Up close and personal

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, general manager of the 24 hour news channel Al-Arabiya, speaks to Massoud A. Derhally about the poor state of journalism in the Arab world, professional ethics and the challenges of reporting in testing environments.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  January 22, 2006

|~||~||~|Arabian Business: How would you characterise the state of Arab media at the moment? Do you still feel it’s in its early stages of development or is it close to achieving the standards that you believe it should have? Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed: If we talk about standards, or even business development, I think we are in the early stages. I’m not completely ignoring the past 25 years, or even 40 years of television in the Middle East. But the fact is that all the 40 years look alike. Not much development took place before satellites were launched for television services. From the 1990s until today, we started to see real development in the Middle East. Now, we obviously see television is based on trial and error but it’s doing the job according to what we call professional standards. When you see the specialised stations you see nowadays, a lot of it is trying to develop the industry. It’s amazing how things are going in terms of the changing market.Big stations are investing in news. I compare it to the early stages of a station like CNN. AB: Why are the likes of Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera able to explore subjects that are taboo from a cultural standpoint and approach red lines with respect to certain Arab governments? What differentiates you from the print media? AA: Time. Time is an important factor because we’re live. As long as it’s live no one has the right to tell me why I did [this]. I cannot necessarily predict what’s going to be said on television. Being instant, I think, is the key to it. It’s out of control — out of everyone’s control, out of my control. Time is a major factor in the game of what goes on air and what is published in a newspaper or magazine. In a newspaper you have time to evaluate the news and you have to be professionally accurate about it, and legally correct. But when you go on television live you’re probably going to violate some laws. It’s a risk we take, as everyone does who goes live. AB: But the governments in this part of the world seem to accept that there are issues you can debate and print journalism doesn’t have that luxury. AA: I have to differ here because print journalism does debate sensitive issues. The difference is that with television it’s magnified and is being seen by a wider audience. You have to be literate to read but with television you don’t have to be literate to watch. The majority of the viewers that constitute a television audience have less education than the ones who read. We know that for a fact. I think television is more spontaneous and more natural. But I think newspapers go out of their way, debate serious issues, and it’s more dangerous than television. AB: But you are talking about Al Hayat and Asharq Al Awsat, which are in a league of their own. What about the print media in the rest of the region? AA: I think An Nahar has played a very important and historical role in politics. We are now busy with events but if you look back a few years you will see that the whole thing was started by An Nahar, not Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera or LBC. The print media definitely instigated or opened up a new environment that we haven’t talked about before. Also, dealing with issues related to Israel, this was done mostly by print — not television. AB: Lebanon is always the exception when it comes to media in the Arab world. Would you like to see faster changes in the development of print media in the Arab world outside Lebanon? Do you feel there is a need to embrace change in a much more aggressive way? AA: This is very much like a horseracing game. One leads and others will follow. This is a really competitive environment we are in. We know that. They go one metre — we try to go a few centimetres ahead. That’s why sometimes mistakes take place. A lack of professionalism takes place because of the speed and the competition in the market. It’s actually going faster than what the region is geared up for. AB: Do you think it is out of control of Arab governments? AA: Most of the time it’s out of control. They face realities by the day and when they see something they haven’t seen before, they just react to it. So if you are reacting it’s a bit too late, you can’t do much about it. I think this is the shock for most governments. If you look, for example, to Syria, things have been out of control for them because they have two policies — one for media and one for the government. These two are now mixed together and it’s out of control, so now Syria’s policies are reacting to what’s taking place on television. It’s now changing its policies because of the media, not necessarily because of demonstrations in the street or international pressure. The media is pushing the government to take steps. AB: Does the Arab media have anything to learn from its Western counterparts? AA: A lot. The Western media has its own faults. In