BEIRUT — After the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain broke ties with Qatar in early June and laid siege to it by blocking its land, sea, and air routes through their territories, an unfortunate aspect of the dispute has been the four siege states turning their mass media into propagandistic attack dogs. Their media assault against Qatar with a wide range of vicious propaganda, exaggerations, distortions, half-truths, fake news, and occasional outright lies has had no impact at all on world public opinion, which mostly rejects their wild accusations against Qatar. If anything, the propaganda attacks have only hurt the reputation of the media of the four siege states, turning once credible institutions of news, analysis, and views into sad shells of their old selves, in some severe cases becoming hysterical embarrassments to the world of credible journalism.
The role of the media is significant in this crisis for two reasons. First, the four siege states have specifically demanded the closure of Al-Jazeera television and other news outlets that Qatar has established, accusing them of promoting terrorism and threatening their security. The Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian, and Bahraini governments reject the open media systems and free flow of news and views that Al-Jazeera represents. They prefer their citizens to live in desolate information landscapes where the government’s opinion shapes what is said or heard in the public sphere.
Al-Jazeera generated the single biggest audience in the history of the Arab media precisely because it respected citizens’ ability to think for themselves, and hold and debate a variety of views, rather than live like unthinking cattle that move with the herd, shuffling along with their feet and minds tethered, their brains operating only according to their master’s wish.
Second, by unleashing the attack dogs of propaganda, hysterical lies, and exaggerations that have tried but failed to discredit Qatar in every possible way, the four siege states have only badly damaged the reputation of their own media — perhaps irreparably. After Al-Jazeera opened the door to professional, open pubic affairs reporting and analysis in the mid-1990s, some Arab media rose to the challenge and vastly improved their professionalism and credibility, especially in Egypt and some Gulf states. Those gains have now been mostly shattered and buried, given the willingness of some of the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media to comply with the orders of their thought-control colonels and spread propaganda about Qatar that is reminiscent of the old totalitarian ways of Stalinist Russia, the worst Third World dictators, and the former Soviet states. Arab citizens should not have to suffer such disdain by their own governments.
The most unfortunate example is the Saudi-owned satellite television news network Al-Arabiya, which reached a high level of professionalism and credibility after it was launched to offer a more conservative Arab perspective on the news than Al-Jazeera. I used to watch Al-Arabiya regularly for its news reporting and especially its nightly live, all-news show.
Al-Arabiya has now been savaged by its masters by being forced to broadcast material that is not only unsuccessful and boorish propaganda, but that also calls into question the network’s overall credibility. For example, the website now carries a permanent feature called “TQI-The Qatar Insider”, which is a non-stop flow of only negative news about Qatar that is selective, exaggerated, often wildly distorted, inaccurate, incomplete, one-sided, taken out of context, and perhaps even outright false in some places. It is sub-titled “Putting the pieces together on Qatar Crisis” and “Your comprehensive source of information on Qatar Crisis.” In fact it is a hatchet job that tries only to show that Qatar is sinking under the pressure of the siege, which any visit to Qatar shows to be untrue. It belongs on a North Korean television service, not on the respectable Al-Arabiya, whose dedicated staff of professional journalists and honorable men and women had painstakingly built it up over the years into one of the best public affairs television networks in the Arab world.
Another even more dangerous example is a short video clip that has been running on the front page of the Al-Arabiya website, ostensibly explaining how any country has the right to prevent threatening aircraft from entering its airspace, or shooting them down with missiles if need be. The animation shows a Qatar Airways civilian jet being shadowed and then attacked by a missile from a jet-fighter. The video is chilling, unjustified, and unreasonable, sending the message that people who fly on Qatar Airways could be shot down if their plane strays into the airspace of the siege states.
This is not only belligerent and dangerous escalation of the political conflict, it is intellectual and media terrorism as we have rarely seen it practiced by Arab states.
The bottom line is that when this dispute is resolved one day soon, which it will be, the self-inflicted damage that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain have caused their own media will take many years to dissipate. This is due to their transforming once honorable media professionals and institutions into purveyors of an Arab intellectual and cultural wasteland where lies and media terrorism are acceptable tools, where only the thought-control colonels speak, and everyone else nods, shuffles, closes their mind, and sleeps in shady pastures. What a shame. What a waste. What stupidity by the incompetent thought-control colonels who still plague us across many Arab lands.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 22 August 2017
Word Count: 898
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