closed to media coverage harms Israel’s image and endangers the character of its polity more than any negative article written about it.”

According to Maariv, the Israeli policy has created a rift within the government between the Foreign Ministry (which opposes the media ban) and the Defense Ministry, led by Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader facing the prospect of a poor showing in national elections this February.

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