It cannot be denied that apart from economic factors (unemployment, poverty and inflation), corruption and lack of transparency, lack of freedom of expression contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings. The freedom to express one’s opinions freely and without fear is a fundamental right of every human being. This freedom exists at various levels: individual freedom, media freedom and freedom for institutions. All three are inter-connected. It’s impossible to achieve individual freedom without a fair degree of media freedom and freedom for institutions.
The wave of protests and revolts that rocked the Middle East was probably one of the most covered uprisings in media history. Television channels like Aljazeera and Al Arabiya became catalysts and tools for informing people in the countries concerned as well as in the wider world about the events occurring on the ground even as the Western mainstream media was still scrambling to get to where the action was.
Aljazeera took the lead in covering the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia when it reported on the protests that followed self-immolation by Mohammad Bouazizi. The network’s coverage of demonstrations and clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 straight days further raised the channel’s profile.
Aljazeera was criticised for giving tacit support to Islamist groups and parties by allowing Islamist leaders to appear in news programmes. Influential Islamic scholar and President of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi, is a frequent guest on Aljazeera. And there are regular programmes by Ahmed Mansur, who supports Islamist groups. Some complained that Aljazeera covered only select groups. Public disagreement over media coverage of the Arab Spring continues, with many believing that the media has restored what they were missing (media freedom) under authoritarian regimes, while others believe the uprisings are bringing disorder and unrest to the region.
But what is happening today makes us revisit ourselves in terms of the credibility of these media outlets.
The Arab Spring revolutions broke the barrier of fear holding back Arab populations and ended authoritarian rule and state tyranny in many countries. But now some Arab media outlets, or their employees, have developed their own agendas and are trying to set up new tyrannous regimes on the premise that the end justifies the means.
After two years of Arab Spring revolutions and transfer of power to Islamist groups in some of the affected countries, we see a dramatic shift in the Arab media. Instead of promoting democracy, transparency, moral values and accountability, some of the media outlets have become biased towards certain ideas or ideologies, and are pursuing special agendas, to the extent that what was allowed during the Arab Spring revolutions is now taboo.
What is happening in Egypt is evidence of the bias of some media outlets towards specific groups at the expense of other groups. We see Aljazeera taking the side of the Brotherhood government while Al Arabiya is with the government’s opponents in Tahrir Square. Thus, instead of working jointly to foster democracy, the government’s opponents in Tahrir Square and the loyalists demonstrating near Cairo University are both acting in a chaotic and lawless manner. This has split the social fabric of Egypt between the government’s supporters and opponents, and it will be no surprise if those who vote against the draft constitution are labelled as disbelievers.
Media freedom is based on a commitment to freedom of expression, human rights, democracy and equality. But freedom of expression does not exclude ethics and moral responsibility. There are general rules and constants that must be adhered to, including objectivity, honesty, accuracy, responsibility, integrity, independence, dignity, justice and professionalism.
We now need media with an honest vision that will work for the good of all and fulfil the real aims of the media. Allah said in the Quran: “O you who believe! Be afraid of Allah, and be with those who are true in words and deeds” (At Twawba: 119). Also, “O you who believe! If a rebellious, evil person comes to you with news, verify it, lest you harm people in ignorance, and afterwards you become regretful for what you have done” (Al Hujuraat: 6). The Peninsula