04 April 2007
Editors Voice:
The Arab press: more freedom…and more moaning

«Who killed the newspaper?» was the title in September of the British weekly, The Economist. This "obituary" did not leave the World Editors Forum (WEF) impassive, the organization for Editors within the World Association of Newspapers, which wasted no time in polling editors-in-chief, deputy editors and other senior news executives. The result? It bodes well as 85% of the 435 people  who answered the WEF's questionnaire see a rosy future for their newspaper. Subsequent to the publication of the first newsroom barometer findings, APN met with Bertrand Pecquerie, director of the WEF to ask him about his diagnosis for the Arab press.

APN: What does this barometer reveal for the Arab world?
The first important point is that we don't see a difference in behavior compared with the rest of the world. There is a true community of editors-in-chief. We don't find a major difference between very wealthy countries and developing nations in terms of journalism and organization of the newsroom. Editors-in-chief all have the same attitude: 85% of them say they're optimistic about their own newspaper's future. They all understand that they are going through a very speedy transition phase (of approximately 10 years) from in print to online. Indeed, a relative majority, 40 percent, estimate that in ten years the news will most commonly be read online. And 35 percent still think that in print will rule. We don't observe any difference between India, the Gulf nations and Paris. There isn't that sense that wealthy countries are way ahead and developing countries lagging behind. Lastly, the final major point is that the number of opinion and analysis pages will increase in coming years.

APN: So there is nothing specific to Arab editors-in-chief?weblog_r3_c1.jpg
Actually, the question that has proven to be the most pertinent for Arab countries is the following: In the future, what might be the greatest threat to your editorial independence? «Political pressure» is almost never cited by editors-in-chief in America, Western Europe and even South America; however, in certain Asian, African and Arab countries, it's the first response. It is governments that are perceived as the greatest threat by 40 percent. In the Arab world, it's not the shareholders or the advertisers but the politicians. This is where the divide is.

APN: Two years ago, in an editorial entitled, What's Wrong With Arab Journalism, you were mainly upset by the fact that editors didn't consider themselves as a Fourth Estate. You also regretted the lack of institutions representing the media. (See APN story 7 January 2005). Would you give the same diagnosis today?
There are nuances. The good news is that Egypt will play a pivotal role in waking up the Arab press. Historically, Egypt and Lebanon have been heavyweights. Egyptian press went through a dry spell even though the country has many good journalists. Today we are nonetheless seeing an awakening of the Egyptian press despite the context of repression. It's a pressure cooker that's boiling. I'm thinking namely of the newspaper Al Masri Al Youm headed by Hisham Kassem who is preparing to launch a new paper. I'm also thinking of the new daily Al Dustour (which used to be a weekly). We're seeing the appearance of an independent press in a very densely populated country, which would have been impossible five or six years ago. Those in  power are obligated to give in, and they reassure themselves by saying that television is more influential and that it's not because 100,000 copies of a newspaper are sold that things will change. And on this point the authorities are mistaken because the role of the written in these countries is considerable.
So I'm expecting a lot from Egypt and Lebanon where a new paper, Al Akhbar, emerged in August 2006. The fact that opposition newspapers are being created today, and Al Akhbar holds an anti-American position but does not support Hezbollah, is rather encouraging. In these countries with a long history of newspapers, there's a revival.
There has also been progress with professional groups since an association of newspapers from the Gulf was born, MEPA (Middle East Publishers Association), although the legal statute of an association doesn't exist in Dubai. And this is an attempt to appear as a Fourth Estate by unifying rather than going it alone in the newspaper's relationship with its shareholder, who is often a prince or has government ties. The purpose of grouping is to provide a counterweight to the government.

APN: Where do Maghreb countries stand?
There's one country that is a model for me, and that is Morocco. Every time I organize a seminar in Egypt or elsewhere, I bring in Moroccans to say, «Here's a country that was muzzled and where the level of the press was extremely low: the palace and opposition press that just focused on criticizing the slightest decision». Fifteen years ago, Morocco was really at ground zero, which corresponds to what we see in Tunisia today.
Presently, Morocco is in a phase where the act of reading a newspaper has nothing to do with a political adherence. At the same time, repression has not been completely eradicated, as illustrated by certain recent affairs (see APN story 4 January 2007). But despite everything, a margin of freedom has been gained. I look at the latest condemnations as epiphenomena. Morocco remains a good model, because in fifteen years we've gone from total absolutism to a certain diversity, even though it's still missing a quality daily.

APN: And what is still wrong with Arab press?

BP: One negative point, which I will state with the reserve that since I don't speak Arabic, I don't have direct access to the newspapers: it seems that with the second war in Lebanon and Iraq, Arab journalists have fallen into moaning. There's an easy scapegoat: the United States. There are the poor Palestinians who are being crushed by bombs and shells, representing the good, and the bad is incarnated by the United States and Israel. We're again in the journalism of good and bad. And this black and white thinking, the perverse effect from the two extremely strong conflicts in the region, stops us from considering all the other problems. On this point, there is a regression. Such black and white thinking is deadly for journalism.
That said, the new generation arriving, that wants to investigate and that doesn't have the same blocks as their elders, are exerting pressure. This wind of change can be seen in blogs often written by journalists or communications professionals sometimes under assumed names. So, despite everything, there is speech that's finding freedom.

APN: Is the proliferation of news channels a threat to newspapers?
BP: I don't think so. Newspapers are still the domain of the elite and the middle class. The speedy development of television, with Al-Jazeera then Al-Arabiya, means that we're skipping a step. Newspapers have played a fundamental role in democracy's development in the West. The Arab world, as it is in the process of developing, will no longer learn democratic debate via newspapers. We're bypassing newspapers. It's another way of practicing democracy and the effect will be the birth of democracies much more sensitive to changes in opinion, to passions, rather than to a structured opinion that comes from regularly reading a newspaper. And this short-circuit is typical of the Arab world; I don't see it in India, China or Latin America.

For further information, contact Bertrand Pecquerie, WEF director email: bpecquerie@wan.asso.fr

(1) Since the questionnaire was not translated into Arabic, responses from Arab countries only represent 10% of the 435 responses received. For the second edition of this barometer, the questionnaire should be available in Arabic.