The growth of locally-based television channels is beginning to counter the narrative that has dominated the media coverage of the Middle East. Some television programmes depicting a normal life are gradually breaking the staple coverage of war and carnage. However, the ongoing conflict has prevented new entrants to journalism with different perspectives from working in the region. Consequently, more experienced journalists who have been stationed in the region are being recalled to work at the new channels. Unfortunately, most of these older hands insist on working according to their brief from their previous stints covering the region. Furthermore, the younger and newer journalists who do make it to the Middle East are not able to travel freely for research and newsgathering purposes. Understandably, the region is full of cynics who are suspicious of strangers due to the brutality of the mukhabarat (intelligence officers) from several countries who operate in the region.
Furthermore, the lack of investment in media logistics inhibits proper coverage. Technology has enabled many media institutions around the world — particularly television — to broadcast live as soon as stories break. In the Middle East, where broadband capabilities are still struggling, expensive satellite transmission is still the most dominant means of broadcasting. Moreover, most broadcast technicians are based in Europe, which means that regional media organisations are forced to wait for these skills from overseas when big stories break. This reality continues to pose challenges for news coverage, especially in English, of events in the Middle East. Consequently, most news organisations rely on news agencies for their coverage. Al-Jazeera English is the only global English news channel that has the capacity to broadcast and run with the story as it breaks. The reliance on news agencies like Reuters, Agence France Presse (AFP) and Associated Press (AP) by many local news organisations encourages lazy journalism. Too many journalists simply package their daily stories based on the footage provided by these agencies. Very few, if any at all, spend time researching and capturing their own footage; agencies remain the first point of call. That attitude deprives the region of the opportunity to showcase the human stories.
Does the media fuel conflict in the Middle East?
The broadcast of video footage prepared by extremist groups is on the increase. Every gruesome act is accompanied by a video tape or posting online describing those who carried it out and explaining why. What most social scientists and media analysts are asking is, to whom is the message directed? There are a number of young people from around the world who have reportedly left their countries to join extremist groups, particularly in Syria. The internet is usually blamed or mentioned as the main platform that is used to recruit and attract such youngsters to the Middle East. Images of AK47-wielding young fighters swearing to kill in the name of religion have become commonplace on our television screens.
Perhaps there is an element of fame that comes with these videos being shown on television, and maybe some degree of celebrity status within extremist circles comes into the equation. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to assume that those who harbour and support the extremists’ ideology will be attracted by such images and might be inspired to join their ranks.
The challenge within most newsrooms is whether or not to broadcast these images. The logical argument is obvious; the extremists are using the media to further their objectives so such images must not be broadcast. However, there is another imperative in journalism — the public’s right to know — that journalists cannot ignore; they simply can’t unilaterally withhold stories and images from the public domain. Given that the broadcast of these images is often driven by an increase in media competition, the use of exclusive footage is too hard to resist for many broadcasters. Most news organisations disregard basic rules about broadcasting certain pictures and videos; the rule of thumb has been, if it bleeds it must lead.
War reporting is shorthand for great journalism and has therefore attracted many aspiring journalists to the Middle East. Extremist organisations like Daesh provide the right material in terms of visuals. This raises the question of whether there are links between the populism of radical organisations and the media. What will happen to these organisations if the cameras are directed elsewhere and they are thus deprived of media exposure? What will happen if the cameras focus on other news in the region? Realistically speaking, the attitude of foreign journalists means that it is probably never going to happen.
Indeed, the engagement of foreign troops in the Middle East has seen the expansion of state-owned news organisations like Russia Today, CCTV and France 24 among many others. These organisations have brought new elements to news prioritisation and headlining. They highlight news featuring their own countries’ role in the conflict. Under the terms of its operating licence, the BBC World Service is not supposed to represent British national interests exclusively, and yet it is used by the foreign and commonwealth office in London as some kind of soft power tool. The BBC’s editorial lines reflect certain national and political positions unapologetically. The recent debate about the terminology used to describe Syrians trying to get into Europe en masse created interesting discussions within various newsrooms around the world. Eventually, some media organisations adopted a position which reflected their national interest in the debate. Al-Jazeera English went against the consensus of the other big four international news broadcasters and insisted on referring to the displaced Syrians as refugees instead of migrants. Bias and the over-politicisation of television coverage of global events has led to heightened media cynicism in the Middle East. The skewed and uneven reporting on important stories has led to apathy towards the traditional media in the region, particularly television.
The general attitude of governments and civil society in the Middle East towards journalists is one of the greatest obstacles in covering news in the region. There are strict requirements and long lists of permissions and legalities required for filming and newsgathering; failure to fulfil them can and does result in journalists being arrested. Some governments require individuals to get a journalism licence over and above a university qualification and employment offer. This makes it very difficult to be an independent journalist in some places in the Middle East.
Consequently many foreign journalists parade themselves as tourists to avoid stringent media laws. This has led to the proliferation of the “fixers”, a group of individuals who have connections within different societies and facilitate newsgathering on behalf of broadcasters and foreign journalists. Fixing has become one of the most prestigious occupations in the Middle East. Some fixers are journalists who are unable to meet the criterion for working in the profession. Most, though, are not journalists at all, but individuals who are politically well-connected, or in some cases simply drivers who can converse in a foreign language.
The reliance on fixers who have no journalism and professional background in newsgathering is compromising the quality of journalism and coverage of the region. They are not just facilitating interviews and driving journalists to hot spots; they also attend press conferences, take notes in Arabic and basically produce copy for journalists who are afraid to venture outside their offices. This has, unfortunately, compromised the quality of news production. The Middle East is an overly-politicised environment so there is a need to vet the fixers before employing their services for journalism purposes. Failure to do so presents unnecessary challenges, particularly the possible manipulation of the coverage of events.
The stereotypes about the region from both the journalists’ and their global audience perspectives dictate editorial choices in coverage of the Middle East. Furthermore, the advent of national broadcasters has added a new dimension to news coverage. Journalists report to targeted audiences who expect certain type of news; in most cases it is about the wellbeing and progress of their national interests. Having said that, journalists also have the responsibility to educate their audience.
Another important factor is that international television news organisations tend to cover events that attract many viewers. This audience becomes accustomed to certain types of narratives about the story in question; they watch and follow its progression in full expectation of a consistent narrative. This, in turn, creates stereotypes and most journalists find it hard to change certain jargon in the middle of an ongoing story even when there is a need to change the narrative.
For example, even after learning that Kurds are often Sunni Muslims, most journalists continue to compare Kurds and Sunnis in the Middle East as if they are mutually exclusive. Hence, journalists will stick to the script to save face, even at the risk of misinforming their audience. The major ongoing stereotype about the Middle East and Islam can only change if the media give a more equal degree of coverage to other important stories. Until then, the image of the region in the West will remain unchanged and this will also affect the interaction between ordinary people in both.
Finally, good journalism thrives when there is a combination of education, professionalism and good socialisation. Most fixers employed by media institutions in the region are often lacking in these essentials. There is an overwhelming sense of nationalism and sectarianism in the Middle East; even some qualified journalists battle to balance their professionalism with their religious and political inclinations, and the random employment of fixers without proper checks and balances does not help the situation. All of these factors combined help to fuel conflict across the region. As things stand, it is hard to reach any other conclusion.
Thembisa Fakude is the Head of Research and International Relations at Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, a Directorate of Al-Jazeera Media Network.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.