Tunisia, Yemen, and now Egypt: they are countries on fire. Most others in the Arab world are smoldering, they have been for decades. There is little doubt, according to many news reports and opinion makers, that Al Jazeera has had a big hand in galvanizing discontent and feeding the incendiary movements in the Arab world. They have done so for years; only naive fools and pacifist dreamers would deny that such was their stated goal. Why the Qatari rulers allow Al-Jazeera to run their operations from their soil is an interesting question, as yet unexplored.
However, it is not only Al-Jazeera that plays these deadly games. Which “news organization”, including regular commercial or national TV stations, are till reporting news in terms of bits and bytes of factual information, be it about their own country or about international events? While the 24-hour news organizations must, by definition, “make news” , if only to have enough film and talk to fill the time and space allotted, a large majority of the most famous and richly rewarded contemporary journalists are, indeed, first and foremost, sometimes creating, and often enhancing news events. They don’t provide information, on the contrary, their role is to shape opinion and, in the process, they are looking for personal ego-tripping and establishing star allures, like actors and modern politicians. Orwell’s Animal Farm revisited!
The “freedom of the press” to objectively report happenings around us, should not be called into question, for it is a fundamental principle for openness and fairness in the world, albeit still a frail and often disrespected one. That principle – and the distinction must be stated clearly – is totally different from the “Freedom of Expression”. These days both freedoms are being used interchangeably, especially when it comes to powerful organizations that can blow their opinions and views across the globe, making carefully edited pictures fit their narrative and selecting the “witnesses” that support their crafted message. At the grand scale that we witness this happening today, with the biased “news” organizations (such as Al Jazeera and Fox) but also with others, it must be considered a perversion of, and a threat to democracy, and to stability – to “all worlds”, the developing ones as well as developed one(s).
Freedom of expression is a fine principle as long as the receiver of the message has enough information to consider the pros and cons, based upon his own knowledge and judgments. In that sense, modern news media, everywhere, pretending to present what happens around us, actually produce mostly shows to broadcast what fits within the agenda of the news organization, its financiers or, as is the case in much of Europe for the state-sponsored TV, its political patrons.
True, newspapers have been bringing opinion forever, albeit it not as blatantly and not with the explicit business purpose to be more profitable. Often they were linked to political views. The British boulevard press was probably a forerunner of the post-modernistic commercialist press but their incendiary and insulting covers affected only the UK environment and were often focused on society-related shame and scandal. Moreover, as the reporting dealt largely with local events and was embedded in a truly competitive press environment, readers had, at all times, lots of opportunity to assess the outrageousness of the tabloid reporting. By and large, news-making organizations like Al Jazeera, FOX, CNN and others, have a captive audience that they manipulate at will, making arrogant stars out of their “anchors” and manipulating their audiences, not infrequently producing extremism and violent behavior. It is obvious that we, the democratic free world, have been tricked into allowing “Freedom of Expression” to foster organizations which have become the unelected dictators of many neighborhoods, regions and countries. This multi-dimensional octopus, called the press media, dexterously exploits any and all useful fault lines that, necessarily, run through the world community, just for profit, be that calculated in monetarily or in politically valued millions.
With Egypt on fire, and in case we needed a fresh reminder, Jonathan Mann of CNN, co-anchoring the “news, direct from Cairo”, took it upon himself to report with unmistakable intonation of surprised disapproval: “Mubarak has appointed, for the first time in Egyptian history, a Vice-President (!), Omar Suleiman, a trusted friend, who is the ex-head of the security services. The President is rumored to have selected a new PM, also from his inner circle. How will the protesters be able to put their trust in these leaders? In fact, he added – casually, Hosni Mubarak just now has had a chance to step away from the Presidency and thus resolve this crisis and he didn’t take that chance!” While this is not the worst opinionated reporting that cause pain to objective ears on CNN, his suggestion about Mubarak stepping back is, plainly stated, cheap and, unfortunately, not even a solution.
Indeed, if Mann ventures to voice this opinion, he might also tell the viewers how the process that (finally) begins to solve the intractable problems of a large majority of the Egyptians, will be pushed to a conclusion. For instance: who will become the new president ( a general, if history is any guide)? How will they, perhaps “the people”, decide about a new government? Which body will chart process and content for the way ahead (parliament is full of Mubarak’s close allies)? How will Egypt avoid losing 20% of its GDP this year because of the shutdown of tourism? How can millions of academically schooled youngsters be put to work in jobs commensurate with their schooling? This is only the tip of the tip of iceberg, a small percentage indeed of the challenges at hand.
How easy is it to take a stab at what somebody should have done, or to criticize what he or she has not done? To be sure, I am not defending the Egyptian regime (which was, as we all know, generously supported by the West for forty-odd years). Is it not unfortunate that journalists, whose understanding of “foreign peoples”, countries and cultures is generally somewhat proportional to the number of languages that they have effectively mastered to speak, continue to use their pulpit – for indeed, the centers of power have changed, but the tools have not – to fill the terrestrial ether with simplistic, misguided, so-called solutions that is, in the end, just self-serving rhetoric that snugly fit with the organizations’ business goals!?
When, and if, this latest media-sponsored and media-fed crisis is over – even though the Egyptian’s cause and uprising is in itself quite legitimate and not in question, it will behoove the world community to have a very close look at the quasi-monopolistic unrestricted abuse that the principle of “Freedom of Expression” has wrought on our daily lives, and how it has gradually overshadowed our “Rights for Information”.
Rio de Janeiro, January 30th 2011