times of crisis, if you look to British, French or the US, they become patriotic and intertwine patriotism with their reporting. From the old days when John Kennedy took journalists with him on his plane and they knew about the Bay of Pigs attack but didn’t report it, because there was some kind of understanding, until now, these things have been practised. We have serious problems in the Arab media. I don’t know how they will be medically treated later on, because you mix professionalism with personal views. A lot of this does not exist in the West on a [large] scale. In the Middle East it is widespread. If you are a manager of a television station you can really push things according to what you think is right.If you are an editor or reporter, you’ll face decisions frequently where you will not report things because you don’t like them. I think this is the biggest problem with the Arab media today. It’s really personalised. It’s personal views that dictate. At roundtable discussions I choose those who I like and those who are weak, so my point of view will prevail. That’s true in newswriting and in newsgathering. It’s a wide spread practice in the Arab media. AB: How have you tried to overcome this since you came to Al Arabiya, as well as instilling a different corporate culture? AA: One word: debate. I spend a lot of time debating with my colleagues. When I came in…one person told me that an idea I was recommending doesn’t serve the cause. I said, ‘if you want to serve the cause give people accurate information and, trust me, they will make the accurate decision'. I think journalists have opinions and should have opinions. If they don’t they are a bunch of wimps and if they are wimps they definitely have no place in journalism. Neutrality does not exist in your mind but when you work and write you are supposed to be as neutral as you can. I think you believe in anything and if you believe it is true and accurate just give the information to the people. They have a mind of their own and make their own decision. AB: Do you ever envision a day in the Arab world where a journalist will not be jailed for their opinion or what they write? You had a journalist the other day that was freed by the US. America aside, do you think it is time for Arab governments to respect the right of a person to write what he or she wants? AA: I think we are in better shape today than before — not because we have less people being jailed. We probably have more people being jailed. But we have more ‘violations’ occurring today than before. The number of violations and number of violators being caught on camera are many. The ones being put in jail or taken to court are a lot less, compared to the challenges that governments are facing. I see it on a daily basis. Governments have adjusted to criticisms and the exposing of facts in the region. They react sometimes as if television did not exist as it is today, as if it was 30 years ago. They forget. They watch. They get upset and pick up the telephone and call someone to contest or protest. But sometimes they go out of their way, like with [our correspondent, Majid Hameed.] This guy is only 22 years old. He covered, literally, the most difficult areas in Iraq. Everything he said was shown on television. It wasn’t anything private. It was absolute stupidity to put him in jail and antagonised the community of journalists. They put him in jail for four months or so to keep him quiet. It’s very difficult for me to find a replacement in war zones. AB: In this continuously changing environment, what are the lessons Arab governments need to learn? AA: They have to accept the new realities. We have just started… I don’t think they have realised that yet. They think this is the maximum they need to tolerate. This is really the minimum, in my opinion. They haven’t seen much yet. Governments have no accountability when they take decisions or react to events. Criticism in our business has been little, slow and minor. Most of the attacks that have been taking place against the so-called enemy and not against them. We barely scratch the surface, in my opinion. AB: How much pressure have you come under from governments when you report? AA: Any time you air news you are stepping on someone’s foot, almost always. Pressure comes in different doses. Yesterday, we received threats from Al Qaeda. We receive threats from institutions, like the Al Aqsa Brigades, linked to the Palestinian Authority. We receive pressure from governments not to show certain things. This comes with the job. The worst scenario for us is when someone bans us from their market. We face this kind of pressure most of the time, unfortunately. AB: To what do you attribute the poor state of the media in the Arab world? AA: It’s a new industry. A lot of people have moved in who have nothing to do with the media. You see a dentist, a person with a PhD in philosophy, or college students that didn’t finish their course. They are good but not geared up for the media. You can buy the best equipment but it doesn’t guarantee you good television. AB: What makes a good journalist? AA: What differentiates one journalist from another is the creative mind. It’s a very creative job. When you see a thousand stories, pick one and work on it — your fate is decided