Arab Spring Overdose?

I think people have become generally bored with the Arab Spring. It has taken much longer than initially expected, mutated into different movements and uprisings across the globe, launched a major counter-revolution, caused 2 wars and unending bloodshed, gave rise to political Islamists, pushed many government and news outlets to show their true colors (which aren’t necessarily pretty), and divided friends and family over their positions regarding “revolution” or change in general. Even the way in which its image was initially created out of necessity – mobile and youtube videos – is now somehow seen as being not reliable enough as a credible source of news for events taking place on the ground.

People want a fresh take on things. A new fix. Clearer images and better reporting. On the ground activists who have a background in international journalism. News corporations without government backers. Unbiased non-sectarian political analysts. A totally free press. No sneaky agendas whatsoever.

However – and it is unfortunate to say so – we don’t live in such an ideal world today, and for that matter I don’t recall we ever have done so before, especially in the Arab world.

Sultan Al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati social media commentator / now turned political analyst, has written this scathing article on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya’s biased coverage of events in Syria.

He states that both networks are consistently only reporting one side of the conflict, that they are pushing their own governments agendas (Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s respectively) through this biased coverage, and that their use of activists youtube videos on the news is akin to CNNs ireport and just as unreliable. Al Jazeera, once a poster child of the Arab Spring revolutions, has now lost credibility with this new take on Syria according to Sultan, a “shadow of its former self” he said, losing revenue in advertisements because of showing hours of uncorroborated youtube videos uploaded via activists with “shady backgrounds”. Because of the obvious agendas at hand, Sultan has flattened the playing field between these networks and their opponents – for example Syrian state TV or Iranian Press TV – in that they back one side over the other this “civil war” as he put it.

Though I agree with some basic points made, there are some contradictions in this article that need to be addressed thoroughly, taking into account Sultan’s stance on previous revolutions.

The first thing that caught my eye was the actual terminology used – “civil war”. No matter how messy things have gotten in Syria, many Arabs still see the Syrian conflict as an uprising / revolution against a brutal dictatorship, a continuation or progression of the Arab spring that started in Tunis. It is a hard fact that if these uprisings didn’t happen across the Arab world, Syria would not be where it is today. To only label Syria as a “civil war” but the other uprisings as something else entirely, delegitimizes and demoralizes the shared idea of “the people want the fall of the regime” that continues to perpetuate itself there. When Gaddafi was killing his people in Libya, hardly anyone – apart from a handful of anti-imperial conspiracy theorists – labelled the Libyan uprising as a “civil war”. Why do we do so with regards to Syria? Because it is more bloody? Or because of its geopolitical importance in the region?

I wonder, if Mubarak had actually ordered those F16s flying over Tahrir Square to fire on his people (which he could have if he was as brutal as Assad), war would have erupted in Egypt. Would we be referring to that as a “civil war” today or an armed revolution? Or is the Syrian revolution ‘just not popular enough’, like As’ad Abu Khalil (or As’ad Abu Khara – “As’ad who is full of Sh*t as some Syrian activists call him) in this Al-Akhbar article? Symbolism plays a strong role in political events, and even if that symbolism is reduced to two words, it has a strong impact on the observer, revealing perhaps the moral standpoint or “direction” of the author more than anything else.

Another interesting point was how Sultan claims that Al Jazeera was a more reliable source of news before it began reporting on Syria. Though I’d like to believe it, this idea itself is far removed from reality. Since its inception, one can safely say that Al Jazeera was the most controversial, provocative news channel on the Arabian satellite airwaves. In its regular broadcast it referred to Jerusalem as “occupied Jerusalem”, had analysts and politicians screaming at each other with occasional fist fights on its “opposite direction” talk show, and it was the first station to exclusively air Osama Bin Laden’s videos post-911. In Kuwait in the late 90s, we also had a conspiracy theory circulating that it was being funded by Saddam Hussein, so many Kuwaitis boycotted the channel altogether.

During the Arab spring, Al Jazeera’s popularity exploded because it was the only channel that continuously broadcast the entirety of the revolution from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya. Its dramatically edited inserts between news segments about events that were taking place was something new to see in a news channel broadcast. It was sensational, moving, and shaped the imagination of its viewers about current events (Al Arabiya was also quick to copy these inserts to catch up on the “drama” that it was missing out on).

