In the coming months, it is likely that more Arab media titles in the region will fold following the financial crisis and the vociferous media wars which they conduct which are costly and self-defeating. How do you like your fake news? With or without a media banner?
World Press Day passed like a thief in the night in the Arab world. It’s largely seen as something lauded by western countries who use it to chastise what they see as backward countries with authoritarian leaders who only know the one model of journalism in their countries: pay-as-you-go.
Or, if you like, the advanced version of the state dictating the copy as the dutiful hacks jot it down, is the ‘self-censorship’ models which are prolific in the MENA region – and in particular the Gulf Arab countries.
But if western countries do little to counter this trend, which has only worsened since the Arab Spring of 2011, then aren’t they complicit in the outcomes? Certainly, if western media outlets do nothing to decipher or counter the wave of partisan ‘news’ pieces, then is it any surprise that those same journalists in London, Paris and Washington will merely follow the narrative which suits them best? If the West really is the chief arbiter of press freedom, how can we campaign for press freedom around the globe when all we have at best in these western hubs are echo chambers for the fake news which suits our foreign policies?
April was a month of media wars in the Arab world leaving many asking: why now? What happened? Saudi Arabia’s online bots and professional trolls received a blow by Twitter which shut down a staggering 20,000 fake accounts on April 7th, pumping out stories about how great the country’s Crown Prince is and attacking anyone who questions his policies. This couldn’t have come at a worse time for the young, hot-headed MbS who is battling to keep in check his own political credibility in Riyadh as agreeing to the Yemen ceasefire proposed by the UN appears to have backfired and very low oil prices are crippling the Saudi economy which is dipping into its own reserves (as well as borrowing on the international markets) which left its own cash reserves 27bn dollars lighter in March alone. And it now seems that the grand plan of a bold new vision in 2030 may have to be watered down or even delayed.
It’s true that the Crown Prince has ushered in even more laws which are “dragging” Saudi Arabia in to the 21st century, with just recently the death sentence abolished against those who committed crimes while still a minor (an important move which will save the lives of six Shias on trial). This follows previous laws which allowed women to drive, permitted music concerts and curtailed the powers of religious police.
But the Kingdom’s departure, albeit a temporary one, from the fake news machine merely became the starter’s pistol for its regional foes to put the boot in. Turkey lost no time at all blocking Saudi media websites, although this churlish move could be attributed to the Saudis blocking Turkish news portals earlier. But the real crux of the media war between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is really the Khashoggi murder and how Ankara capitalised on it by drip feeding details of its own investigations into western media news feeds, via their own English-language media and London-based Turkey/Qatar aligned news portals.
Turkey and the media outlets which are sympathetic to it in London have also not pulled any punches when it comes to, arguably, a bigger opponent in the region, namely UAE which it suspects of being behind the 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan (perhaps true) but more laughably accuses Abu Dhabi of bankrolling Al Shabab in Somalia (preposterous). Recently both Turkey and the UAE traded barbs in their own media accusing one another of supporting terrorists in Libya, a war which has pitched Turkey with the incumbent president in Tripoli (who is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, of course) and the UAE with the Libyan General Haftar and his forces, which includes Egyptian and Russian soldiers. The UAE-backed coalition with Haftar employ hardcore extremists as part of their LNA army. And the Turkey-backed GNA forces use mercenaries from Syria as part of theirs. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
It matters little to those who live in Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia or Qatar (which has of course the powerful Al Jazeera TV network which naturally supports Turkey and the GNA in Libya in its reporting) as in these countries – through the blocking campaign of the incumbent governments – it is becoming impossible to read reports from the other side. Arabs invariably turn to western media online, blissfully unaware how ignorant or biased these outlets in the West are – and where they are getting all of their information from!
And before we in the West dish out the moral tutelage towards those in the Middle East, we should of course remember that the West blocks Arab networks also that it doesn’t like. Press TV recently has been blocked both on Facebook and Twitter. It was blocked years ago in the U.S. and the UK from broadcasting there but this new turn shows us how much really Washington and London really care about free press.
