Arts Journalism

Critical Critics and the Idea of Democracy

Germany's Böll Foundation sees arts journalism as an important contribution to political culture and has therefore initiated a program to promote professional exchange among journalists from Europe and the Arab world. Martina Sabra reports

Woman, newspaper (photo: AP)
In the Arab world, even educated people often do not have the means to buy newspapers - and print-runs are low

​​The four young journalists from Egypt, the Lebanon, Morocco and Pakistan have just completed a densely-packed programme lasting 25 days. They've encountered colleagues and counterparts, made the acquaintance of Arabic-language media in Germany, visited cultural projects, taken part in a public conference, and (in passing) learned a lot about German history. The program was initiated by Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation.

"The visit to the former concentration camp in Sachsenhausen was very important to me", says the young Moroccan poet Yassin Adnan, who is arts correspondent for a major Arabic newspaper and co-publisher of the independent cultural journal "Zawaya".

"In Morocco, we're used to seeing the mass murders of the Nazis in the context of the Middle East conflict and the suffering of the Palestinians. Here, it became clear to me that this is just one side of the coin."

Exhibitions that nobody comes to see

photo: Larissa Bender
Arab audiovisual media constantly bombard their audience with politics, says Yassin Adnan

​​Yassin Adnan says he would have liked to have had more time to go into such topics in greater depth. His colleague Najwan Darwish, a young author from Ramallah, says that Palestinian arts journalist are in particularly urgent need of support: "Because of the curfews, the checkpoints and the Wall, we have great difficulty communicating. In a quite literal, physical sense, artists, journalists and audience often can't meet."

"Exhibitions are opened that nobody comes to see," Darwish goes on to say. "But there's also a lack of awareness, especially amongst newspaper editors. Darwish smiles wryly: "Here in Palestine, it's hard to even talk of 'arts journalism' – the term would barely even be recognised."

The political scientist and art historian Alia Rayyan is coordinating this exchange project for the Heinrich Böll Foundation together with Thomas Hartmann. She is convinced that critical reporting on the arts makes an important contribution to political culture, and she feels that artists in the Arab world are currently better placed than anyone else when it comes to naming the problems of society by name.

Local groups addressing concerns of the community

Najwan Darwish (photo: Larissa Bender)
In Palestine, it's hard to even talk of 'arts journalism' – the term would barely even be recognised, Najwan Darwish says

​​"What we're interested in are the local groups, which – in contrast to the state – address the real concerns of the community and give expression to the problems they find there. In Germany and Europe, this is a function carried out by the media; in the Arab world, it's partly artists who take on the responsibility. Arts journalist are important because they have the opportunity to communicate these critical ideas to a broad public."

So: can arts journalists be a driving force behind the creation of a conscious and critical public? Amongst the participants at the conference on "The Media, the Arts and Civil Society" in Berlin (organised as part of a German-Arabic journalists' exchange programme), the response to this question was only conditionally positive.

The online journalist Rainer Meyer lamented the increasing commercialisation of arts reporting in Germany, in the fields of film, visual art and especially literature. It was increasingly the case, he said, that books were reviewed in the press not because of their literary quality but because the publishers were advertising clients of those very newspapers. He also said that many journalists didn't even read the books they were reviewing; instead, out of laziness or pressure of time, they simply regurgitated the publishers' press releases.

The Arab world: educated people without books

Aktham Suliman, Germany correspondent for Al-Jazeera, said that the basic conditions in the Arab world were incomparably more difficult: on average, he says, around a third of all people in the Arab world can neither read nor write; the newspapers have low print-runs; and even educated people can often barely afford newspapers, never mind books, because they simply don't have the money.

The Moroccan Yassin Adnan complained that the pan-Arabic TV stations believed they could get away with more-or-less completely neglecting arts journalism. "Instead, the audiovisual media constantly bombard us with politics", he complained. "But we are not just political animals; we are people with many and varied interests, including an interest in culture!" The crisis, says Adnan, is aggravated by a diffuse and essentially conservative conception of culture, especially in the Arabic-language print media.

While the francophone press in Morocco is also open to new trends and Moroccan youth culture, such as hip-hop and breakdance, Arabic-language publications reject such globally-inspired developments as cultural imports from the West – and this despite the fact that Morocco's hip-hoppers sing in Arabic.

"Journalism of ideas"

Adnan says that Arabic-language arts coverage is still dominated by poetry, traditional music, and extremely lengthy essays on theoretical matters. His criticism of the "journalism of ideas" is echoed by Ahmed El-Attar, founder of the Emad Ed Din Foundation, an independent theatre centre in Cairo. This genre, he complains, is far too dominant in the Arabic world.

Provocatively, he also says that this is due not so much to a shortage of money as to a lack of professionalism and ethical behaviour amongst members of the press.

El-Attar: "Many Arabic arts journalists are happy when they finally get to meet a real star. But to go out, to find out for themselves what's going on, to decide what worth covering and what's not, to give the artists feedback – sadly, many Arabic journalists simply don't do this."

Modern, professional approach to arts journalism

For all that, one can certainly point to real attempts at a more modern and professional approach to arts journalism. Independent publications such as "Zawaya", a cultural journal published in Beirut, do report on the latest developments in Arabic and Western culture.

More and more artists are using the Internet and even mobile phones to create their own audiences, thereby exerting pressure on the established media.

Yet, even in the Arab world, it's still far easier to reach a broad public through the dominant media of television and the press. As the Moroccan Yassin Adnan points out, it's important, for this reason, not to restrict one's attention to the small, underground media and the Web: "The official Arab media also need a breath of fresh air."

Martina Sabra

© 2005

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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