US, international media find new voices


Egyptian anti-government journalists gather at Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 10. They were later joined by many journalists in the government media.


Mohammed Abed

LONDON, United Kingdom — What a difference a few wars and revolutions can make.

The mainstream news media both in America and in the Arab world have found they have a right to speak up. They have flipped from acting like poodles and mouthpieces for governments to becoming outspoken critics.

Or so it seems at first glance. But of course real life is not that simple.

Mainstream American news organizations followed the lead of the Bush administration into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without questioning. Even the great New York Times, to its shame, swallowed that administration's propaganda on WMDs, hook, line and sinker.

Now, of course, they are asking all the right questions. What vital American interests are at stake in Libya? Why are we bombing Col. Muammar Gaddafi's tanks because he is shooting at armed Libyan rebels, while politely suggesting to the ruler of Bahrain that he should stop using bullets against his own country's unarmed protestors?

Columnists in both America and Britain are railing against “hypocrisy” and “double standards” in foreign policy. The Financial Times recently carried a wonderful quote from former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf: “The U.S. line seems to be for reform in countries as long as they don't produce too much oil. We seem to be in favor of democracy for Shia in Iran but not democracy for Shia in Bahrain.”

Have respectable newspapers suddenly found the guts to stand up and challenge questionable government policies? Well, yes and no. The truth is that the government itself has reservations about getting involved in any more Middle East conflicts. The Obama administration seems to be sending out mixed messages on the Arab uprisings, and the American public is very leery about any more open-ended military commitments abroad.

In fact, the leading American news organizations are merely reflecting the current war-weary mood of the government and public, just as faithfully as they once echoed the gung-ho interventionism of the Bush administration. The American media may have freedom of the press, but they rarely use it to swim against the tide.

And what about the Middle East media? Have they suddenly found their voice in the turmoil of the Arab uprisings?

The most stunning example is the Egyptian state-run media. They flipped overnight from being cringing supporters of a dictatorial regime to becoming its most virulent critics. The government television channels, radio and press are now full of stories of the corruption and misdeeds of the former regime.

“The people have brought down the regime” headlined Al Ahram (the biggest toady of them all) when Mubarak was sacked. Egyptian journalists are now demanding a purge of their bosses, some of whom have been earning phenomenal salaries on the government payroll. No one has a good word for Mubarak since he was ousted by the army.

If the Egyptian media are suddenly converts to freedom of speech, the picture is less clear elsewhere in the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera, the Arabic language television channel run by the Emir of Qatar, and al-Arabiya, another pan-Arab channel, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, are both backing the anti-Gaddafi rebels in the Libyan civil war. As influential shapers of public opinion, they are the Arab world's most important contribution to the war against Gaddafi at a time when no Arab government (except Qatar) has yet been willing to make a military commitment.

But it is notable that both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya pay less attention to the uprising in Bahrain, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia support the ruling royal family rather than the demonstrators. And King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is also cracking down on dissidents in his own country.

Arab governments which have long accused the United States of using a double standard in its Middle East policies should take a closer look at their own standards. At least in America these days, the media are beginning to recognize hypocrisy when they see it.