When it launched in 1996, the label “Al Jazeera” meant nothing more than a little new player in the Gulf media market to the local Lebanese journalist I was at that time. However, the network rapidly became breath of fresh air: Arab voices reporting on Arab crises? It was unprecedented.
Also unprecedented were the “undisciplined” and “disrespectful” tones and content adopted by the TV channel when it came to reporting on the “untouchable”: the strict red lines journalists in the region had had to previously abide by. In most Arab countries, the list of matters journalists are required to “respect”, as dictated by various legislations, is practically unlimited: heads of the state, national interests and security, diplomatic relations, cultural and historical values and religious values, along with many, many others.
The list is as long as it is vague in its wording and scope, allowing its misuse to quell critical voices. Dissent is not something autocratic leaders want to hear, and they have developed sufficient means to deter any attempts to express it.
Journalists of the state-owned media could not conceive of a role for themselves beyond regimes’ guards. By a large majority, they were not making any serious attempt to break with the uniform and censored narratives they were required to disseminate daily on behalf of the government.
As the former editor in chief of the state-owned Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram Osama Saraya told me when I met him in a coffee shop in Cairo, “the main function of state media was to embellish the face of the regime, not to monitor it. It was impossible to imagine another role for it.”
The introduction of privately owned media could not genuinely defy this model; bound by partisanship and business interests to regimes, these new ventures pushed the ceiling of the “allowed” depending on the degree of tolerance or rigidity of regimes, but they never pushed beyond the established taboos that remained sacred (I listed some of these above).
Journalists learned to enjoy the margin of manoeuvre allowed by the private sector’s narrow window of dissent and to work within this space. This space opens and closes depending on regimes’ tactics to assert legitimacy in the face of public crises, and the international criticism of their human rights record when these crises occur.
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