The state-owned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram did the unthinkable in its Feb. 12, 2011, issue: Its front-page headline declared: “The People Overthrow the Regime.” The thick red text, above Al-Ahram’s logo of three pyramids, hinted at the symbolism of the moment; Egypt’s most widely read newspaper was not only acknowledging but also wholeheartedly endorsing the people’s decision.
Only a few months earlier, this same publication published a doctored photograph in which it had moved President Hosni Mubarak from the back of a group shot of visiting heads-of-state to the front; the new version had him leading Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah. Other newspapers ran the original, unaltered photo, and Al-Ahram’s photoshopping was quickly exposed. The paper defended itself by claiming it had intended to symbolically show Egypt as a leader, not a follower.
More curiously, however, Arab journalists seemed unable to come to a consensus and denounce this blatant attempt to mislead readers. Many sided with Al-Ahram, arguing that the editors acted from good intentions, well aware that Egyptians would be displeased to see their president standing at the back of the pack. Thus, rather than currying favor with the regime, they argued, the editors were flattering the national ego. The episode reveals much about the dominant professional culture in Arab media – the absence of a sense of accountability, which is supposed to be at the heart of good journalism.
Print has also had to re-examine many questions taken for granted before – such as whether to publish journalists’ real names or whether to adopt social networking sites as primary news sources.
As would later become clear, Al-Ahram’s trumpeting of the Egyptian revolution’s success was itself more of a revolutionary moment than a genuine coup against the status quo. But the post-revolutionary upheaval in Egyptian media – with its wave of mass resignations, firings and revelations regarding pro-Mubarak journalists – opened a door that can no longer be closed.
The second game-changer for Arab media has come out of the Syrian uprising. While Egypt, like Tunisia before it, had young demonstrators making heavy use of social networking sites, these activists never truly competed with the international press; news stories still came from accredited correspondents and were backed up by the editorial decisions of a newsroom. News from Facebook and other websites only served a supplementary role. As such, editorial staff generally had the luxury of being able to either independently confirm tips from social media sources or do without them – enjoying a wide margin of freedom. Even online activists were ready to conduct traditional interviews with journalists and give their candid opinions.
But Syria proved different; professional journalists have been unable to follow developments, and breaking news is all but impossible without reliance on Facebook and YouTube. Because of ongoing threats against sources in Syria, correspondents have fallen hostage to a regime that holds them personally accountable for what their media outlets publish.
Fears for the safety of in-country co-workers and contacts have made the attribution of news to sources outside Syria quite common. Reuters and AFP, for instance, have regularly based their Syria stories on sources in Paris and London, and major Arabic newspapers such as Asharq al-Awsat and Al-Hayat are following suit. Given the heated race between media outlets for Syria scoops, a reliance on YouTube has become commonplace.
At the outbreak of the uprisings in Syria, TV stations often were caught between the inability to verify the sources of videos, their time constraints, and the reluctance to pass over a potentially crucial news items. Over time, it has become apparent that many figures cited – such as the number of victims or the size of demonstrations – were not completely accurate.
Additionally, overall video and audio quality has declined, with stations airing material they never would have accepted from their correspondents, even in the most difficult wartime circumstances. In normal circumstances, one of the first rules of television journalism is that a news report end with a correspondent’s face clearly visible, the geographic location identified, and the name of the correspondent and news organization. But in the Syrian case this is more the exception than the rule. It has become routine to see a masked speaker going by a pseudonym reporting via Skype, transmitting the latest developments on the ground.
Even so, the time to hold the media professionally accountable has not yet come, given that Syria has shifted from its original course of peaceful demonstrations. Every time the violence appears to have peaked, it surges again to a new high, as journalists breathlessly try to keep pace. Meanwhile, the press has improved its ability to sift through sources and has built relationships with online activists – effectively rendering them similar to accredited journalists.
The challenges posed by the Syrian revolution to journalistic professionalism are not limited to TV. Print has also been forced to re-examine questions taken for granted before – such as whether to publish journalists’ real names or whether to adopt social networking sites as primary news sources. During the much shorter Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings newspapers were never forced to take such measures.
One main fear surrounding coverage of Syria is that it will become a “normal” news story and no longer generate interest; the body count will become a mere grim statistic of a civil war, and the original reasons behind the uprising lost. Many outlets have begun asking themselves whether the latest developments in Syria deserve headlines, or whether the death toll has become numbingly repetitive, as in news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Undoubtedly, the Arab revolutions have imposed themselves on traditional media and forced it to change its methods. Al-Ahram shows that media is trying to catch up with the street and make the public, rather than government officials, its primary audience. The struggle for power within Arab media is ongoing, and the generation gap is widening daily between the old guard of official sources and the newcomers in the field who rely on social media and YouTube. The traditionalists, who are dominant among senior editorial staff, might respond to a revolution with the occasional dramatic headline, but there is no hint that, at present, they are willing to fundamentally alter the power structure of the institutionalized Arab media.
Bissane El-Cheikh is a Beirut-based reporter for Al-Hayat. She edits the paper’s weekly supplement on youth. This commentary, translated from Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.