"So, where is your media outrage? Instead, you show Western hostage beheadings, allow Muslim fanatics to preach on TV and radio, and publish hate speeches against Christians and Jews. Where is the shame? Where are your principles? You should be campaigning for peace, tolerance and human rights and against intolerance, women and minority abuse, and religious fanaticism. That is the holy role of the media, Arab journalists!"
The above are not the exact words, but a summary of an American scholar's comments during an international conference convened last week in Dubai on the role of the media to enhance the security of the Gulf States.
In my response, I said to him (in the general meeting and later in a smaller group discussion): What you are calling for is a classic academic and professional question that has been discussed in journalism schools and forums for ages. Is our role to educate, preach and enlighten the public or just to provide accurate, updated and objective information? Do we campaign and rally for causes we support, or just provide an open marketplace of ideas and a neutral forum for debate and discussion?
The Western media in general, and the American in particular, stand for independence and neutrality: You give the masses well investigated and researched reports and news stories, supported by available evidence, background information and analysis. You allow all parties to have equal access to the public. You don't take sides or make judgments, except in editorials. It is up to your audience to decide what and who to believe, accept and side with. End of role.
When riots erupted in Los Angels after the acquittal of four white policemen accused of brutally beating black motorist Rodney King in 1991, the media professionally covered the events. They didn't campaign for black rights or advocate a review of a long history of abuse and enslavement.
Journalists in non-democratic countries are justly accused of being tools of propaganda, mouthpieces of the rulers, and ideologically committed to one school of thought. They marginalize different viewpoints, campaign for certain causes, and serves their owners and controllers' interests.
Most new independent media in the Arab world are moving away from the old ways. They attempt to provide as-is news and multi-perspective commentary. If you don't like what is written, write a letter to the editor. If you don't agree with a guest of a live show, call in and tell him so. If an opinion or a report on a website seems wrong, e-mail them your correction. As long as your perspective, no matter how different or unique, is published or aired, you can't complain about the equal opportunity and space given to those you disagree with.
In evaluating Arab media performance, we need to distinguish between mainstream media and underground outlets. The first is owned and supervised by governments and media corporations. Their policies prevent them from preaching religious hatred or siding with terrorists. After all, terrorists are enemies of the Arab states, as much as of the West. But at the same time, they cannot ignore their statements and actions. Professional coverage of events requires comprehensive reporting from all sides.
The non-licensed media are mostly Internet based. Comments are usually unsigned. Web blogs, electronic newsletters, mailing lists and discussion groups are uncensored and uncontrollable. Those are the ones who may preach and advocate, with impunity.
By the way, the mainstream media never aired or printed beheading videos and pictures, as some Web sites did. This turned the public against the perpetrators. The coverage of the suicide bombing of civilian compounds in Saudi Arabia and wedding parties in Jordan made most people see the ugliness of the terrorist organizations they may once have admired, believed or tolerated.
Finally, you cannot take media coverage out of context. The liberal U.S. media tolerated outrageous breaches of constitutional principles after 9/11. Because they thought the administration was fighting a just war, they turned a blind eye to abuses of international rules, civil liberties and human rights - at home and abroad. Where was the outrage over the administration's lies and sleazy and brutal tactics? Why did The New York Times accept the Bush administration's request and delay a story about government eavesdropping on American citizens for a whole year? Where is the campaign against torture in CIA prisons around the world?
If the context allows for such tolerance on the American side, why can't it also be applied to Arab media? After all, the media are supposed to reflect the public's mood. In a world where the anger against Western policies has been boiling for decades, you can't expect much sympathy for colonizers and occupiers. Instead, a minimum level of tolerance for some sort of violent reaction in response to even worse actions should be expected and accepted.