State media in the Arab world face an uphill battle to address international public opinion and compete against local private media forms that enjoy flexibility and considerable resources.
For Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran, the answer is to push ahead with openness while sticking to a consistent policy; namely no normalization of ties with Israel.
Speaking after the conclusion of the three-day conference of Arab information ministers held in Beirut this week, Omran told The Daily Star that the meeting was more productive than previous ones, “but we always hope for further improvement.”
Omran declined to discuss Syrian-Lebanese relations, or local political issues here, opting to focus instead solely on media affairs.
He endorsed the establishment of a foreign-language satellite station to redress the imbalance in international public opinion when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The plan would boost the exposure of official Arab viewpoints that now find their way to the international public only with difficulty. Omran argued that the problem was not due to of a lack of effort.
“We’ve contacted many (media outlets); we give them a 20-minute interview but only one minute is broadcast … and sometimes in a way which makes no sense,” Omran chuckled. “It’s clearly biased.”
Omran, a veteran diplomat who served as deputy secretary-general at the Arab League, disagreed that the side more aggressive in getting its views aired deserves to win the media war.
“These are responsible media establishments; they’re not children. It’s not a matter of who ‘comes in force’ when things are covered. It’s easy to make efforts to balance the views in the news, and this is not happening.
“We try very hard. I was ambassador in London for seven years and I had contacts with almost every media in Europe. But generally, it’s a situation of ‘one against 10.’”
Omran said the private sector should help implement the ministers’ plan for satellite broadcasts in English and Hebrew.
“It’s always difficult to raise money. The plan is not based on money coming from governments, and we hope to see the private sector take a role in this.
“The important thing is to see objective and transparent analysis in the face of the overwhelming coverage by the Zionist media. Any story has two sides and what’s happening now is only one side (getting through); very little is known about the other.”
However, he acknowledged that the Syrian, and by extension Arab, media has a long way to go before gaining a steady foreign viewership, as opposed to seeing officials interviewed for “sound bites” on foreign news programs.
“We have some news in English, French, and soon Spanish, but these are bulletins. A station has to be established in the field as English-speaking. People don’t wait and watch the clock to see when this or that bulletin is coming from Egyptian TV or Syrian TV.
As Omran was interviewed at the Bristol Hotel, the site of the information ministers’ conference, a television in the lobby was tuned to Al-Jazeera.
The minister denied that he had singled out the Qatar-based satellite channel at the conference, when he criticized Arab media engaged in normalization with Israel.
“It’s not only Al-Jazeera, it’s a number of stations,” he said, indicating that while stations were free to do as they pleased, the practice was damaging.
Omran said that Al-Jazeera was not necessarily winning viewers because of its policy on hosting Israeli commentators or interviewing Israelis. It is viewers, turned off by dull programs, who “like to see some shouting going on,” Omran said.
But he said state media was handicapped by a lack of funding.
“The more money you have, the more you can spend and do things better. Public stations, which receive money from the government, should be considered ‘poor’ stations because public money is subject to many controls and you can’t spend it the way you want.”
He was adamant that any kind of normalization was detrimental to the Arab cause.
“I don’t think it’s the right of any Arab establishment to deal with any Israeli I’m not saying Jews, because Jews are like us. Muslim, Christian and Jews, we don’t have any differences on that. I have many friends who are Jews, and I never thought religion should be anything except a relation between man and God.”
Asked about convincing allies like Egypt and Jordan officials to stop normalization, Omran suggested re-directing the question to those countries’ officials, but added that their particular circumstances had to be respected.
“The peace process began some time ago and this policy (of normalization) is enforced because of the peace agreements that were signed. They were signed in the hope that peace would prevail throughout the region but Israel doesn’t want peace; the rest remains the responsibility of the individual countries.” Normalization with the Arab citizens of Israel, Omran insisted, was understandable.
“They are Arabs, and are only Israelis by force. They will remain Arabs all their lives; they have declared that themselves.”
Omran insisted that the policy was a long-standing one in Syria, despite the publicity generated by recent visits to Damascus by Arab-Israeli members of the Knesset like Azmi Beshara.
“We’ve never considered these Arabs to be Israelis because their land was occupied; they were in a ‘prison-like’ situation.”
As for the freedom of Syria’s own media, namely allowing private print media to function after decades of state monopoly, Omran called it a “positive” experience.
Newspapers affiliated with several parties besides the Baath and the satirical independent weekly Al-Domari form a prominent part of the media policy of President Bashar Assad, and there is more to come. “The sky’s the limit. When we feel that this step is for the benefit of the country we’ll do it.”
The most publicized incident of late involved accusations by Al-Domari’s Ali Farzat that a two-page article critical of Prime Minister Mustafa Miro had been dropped after pressure from the authorities.
Omran said the issue involved Al-Domari’s seeking to gain “special privileges.”
“It’s absolutely untrue that I sent police” to deal with the matter, he insisted. “The ministry warned them to re-read this (article) and pay attention to the law. They acted with the belief that they have special privileges.”