Misrepresenting the Other

Noha Mellor

Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of Social Sciences, Media & Cultural Studies, University of East London

In one decade, the proliferation of satellite dishes has done more for the creation of a than all the political efforts at the highest level in the whole of the past century. In any case, this new pan-Arabism reflects an imaginary community, whose mainly political basis omits a universe of very different social and cultural realities which make up the Arab countries. These, as they are not on television, are therefore non-existent for Westerners and for the elites and middle-high classes of these same countries.

Most of the recent studies about Arab news media have focused on what is seen as the “phenomenon” of Arab satellite channels (notably Al Jazeera), which are immediately considered to be the new communication challenge to the American media hegemony, and as a modern anti-Western mouthpiece. What is still needed, however, is to unravel how journalists construct their occupation, how they perceive their role and the impact of this on their journalistic practices.

In this article, I argue that Arab journalism has indeed undergone major development in genre and format. However, as journalists tend to favour the hardcore political news, the focus of the Arab news media rests on these topics, both on the international and regional levels, rather than on the immediate local and regional social problems. Thus, international news is dealt with from a political rather than a social angle with the fatal consequence that Arab audiences may know little about other societies let alone their own. Likewise, I argue that Western media professionals have not really provided a better example, as their news about the Middle East tends to focus on the political rather than the social or the cultural aspects. The implication is crucial as the Western audiences may end up seeing Arab peoples as a political entity rather than fellow individuals.

In the following, I discuss, albeit briefly, the focus of the Arab news media and how they end up nurturing a pan-Arab identity rather than seeing the diversity in Arab societies. I support this view with reference to the role of the linguistic code used in the Arab news media, namely the written variety of Arabic which is regarded as an “aloof” code for the detached hard political news. I then turn the gaze towards the Western news media (particularly the Anglo-American) showing how they also tend to politicise the news about the Middle East.

An “Imagined” Community

When discussing the emergence of the Arab press as a forum for rational and political discourse, it is hard to talk in general terms about “Arab” press. Rather, each Arab country has developed its press and media systems and discourses at a different pace to other neighbouring countries. For instance, whilst Egypt launched its first newspaper in 1800 (Abu Bakr et al., 1985: 18), the first publication in Kuwait appeared in 1928, and in Bahrain in 1939. [1] Also, illiteracy rates (still) vary from one Arab country to another, which together with the difficulty, at least in the past, of forming a media outlet with a regional rather than national audience in mind, have contributed to enforcing this distinction among Arab states. However, one common characteristic is the way in which national media were used as a means of enforcing a rather “imagined community” among diverse groups of people. The Saudi government, for example, appeared to establish television broadcasting in order to distract citizens from foreign programmes, providing them with a sense of community despite the citizens’ different tribal relations (Tash, 1983: 51).

Indeed, the sheer fact that the “Middle East” itself as a term was forced upon Western empires in the 19th century (Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1998: 178) is compelling evidence of how the new (imagined) geographical boundaries have forced several Arab states to form their own national identity and deploy media as one means of achieving this goal.

Thus, pan-Arab news media have managed to accomplish a political mission, which was previously doomed to failure

The field of Arab news media has embraced a number of institutions targeting not a local, but a regional audience. This tendency was not born with the eminent satellite channels, but can be traced back to the 19th century with the emergence of the so-called émigré press (see Mellor, 2005 for a fuller discussion ), which formed a trans-national community of writers/journalists and audience alike. Thus, it has become difficult to disentangle the national from the regional embraced in the overall “pan-Arab” concept, given its penetration in a plethora of discourses ranging from political and media based to popular culture and everyday discourse.

Recently, the Arab new(s) satellite channels, as well as the pan-Arab press have provided a new era of “plenty” (Ellis, 2000), performing a new function compared to the former era where the “plenty” was usually foreign and imported. The aim is to unite a multitude of audiences, within and outside the Middle East, connecting and yet keeping them apart, and thus the new era can be argued to “provide a voluntary point of social cohesion, of being together while being apart” (Ellis, 2000: 176).

