By Bertrand Pecquerie, World Editors Forum Director.
Presentation at the first Middle East Publishing Conference held in Dubai on 17 and 18 January 2005.
My main concern is that if you see signs of positive evolution in Arabic countries, the global picture is missing. As positive signs, I just point to the re-birth of an independent press in Lebanon, the new generation of newspapers in Egypt and obviously the growth of Al Jazeera and the new Arabic TV channels.
1) When I talk to Arab or Muslim editors or publishers, I have the feeling that they don't consider themselves as representatives of the Fourth Estate. They say they represent their country or the idea they have of their country, but it is very rare to hear that they are first a counter-power and that their main function is to be a watchdog of the three other powers, executive, legislative and judicial. Until this mentality has not changed, I don't see how editors, producers and journalists can work as a group linked by a common and strong ideal.
2) Secondly, there is a tremendous lack of media institutions in the Arab world. Newspapers are not setting up national associations of newspapers and the same thing goes for the TV channels. In America, the Washington Post and the New York Times are competitors, but they work together within the NAA (Newspapers Association of America). And for the TV networks, same scenario : Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are always quarelling and they don't want to see that they have common interests. This lack of common or national institutions explains why Arab media have a very little voice in international organisations.
3) Thirdly, the incredible and recent growth of TV channels in the Arab world is a challenge for all of us. Usually - and even in India or in China -, there was first the development of printed media, then of broadcast media, and a lot of broadcast journalists were trained in traditional newspapers. That is not the case with Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya with a generation of citizens and a generation of journalists who only know this media. The risks are twofold : it creates a huge imbalance between media and the expression of citizenship is perverted: you can begin a political or an ideological debate in a TV show, but it is impossible to pursue it or to find a consensus without the relay of printed media. It is not their sole responsability, but what I see through Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya is the emergence of a pseudo-TV democracy. A genuine democracy needs other tools and other commitments: democracy is like a chain with newspapers, radio, TV, websites and blogs. If one link in the chain is missing, there is no more chain.
4) Let me finish with a fourth argument about globalisation and the Arab world. I am always surprised by the love/hate (or hate/love) relationship between Arabs and Americans. As a Frenchman, I can understand that, but it also appears that here in the Gulf, it is an obsession. As if the world was divided in two parts and that Japan, Europe or South America were just bit players. For instance, when I open an Arab newspaper, the op-ed pages are full of articles from American (sometimes English) syndications, never with columns from Germany, Spain, Brazil or India. Arab media live in a polarized world that forbids them to consider a real globalised world. And now, I'm waiting your comments. I'm sure I can improve my understanding of Arab media with your feedback.
Editorsweblog : http://www.editorsweblog.org/2005/01/whats_wrong_wit1.html