by remote control as a reporter or as a television station. AB: How hard is it for you to find good Arab journalists? AA: Extremely hard. I know we have a lot of talented people but to make someone a TV journalist takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. AB: What do you think of initiatives like Al Hurra and Radio Sawa that have been launched by the US government? Do they make a difference in terms of swaying opinions? AA: Just like you had hundreds of radio stations in the old days, now you have hundreds of TV stations. There is always an audience for every TV station. In my opinion we shouldn’t attack any station. In principle they should exist. We always learn from them, whether they succeed or don’t. I don’t see anything wrong with Al Hurra. The US decided to launch a TV station to communicate with the people in the Middle East. It’s fine. I just don’t think it works this way but if they think it does let’s see how it goes. In principle it’s OK, but in practice it's very difficult to do. AB: Arabs are much more conscientious today than, say, 15 or 20 years ago. Do you think it makes a difference in their mind when they know that America is behind an entity or an Arab is behind an entity? AA: It makes it difficult at the beginning but it doesn’t matter at the end because people go and watch movies coming from the US. They enjoy them. It’s like entertainment — if you like it you’ll watch it. It doesn’t matter who is paying for it or doing it. If a station has breaking news you’re going to watch it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from Moscow, Dubai or Washington. AB: How do you take decisions to show or not show tapes of hostages being held in Iraq and beheaded? Is the line between responsible and irresponsible journalism thin? AA: I hate the word responsible so I will never use the word responsible. I use the word professional. If someone sends you a tape showing someone with a pistol to his head and this person is reading from a piece of paper, we all know he is saying it not out of choice. Are you going to show it in full? I was against showing tapes but, to be professional, I show only the news side of these tapes. We got into a conflict with insurgents in Iraq who sent us letters saying they noticed we were not showing the whole tapes and said if we didn’t show the whole tape ‘we are going to go after you’. It’s a strange situation. I don’t even have a choice not to show something I don’t want to show. It was absolute, pure blackmail. I insisted on not doing it and we went through a hell of a time and a lot of threats. Safety on the ground for colleagues was a big issue. We made a clear policy — we shoot tapes only if you are sure it has information. It’s not an issue of responsibility as much as an issue of professionalism. AB: How do you feel today when you look at the Arab world and you see the terrorist attacks that have taken place in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere? Do you feel there is light at the end of the tunnel or do you think those who are hijacking religion will continue? AA: Perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in the region have changed. They are not proud of people calling out Allahu Akbar and at the same time taking hostages. There is a big change today and, media wise, they refrain now from defending these things. They used to say ‘it's wrong but look at what the West did in the past’. This kind of justification has changed now. Even terminology has changed on TV stations, including radical TV stations. I am not going to say we are cornering fanatics in the region that much, but there is a lot of pressure now and the weight is against them, but we have a long way to go. It’s a war of thoughts — it’s not just a war of guns. AB: Does democracy or its absence in the region have anything to do with it? AA: Freedom of speech actually exposes the worst of us, not the best of us in the region, unfortunately. What’s the point of having democracy if it brings in somebody who is religious but also a fascist person? The best country in the region is Kuwait because Kuwait has had a longer experience than anyone else. People are very tolerant in Kuwait but the problem is that the constitution does not protect the basic rights of the individuals at the end of the day. More books are banned in the name of democracy. People sit in parliament and they vote and they ban books, they vote and they ban movies, they vote and they ban concerts, because Islamists are the winners in the market. Democracy doesn’t give you the right to overstep the rights of others. We have the carriage first and the horse behind and that’s why we are not going forward. AB: What do say to your critics who say your ideas are Western or that you put forward the American point of view? AA: You've asked me questions for the past hour and I haven’t say any word to do with the West or in defence of the West. I think individuals are concerned about the ideas I talk about. I think this [criticism] is character assassination — this is what takes place. If I don’t like you, I call you Americanised. You win immediately. People used to take these accusations seriously but I think the audience ridicule it now. ||**||

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