How could we ever imagine that our own journalists camped in London can “report” accurately on Libya? We hear in recent weeks that Haftar has declared that he scrapped the original peace agreement made in Skhirat, Morocco which is a joke, given that he went to war a matter of weeks after it was signed in December 2015. We also read that he has declared a ceasefire during Ramadan which we are led to believe is an act of decency towards his enemies in the line of battle. Perhaps. And we also read that, according to the Economist, that he’s suffering from a series of battlefield defeats (likely) with his PR program not helped by one of his own generals who led forces of his own as part of Haftar’s coalition, leaving it and taking his soldiers with him.
But neither of these two news items support the general thrust of UAE-aligned media in the region which generally report that he is “advancing” on the capital of Tripoli. He constantly “calls” upon his troops, which now include Sudanese mercenaries, to advance on Tripoli, but for every report which sexes up his “advances” from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there are countering reports from Turkish media and Al Jazeera that the GNA forces are pushing him back. Generally speaking, western media is more aligned to the UAE and Haftar, despite the oddball party crasher, Putin, who joined the pact late in the day, confusing some hacks. And so, most of the reporting we are reading in the west is plagiarised from these Arab news outlets from “correspondents” as far away as Beirut or even London.
Yet some journalists who believe they are doing a good job following a Twitter timeline, are sucked into the clichés without even knowing what they are copying and pasting. A seasoned Sunday Times Middle East correspondent recently “reported” on Libya from the comforts of his own luxurious apartment in East Beirut where he sided with Qatar’s take on news events in Libya, even using the phrase “self-styled” when referring to Haftar, which is part of a media war slur which Turkey and Qatar use with great effectiveness. It escaped the correspondent’s attention that Haftar was appointed by the House of Representatives in Tripoli and, annoyingly for their narrative, is quite a legitimate army officer with a rank ordained by those same parliamentarians. Perhaps it’s just too exhausting to explain to western readers that the parliament and its MPs fled Tripoli as Muslim Brotherhood extremists, angered by the election result in 2014 which should have ousted them, decided to take control of the capital, the banks and the incumbent president?
It’s no wonder that many people chose to simply abandon all media and chose instead to follow individuals on Twitter, even knowing that social media is a bastion of biased, feted, false information on the best of days. Indeed, if you heard about World Press Freedom Day, you probably spotted it on Twitter and not in the pages of the esteemed journals. We shouldn’t forget though where it all started in the swanky offices of the UN’s headquarters in New York City, where in 1993, it was born. Yes, the UN, a great champion of press freedom – ho-ho-ho – has done nothing about the surge of journalists being arrested around the world or detained and tried without legal representation but it does have this day, May 3rd, which it uses to spew disingenuous invective against those who don’t respect the freedom of the press. You might be forgiven for thinking that it was a joke, when you examine how the UN itself throws journalists out of its buildings and permanently bans them for merely holding it to account on its own graft, let alone supporting despots around the world who see genuine reporters as a sort of virus which needs to be dropped in an acid bath or buried. Where is the UN campaign to save Austin Tice for example, who disappeared in Syria in 2014?
So in fact, we don’t need to chastise the Middle East and its partisan reporting on each other’s countries and geopolitical foraging when World Press Freedom Day is the greatest farce since the Hitler Diaries. That really must be a joke, right? Although perhaps not as funny as reports which came in on the same day from Israel which “admitted” that the legendary American journalist Thomas Friedman was actually an Israeli propaganda agent which Israel uses to feed its own fake news through to the American press, calling him an “algorithm”.
What the entirely preposterous Word Press Freedom Day has in common with the tome of fake news coming from the Middle East – which is used as the new news feed for a new generation of journalists based in the West – is that is acts as a distraction to the news that you really should be paying attention to, which is buried, if it at all existed in the first place. Why are American journalists not writing about Trump’s completely moronic U-turn which he has done in Afghanistan, simply to get U.S. troops home for his own presidential campaign? After almost 20 years of fighting the Taliban, America is now going to team up with them to fight “terrorists” in the same country, namely the ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates which together with the Taliban killed over 2000 American soldiers? Or how ISIS is re-emerging in Iraq and having some success in its attacks on regular army bases. Or that Saudi Arabia’s new plans in the region is to support “groups” in the region to attack Iran, aiming to distract Tehran away from direct strikes on Saudi Arabia itself?
Apparently, both in the West and in the Middle East, the “free” press is anything but free. It actually comes with a hefty price tag.