Arab journalists suggest that the Arab media have a vital role to play in promoting democratic development in their region. Television, in particular, has become a major force in shaping public opinion.
Speaking with Judith Latham, host of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya said, in recent weeks and months millions of Arabs from Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east have watched satellite television reports on the Palestinian elections, the Iraqi elections, and the demonstrations in Beirut and Cairo, which have spurred their own yearnings for freedom and empowerment. Mr. Melhem said he believes that, whether or not the Arab media were “consciously or unconsciously hoping” to do so, their comprehensive coverage of events may have contributed significantly to a “growing sense in the region that it’s about time” for people in Arab countries to empower themselves.
Mr. Melhem said there are other “liberating technologies,” such as the Internet and the cell phone, which in Saudi Arabia is becoming a potent political force. He described as “phenomenal” how, during the recent municipal campaign and elections there, people used text messages to communicate with one another and to urge them to vote. Mr. Melhem noted that autocratic governments cannot prevent their citizens from watching al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera, and other satellite television stations because they are broadcast from outside the country. Furthermore, he said, a growing number of Arabs – especially in the Gulf region, Lebanon and Jordan - have access to the Internet.
But, according to Mr. Melhem, who hosts a weekly talk show on al-Arabiya, most Arab governments are still able to restrict the print media. And that’s because, except for Lebanon and some Gulf states such as Kuwait, the local media are either government-controlled or owned. Mr. Melhem explained that even so-called “private media” are not actually independent in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt because the Ministry of Education appoints the editor. However, some newspapers, such as al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat, which are published in London, are somewhat freer than the Arab publications printed in the Gulf or Egypt. And, it is those publications, Hisham Melhem said, that many Arabs read on the Internet.
Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian journalist who writes a column for the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, said government restrictions on the print media account for one of the reasons that Arab satellite television stations have played an increasingly important role in promoting democracy. She said that in all 22 Arab states people can turn on their televisions and watch thousands of people demonstrating in Beirut and Cairo or they can see news reports about the imprisonment of Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour and hear about the U.S. pressure to get him released, as happened last Saturday. Mona Eltahawy said the evidence that Arab governments are “feeling the heat” from the Arab media – especially satellite television - is demonstrated in the banning of al-Jazeera by a number of Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
Arab journalists say it remains to be seen to what degree the media and the new technologies, such as the Internet and the cell phone, will actually be able to influence the outcome of democratic elections in their region.
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