The pan-Arab news media have gained a paramount position on the present and future research agenda because of their success in implementing the challenging political project called “pan-Arabism” into the cultural domain. Pan-Arab media have therefore claimed increasing research attention for the following reasons:

  • they have a large audience share across Arab countries rather than being confined to only one country;
  • they can be regarded as trendsetters among other national and regional media institutions as they embrace a young high-caliber generation of media professionals (Mellor, 2005);
  • the past few years have shown us that Arab investors tend to establish regional rather than national media institutions, thereby targeting as wide an audience as possible, not only in the Middle East but also Western countries;
  • these pan-Arab media also serve as a Diaspora media for Arab immigrants in Europe, the USA and other Western countries.

This pan-Arabism, as one of Al Jazeera’s top hosts, Faisal al-Kasim argues, has “pulled the rug from underneath local, terrestrial stations, which in itself is some kind Arabization and thus unification.” [2] Thus, pan-Arab news media have managed to accomplish a political mission, which was previously doomed to failure.

The focus of the pan-Arab media tends to centre on regional politics rather than the immediate local concerns of each Arab society. Thus, for the news story to be deemed “worthy” it should deal with either the Islamic or the pan-Arab politico-religious sphere. So, despite the different ethnic, religious, class and gender aspects, regional news media such as the pan-Arab press and satellite news channels, attempt to address as wide an audience base as possible, as an “imagined community”. It has thus renewed its ideological weight among Arab journalists who now propagate it as part of their role (Ramarprasad and Hamdy, 2006). Hence, pan-Arabism has become a “unique selling point”, a marketing strategy that aims at benefiting from the increased market share (Kraidy, 2005).

Urban News

In general, Arab news can be characterised as urban, serving city inhabitants, particularly the elite, and ignoring the rural areas. One serious implication here is that, despite the modern format of the new pan-Arab media, the outlets actually still adhere to the traditional hegemonic discourses of the elite and indeed ignore the immediate social problems in modern Arab societies. Several Arab media scholars warned against the press’ preoccupation with the privileged groups and how journalists ignore the developmental problems that the region is facing (Bekhait, 1999; Abdel Rahman, 1989), making the rural press a non-existent phenomenon (Abu Bakr, 1985).

For instance, both rural women and poor urban women are almost totally absent from the media, which seem more occupied with special groups of women, namely, urban women who belong to the middle classes. One study showed that interest in the issues of women in rural areas comprised less than three per cent of the total content. As for the weekly magazines, the focus was almost totally on women in the urbanised areas (97.5%), and a modest percentage (2.5%) was on the rural areas (Abdel Rahman, 2002). Another study on the situation of female journalists in Egypt showed that the journalists included in the study wished for serious social problems to be covered in the press, such as illiteracy among rural women, family planning, and health issues (Abdel Rahman, 2002: 156). However, these were the problems that they did not cover although they agreed on the significance of these issues to public debates.

Arab governments usually intervene to stop the production of programmes about social issues in their territories, e.g. prostitution or the status of foreign labour or refugees

In fact, according to Jameel Matar, the Director of the Center for Future Development (Egypt), the negative impact of the satellite dish is that it has added to the alienation of the marginalised majority e.g. citizens from Upper Egypt. Thus, satellite channels represent an elite phenomenon, addressing only the cohort of peer colleagues of presenters and media professionals (Ezzi, 2004: 194f). Furthermore, one of Al Manar’s [3] presenters, Amr Nassef, says that satellite channels have become like Arab parties in as much as they get farther away from their real audience and their real problems. So, there are channels that think they give the audience what they want of variety and songs, while others prefer to give the audience what they need to know of news and information (Ezzi, 2004: 174).

The absence of the social and human-interest stories is due to many factors. Firstly, Arab journalists do not see in such stories a “route to fame” in a profession where the real prestige lies in covering hard-core politics and interviewing famous politicians. Secondly, such issues are indeed difficult to cover, for they require extensive research and investigation, which drives journalists to prefer to cover available political issues, easily accessible in foreign sources. In fact, the Arab-American academic Mamoun Fandy sees the media’s preoccupation with high politics as a means to distract the Arab audiences from their internal affairs by glorifying foreign policy issues, or else journalists may be accused of “political heresy” (Fandy, 2005). By contrast, the local or economic sections are dull, for there are no specialised journalists to write well-researched articles about such issues. Thirdly, Arab governments usually intervene to stop the production of programmes about social issues in their territories, e.g. prostitution or the status of foreign labour or refugees; among them are those countries that pride themselves on their “free” media zones. In sum, while “human-interest” stories serve as the backbone of the private realm, Arab media, unlike their Western counterparts, are reluctant to centre on these stories.

