Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Without a Free, Fearless Press

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

One nagging criticism of Arab culture concerns the state of our media. Democracy, critics say, cannot flourish in an environment where freedom of the press is as hard to get as gardens of Eden are in the Empty Quarter desert. For the public to have a voice in the running of their affairs, they need an independent outlet, a supermarket of ideas, an unbiased forum for intellectual debate. How could you enlighten the people and offer them a venue to express their views on the issues of the day, if you let the state control what is said and discussed?

True. There is a serious conflict of interests here. A chairman of a company cannot decide for the shareholders what issues to discuss and what not; what criticism to level and how to. Of course, if left to him, no one will be allowed to express anything but praise. Forget about the losses, the diminishing market share, and the sinking share price. All what matters is how fortunate we are that our leadership survived global conspiracies.

Things are changing, however. When it was feasible for a government to seize the airwaves and be the only voice people hear, it was possible to play the Big Brother. Today, it is inconceivable to exercise such power and enjoy such monopoly. The world is becoming one integrated electronic net. Communication is increasingly direct, independent, easy and cheap. It is as difficult now for parents to control what their kids watch and hear, as it is for governments to control what their people watch and hear.

The Arab world was slow to use the information superhighway. Satellite TVs, mobile phones and the Internet are still less used here than in other countries. Until recently, Arab governments were dragging their feet in introducing modern communication tools. In some Arab countries, it is still hard to get permission to buy a mobile line, an Internet connection or a satellite dish. Still, obstacles or not, the Arab masses enjoy unprecedented access to news and information about local and foreign affairs. People, across the country, the Arab world, and beyond, are virtually meeting and discussing taboo issues freely any time they choose. Programs in nongovernmental satellite TVs are reporting crises and events in a free professional way without having to toe the official line. Al-Jazeera, MBC, Al-Mustagella, and other semi-independent channels led the way. Others followed.

Even state-run channels, like Abu Dhabi, had to compete in an equally professional manner. A new dawn of openness has been descending on the Arab world in the last decade. Both the public and private sectors are getting used to stern criticism in the media. It was harder in the beginning, but now it is much easier for journalists to ask hard questions and for officials to disclose embarrassing facts.

Events that went unreported, or were heavily embellished and misrepresented in the past, are now told as they are. The public is getting used to its new freedom. More and more it is becoming impossible to roll back the trend. This is especially so because most of the population is young. They were born in a more transparent world, and they won’t accept the darker age their parents were forced to tolerate.

Freedom doesn’t come cheap and doesn’t always produce right outcomes. Along the way, we have to endure the summer heat and the winter cold, blowing winds and flooding waves, roadblocks and sudden bumps. We can’t have double standard on challenges and opportunities. If we conduct an election, we must recognize the winners even if they were our enemies. If we demand freedom of the press, we should acknowledge the rights of our opposition, never mind how harsh they are, how outrageous they act, or how vulnerable our current state is. To pronounce that “no freedom for the enemies of freedom” is to appoint ourselves public prosecutor, judge and jury on behalf of the people.

It is not for us to decide who people choose, what stations they tune to, or who has the right to be on air and who is not. The closing down of newspapers and online sites, the banning of TV and radio stations will damage our credibility and undermine our noble cause. What influences people in the final analysis is not the reporters but the reported events. Even if you kill the messenger, they will get the message, one way or another. Their media alternatives are many and varied, so forget about censorship. It is just not possible.

I say this not only to our Arab leaders and the intellectual elite, but also to Western powers, intelligentsia and media pushing for reforms in the Arab world. We do need reforms, but we also have to accept the unexpected and unwelcome outcomes. There is no half-pregnant in democracy, either we have it all ... or we don’t.

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