In other words, the agenda was already there for everyone to see. Al Jazeera already had a completely pro-revolution, one-sided biased position by all standards. Neutrality never existed. The only difference was that if you – the viewer – were for or against the revolution when you tuned in. At the time, a regime sympathizer or “felool” would not watch Al Jazeera, in the same way a pro-Israeli would not watch it either.

However, despite its already clear agenda, one cannot claim as Sultan has done that Al Jazeera has not gone far enough to deliver quality reporting and images of the events taking place. Western media outlets were far, far behind Al Jazeera’s coverage of the dizzying everyday reality of the Arab spring. Despite many governments shutting down their offices and banning them from entering, Al Jazeera always found ways to sneak in reporters and show us on the ground reportage, often putting correspondents in harms way to do so. I still remember very clearly its reporting from Tripoli when rebels were advancing on Gaddafi’s Bab Al-Aziziya compound and its correspondent Abdul ‘Atheem Mohammad was reporting from inside the compound armed with a bullet proof vest and helmet, shouting erratically as machine guns were being fired all around him. A few days ago in Syrian city of Aleppo as well, their reporter Omar Khashram was shot at and injured while delivering his report.

Ethically speaking, I do not know if a news network should really put its staff in danger zones as much as Al Jazeera has done, but it is certainly unethical to demand of them to do more than they already have done to deliver these images.

As for their use / or recycling of “unreliable” activists youtube videos to show the situation on the ground, this is actually their method of choice since the beginning of the Arab spring, whether it was in Egypt or Libya or Tunisia, so I wonder why Sultan feels this should change only when they report on Syria? Moreover, this is actually a phenomenon that did not begin with Al Jazeera nor the Arab Spring. This began with most Western well-trusted media outlets when the Green Revolution was taking place in Iran in 2009. Every news network imaginable was airing activists videos of demonstrations, clashes with police, even deaths, posted on youtube as a viable source of information (never mind reliability) when all other means were blocked. Since then, youtube reporting has become a main-staple of citizen journalism that was later adopted by activists during the Arab spring, among other movements across the globe. Labeling this entire movement / change in the way images are delivered to us as simply “unreliable” or equivalent to CNN’s ireport does not take into account this entire process of how we got to this point.

Sure, some videos are fuzzy and not clear. Sure, some videos are recycled. But this does not put into question the “medium” itself, whether it comes from a camera or a mobile phone, that many activists risk their lives to deliver to us. As far as I know, when big agendas are at play, any regular TV-quality footage or photographs can be skewed and distorted just as much, or am I not thinking straight?

As far as Al Arabiya is concerned, its real litmus test of bias appeared much, much earlier than its coverage on events in Syria. We all first saw it in crystal clear technicolor vision when it was covering events in Bahrain. I remember this report when their correspondent was deliberately provoking protesters into a fight to present a picture that they are either violent or sectarian groups. Or when the F-1 was taking place there and some sparse reports appeared on other news channels of demonstrations happening, Al Arabiya was in complete denial of any such reality. In other words, Al Arabiya clearly did and still does have an apparent agenda, but this did not start with Syria at all.

In conclusion, even though there is a difference in the amount of bias a news channel spews out on its viewer, I don’t recall there being an outlet that is completely unbias in its coverage, especially when such events come too close to home and political stakes are so high. Even the BBC itself, when riots were breaking out all around London, it suddenly changed face and transformed into an Arabiya-esque biased network all by itself for a limited-time-only offer.

However, it is too far-fetched to claim that any of these networks can come close to the bias of “opponents” as Sultan put it, which in my interpretation would be the Syrian state-funded networks or the Iranian regime ones.

For comic relief, I will post this report from Syrian state TV that claims that Qatar has produced a replica of Damascus and Aleppo and Daraa in Hollywood studios costing 36 billion dollars, so that Al Jazeera can stage and fake its reportage of events in Syria. Because this was so comical, some activists posted a photoshopped picture online of the Hollywood hills with a sign in front of it pointing to the Qatari replica studio called “Assad is Duck Really”. Surprisingly, Assad regime sympathizer Al-Dunya TV picked up on this joke and aired it as a reality. Also, after the explosions in Damascus that killed Syrian defense and interior ministers, Iran’s Press TV immediately “produced” a report that claimed the Saudi intelligence building was struck by an explosion, and the newly appointed intel chief prince Bandar was killed, just to, you know, fire back with a “counter-reality”.

So is the bias playing field really as equal between these networks, Sultan? As far as cockamamie stories go: No, I beg to differ.