For the Lebanese Diana Muqalled (Future TV), reading the headlines in the Arab newspapers or hearing the newest bulletins may dismay those who support endeavours to include other non-political issues. The irony, she adds, is that one Western training initiative after another teaches Arab journalists to focus on social, environmental, and human-interest stories, yet Arab journalists usually regard such issues as insignificant and hence such issues are usually non-existent in the news and current affairs coverage (Muqalled, 2006). I personally recall the dismay of a native-Arab journalist who was involved in such a training initiative financed by a Western NGO. The journalist told me that he was astonished at the paradox of his Arab trainees, who on the one hand embrace the Western news technical format but decline from applying Western news values, which favour “soft” news. Thus, the trainees could not see any local story about the failure of their education system, sewage work, etc. as worth covering, particularly on the front pages.

So, Arab audiences seem to be overwhelmed by a large number of news and current affairs programmes on terrestrial and satellite channels, not to mention the pan-Arab press, which constantly introduce “serious” topics ranging from the war in Kosovo to aid to the developing world. A recent study suggests that the most discussed issues in pan-Arab news satellite channels are Palestine and Iraq not to mention the shows dedicated to covering elections in the Middle East, including Israel and Iran, as well as in the USA and France. However, should this make the Arab audience exceptionally knowledgeable about regional affairs or the political affairs in the international arena or make them a well-informed citizenry? Apparently not. The Lebanese academic Nabil Dajani, for instance, recounted how his students did not believe him when he told them that famine had reached the USA’s borders. In his view, the satellite channels do not cover the American society and people; hence, the Arab audiences tend to relate the USA with the US administration and foreign policies (Ezzi, 2004: 192). In other words, we do not really know about the Arab audiences’ preferences; which topics they really care about, and how they make sense of an overwhelming amount of information on international affairs.

Even the linguistic code used in the news and current affairs plays a crucial role in the analysis of Arab journalistic practice. In analysing Arab media, the role of the news language, or the written variety of Arabic called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), comes to the fore as part of the symbolic power assigned to each journalist (Mellor, 2007). For instance, the new Arab news media use MSA to consolidate the pan-Arabism ideology, specifically by imposing MSA not only in the newscasts, as in the traditional media, but also in the debate programmes. Since the illiteracy rate among adults in the region is 40%, it is doubtful how many Arab citizens would be encouraged to participate in call-in programmes using the written language, since it requires years of school and university attendance to be able to speak it as fluently as do the TV hosts. Thus, MSA has retained its position as the marker of pan-Arabism and an essential part of the cultural and symbolic capital of the journalists.

The Western Role Model

To be fair, Western news media (whether European or American), which provided the training and educational space for many Arab journalists in the new channels, have not really provided a better example. There exists a gap between the national news and foreign news coverage in Western media. Thus, while the national news focuses on ordinary citizens’ immediate and daily problems, the foreign news presents other nations only through a purely political window focusing on foreign governments, so ordinary citizens from the Middle East or other regions appear only in the background. Western news media do not give nearly as much coverage to those citizens as they do to their own Western citizens: their problems, their dreams, their culture, their struggle to get a job, their struggle to maintain an income, their struggle to educate their children, the deterioration of education in public schools, child labour, etc.

The result is twice as damaging: on the one hand, Arab journalists shore up their misconception of serious news as something to do with politics and governments and ignore the masses and their daily troubles, relegating them to “low level” journalism; on the other hand, Western audiences never really come to know Arab peoples as people, but rather only as governments. The difference is decisive. How often do we see Arabs represented in Western newscasts as ordinary citizens, sharing similar dreams and problems with Western citizens? How often have Western media taken up the social issues ignored in Arab news media? How often have Western newspapers mentioned Arab countries in their culture sections? Western news media can indeed take part in revolutionising the news genre and journalistic traditions in Arab media if they dare revolutionise their own foreign news coverage and make it more pluralistic.

