Most Arab countries do not enjoy a free press. The problem, say many Arab journalists, is entrenched authoritarian regimes that are not accountable to the people they rule. Thomas Gorguissian is the Washington correspondent for An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., he said the Arab media face serious obstacles to reporting regional news. In many cases, important stories cannot be done in some of the capitals of Arab countries, said Mr. Gorguissian, because "there is no free movement, no free access to the place of the event," or "the official is not ready to give access or even talk about what happened." In these cases, Arab media outlets are forced to rely on news from the U.S. and elsewhere.
Arab journalists who report news unfavorable to Arab governments often face reprisals. Authorities often intimidate, harass, and sometimes jail reporters for their efforts to tell the truth. As a result, the Arab media are reluctant to delve into such critical issues as political corruption.
Rami George Khouri is executive editor of the Lebanese independent newspaper The Daily Star. He says the Arab media are limited in their ability to be a force for change. Because of the lack of political pluralism in the Arab world, says Mr. Khouri, "angry citizens who watch the Arab media in the Arab world cannot then go and vote and change their leaderships."
At the same time, and in spite of authoritarian government policies, Arab journalists say that technology is bringing about some media liberalization. The revolution in satellite television, the expansion of Internet access, the presence of F-M radio, and a growing overseas press are allowing Arab journalists to begin to overcome the limitations placed on them by government authorities. As Mr. Khouri puts it, the private media are becoming more popular in the Arab world because "the government-owned media, like the governments themselves, are losing audience share, credibility, and legitimacy."
The U.S. is providing unbiased news and information to Arab people via Radio Sawa and T-V Alhurra. Both outlets are examples of professional media operations run by independent journalists. The U.S. is also providing journalism training to Arab women.
Independent media are undoubtedly a friend in the struggle for press freedom in the Arab world. But as Arab journalists themselves emphasize, the Arab media will not be free adequately to serve their audience, until real democratic reform takes root.