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About moniraism

Funerary artist with political interests.
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8 Responses to Arab Spring Overdose?

  1. Reality consists of all things that exist, whether real or imagined. Never doubt the reality of things of the mind, since they often exert a more powerful force on you than you realize.The kinds of conspiracy theories that play so well to some Western ears are even more pleasant to Arab ears; many ordinary middle easterners are very enamored of conspiracy theories. Arab political analysts are so used to conspiracy theories that they cannot differentiate facts from fiction. And there are real conspiracies.

  2. Meow2012 says:

    I don’t agree with everything you said but i still liked the article.
    But the article that i read by Sultan Al-Qassemi, it seriously more bias than the channels he was talking about. But i don’t blame him, i blame the foreign policy magazin for supporting this biad report.

  3. aadam says:

    Great analysis with many interesting and quite possibly true points mentioned. but my question is why is everyone so quick to try to counter and shoot down Sultan’s article. It just seems for far too long we have sat back in the comforts of our living room, privately criticizing, but publicly accepting mediocre biased reports. I personally commend Sultan on the article on the FP for if anything besides a great article for having his heart in the right place. I believe we should have many more people like him, criticizing the media reports. I am not a political analyst nor a media commentator, I consider myself an average Joe/Mohammed(sounds more fitting) when it comes to the political stratosphere, I can read and watch from different news outlets, but with limited understanding.
    Having people like yourself and Sultan, sheds a lot of perspective on what I may miss, or overlook on my passerby reading.
    I honestly believe just because Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, have been feeding us biased reports from the start doesn’t mean it’s too late to start criticizing, and this criticism obviously doesn’t stem from hate but from the want for our top two news agencies to up their game and provide us with the best, to be role models for the other propaganda machines out there, eventually and this may seem far-fetched but my dominant optimistic side hopes maybe one day we can actually have that “Unbiased non-sectarian political analysts. A totally free press. No sneaky agendas whatsoever”
    Hope to see more outright discussions on Arab politics, and for now especially on the Syrian Crisis, especially with Anan calling his mission a failure, is there still hope for a diplomatic solution?

  4. shameonassad says:

    Pretty good text thanks!
    As you will notice by my pseudo,i’m tempted to bias :)I’m french and i’ve been following the syrian news on many networks,tv,internet,real time information from friends there……I’ve been arguing,in vain with dozens of morons breastfed with flows of bitter conspiracy and racist milk.I feel very concerned by that topic because a big part of these bastards are french and it’s a shame.Actually as you certainly know,one of the most active pro-Assad media is Reseau Voltaire,so close to Assad’s regime that you can recognize them to their brown nose and brown shirt.
    Actually one big problem now is that many people do not discriminate “biasing” and “lying” and there is a big big moral difference.Everyone has feelings,idea,interests.Hopefully.Then start bias.If you have a politic,you bias a little more.If you plan to kill,torture then comes the lie.”We’ve been to Lybia for humanitarian reasons” and forget the “too”,it’s biased.”We’ve been to Lybia for humanitarian reasons ONLY” that’s a lie.And it makes all the difference.And because some channel and mainstream medias provide (and how could it be different?) biased infos,then some low brained tends to take the exact opposite info for granted.Who’s stupid enough to think that Al-jazeera is neutral?So what?We are grown up adults.We watch and process the informations,keep what’s sure put the rest in quarantine.The same for other medias.We cannot see everything but it’s not so difficult to have two or three sources.Then our duty as free spirits (we are not all free human being unfortunately) is to finish the synthesis now or later if doubt is too big.The welfare of patience don’t you think?
    I don’t understand people who deny their own responsibility on processing and spreading informations.Believing is our responsibility not the source one.Most of the time people is fooled by their own laziness.If one eat the crap maybe he hasn’t enough interest in finding the truth so no complain.Maybe he believed to fast.
    Anyway sorry for the bad english.Keep on good work it changes from the Pro-Assad Jackass i met till now.

  5. shameonassad says:

    Hello Yilmaz,

    Very interesting articles.I answer on your blog.

  6. Excellent analysis. Anyone who claims that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya’s slanted coverage began with Syria hasn’t been paying attention to the past 10 years of how Arab media has developed. *Every* news outlet has a bias and particular editorial stance, but those two channels performed an invaluable service when their reporters risked life and limb to bring the world live coverage from inside Syria. Russian and Chinese media were not nearly so energetic in reporting from inside the country.

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