Indeed, there are sweeping generalisations in Western media where Arabs are portrayed as a unified, rather than a diversified, group, usually defined as Muslims. In fact, in several Western countries, the term “Muslim” is not used to designate a religious background, but rather to define people as if it has become their “nationality”. For instance, when the most senior police officer in Britain called for the further recruitment of thousands of “Muslim” policemen and women, the British media circulated the news without specifying what “Muslim” here means. [4] Does it imply that anybody born into a religion should always be defined by it? What if they are refusenik or non-practicing or simply do not care about religion? Why not define them by their ethnic or national background regardless of their religious background? Would the media, or any politician, make the same announcement for the recruitment of “Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Jews” into the police or the army?

Needless to say, these simplistic terms do not hold in a global society characterised by hybrid identities. Saghieh and Bechir (2005) hammer home the same point when they say: “The immigrants and their descendants … may have arrived as Pakistanis, Turks, Moroccans, Algerians, or Iraqis; it was only after they settled in the West that they were transformed into ‘Muslim communities’. Such communities are, to a certain extent, a ‘virtual reality’ that exists above all in the minds of Western politicians, ‘experts’ and journalists – and, of course, in the minds of their supposed and self-appointed ‘spokesmen’.”

The audience rarely sees the “other” as a fellow human being, but rather as a member of a politicised entity whose problems can be solved only by using political intervention

The result is that the audience rarely sees the Other as a fellow human being, but rather as a member of a politicised entity whose problems can be solved only by using political intervention.

In sum, the exaltation of hard-core politics as one of the “serious” genres is usually valued as an essential part of “prestigious” Arab and Western journalism, which requires a fair share of cultural capital among its media professionals. Nevertheless, if those professionals do not strive to show the clear link between the local and the regional, the risk is that the laity may yield to rather simplistic narratives to account for this link. For instance, the obsession with news and views about the USA’s formal relations with the Arab states, rather than reflecting on the American laity and their daily problems, may nurture a form of conspiracy narrative where the USA, as a whole nation, plays the role of evil antagonist. In the words of a popular talk show host, the Egyptian laity, for one, has come to blame the USA for their daily problems. So, “if the price of oil rises, the USA will be the reason. And because we depend on the Americans for wheat, we blame the USA if the price of a loaf of bread rises; the lay Egyptian knows that the USA is the reason of all malaise.” [5]

The Need to Innovate

For Western scholars, the problem with Arab media lies solely in the authoritarian regimes in several Arab states. Thus, if the regimes give journalists the freedom to publish what they want, the news media would automatically contribute to reducing the social malaise. However, this view completely overlooks the way journalists themselves perceive their role in society and their evaluation of what is worth publicising. This can indeed have fatal implications for the role of the news media in serving their audience and in contributing to the democratisation of the region.

With the increasing professionalism of Arab journalists and the explosive number of satellite and private channels on the Arab media scene, it is important to raise debates about the need to “personalise” the image of the West and Western culture, both in the news and current affairs programmes. Likewise, Western journalists need to focus less on politics and politicians in the Arab states and instead raise awareness of immediate social problems in the Arab societies, e.g. women abuse, incest, child labour, schooling, pension systems, and so on. Indeed, sober Western journalistic coverage of the Middle East has proved fruitful in the past. For instance, documentaries by the CNN and BBC about Arab social problems such as female circumcision or divorce, have indeed resulted in huge debates among Arab intellectuals and laypeople alike.

Perhaps we need innovative training programmes amongst both Western and Arab journalists. Arab journalists should be trained in covering Western societies, while Western journalists would be trained in covering Arab societies.


[1] Yet, it was not really until the 1960s that those Gulf countries developed a more sophisticated printing culture in terms of both content and form (Mellor, 2005).

[2] Source: “The Centrality of Live Talks in Arab Satellite Broadcasting”, at http://www.faisalalkasim.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=183&sid=5a721dd99bc807925e83f6dbed92e055 (accessed on 12 June 2006).

[3] Al Manar TV is owned by the Lebanese Hezbollah and it began its terrestrial broadcasting in 1991 and satellite in 2000.

[4] See for instance the BBC news story: Met needs 2,000 Muslim officers, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/4122972.stm.

[5] Mahmoud Saad cited in Al Jazeera programme, From Washington, 4 December 2006, available at www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/71691781-C297-40BB-BBE6-B5595CB7556F.htm (accessed on 20 December 2006) (in Arabic).