What effect do images have on television viewers, and what are their expectations of the media? Qantara.de talked with three Arab media representatives, Khaled Hroub, Nakhle El Hage, and Aktham Suliman
What are the major problems you, as a journalist of an Arabic news channel, are confronted with?
El Hage: One of the main obstacles is the market. We are working in a very small market and in a very tough competition. There are 200 satellite channels in a market that is as small as a German city market. And second, the law in many Arab countries does not protect us. It allows the government to arrest the journalists or to close the media organizations unfairly.
Section 1 of the German press code prescribes "respect for the truth, observance of human dignity, and accurate informing of the public." Neither in the Arab nor the Islamic press code, nor in al-Jazeera's own press code do we read anything about human dignity. Why not?
Aktham Suliman: Al-Jazeera's press code, which many people abroad have requested from us, refers to respect for the feelings of victims, their families, and viewers. Human dignity is not mentioned in it.
Perhaps it has to do with the Arab point of view, in which it is unlikely that the media could violate someone's dignity. Feelings also include the idea of dignity.
But of course there is a fundamental difference: feelings are defined by each individual and not by an international institution. So we could ask, why are the feelings of a person somewhere in the world, who may be eating pizza at that moment, hurt by close-ups from the village of Qana in Lebanon?
On al-Jazeera and other Arab television channels we can see people holding up the bodies of their children, saying, show it to the world! They demand that we do it. That means we must define the concepts of "feelings" and "dignity" in terms of each individual.
Nakhle El Hage: The Arab media have developed rapidly during the last few years, their influence has grown, and they have become more professional. But I think that their understanding of their role is not yet fully developed.
In the Arab world, the media are seen as part of the conflict and not as detached observers. For that reason, many people expect us to show bodies, in order to influence the outcome of the fighting and public opinion. But the question is still, do we have to give in to this demand that we show bodies?
Khaled Hroub: I think the best approach is to devote ourselves to one subject at a time. Iraq, for example. I find it inhuman to show a hostage with a pistol at his temple. That can also be reported as a news item.
In the case of the Lebanese father who held his son's body up to the camera, it's a different story. We have to discuss that. I am certain that, if gruesome pictures had been available in Europe during World War II, the war would have ended sooner.
What possibilities does a television viewer have if his dignity or that of his family has been violated by images that have been shown?
Suliman: Why? Is the television channel to blame for the death? Actually, I should be grateful to the station for informing me about it. The idea that the dignity of a dead person is violated if I show the body is a western perception. Nothing like that exists in the Arab world.
If a Hamas member is killed in Palestine, his body is held up so that the cameras can film him and people can see him. It means they have a different way of dealing with death. There is also the Islamic concept of the martyr, who is not washed before burial or wrapped in a shroud. That means the martyr's wounds and mutilations are also a reason to be proud. It is part of the culture and the religion.
El Hage: I think an image like that is always very painful and violates human dignity. Of course, Arab culture has its own concept of martyrdom, but it is a religious and cultural point of view. And I don't believe that we, as media representatives, should allow ourselves to be used as part of a conflict.
If a Hamas supporter is killed and his body is held up in order to influence the Arab viewer and incite him to side with Hamas, I don't have to take an active part in it. I don't have to submit to the "Arab masses" or to the Arab, Islamic, or Christian cultures.
Suliman: Even if I take a critical view of the culture, I am still part of it, otherwise I would be a western journalist.
During the last few years, Arab satellite stations have succeeded in breaking down many political taboos in the Arab world. What taboos still exist? What is the situation with religious and social taboos?
Hroub: Up to now, the Arab stations have not yet dared to flout religious and social taboos, because they would provoke a confrontation with their viewers and possibly lose them.
Suliman: Political taboos were the easiest to break down. You need an emir to finance the station or a government that decides to establish a competing station.
Arab societies are very different. There are strong similarities between the Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian societies, for example, but the Moroccan or Saudi Arabian societies are fundamentally different. It is not our business to break down social and religious taboos. We follow the changes.
During the past few years Western media have undergone fundamental changes. They are to a large part subject to the untamed forces of the market, and in-depths reports and background analysis are too costly to produce. How do you assess the development in the Arab media?
El Hage: In my point of view there is no better alternative than the market. Otherwise the media will be dominated by the governments and this is much worse. In the Arab world we are much more optimistic than you. I believe we are getting liberated from government influence day by day; we are pushing the boundaries day by day.
Interview: Arian Fariborz and Mona Naggar
© Qantara.de 2006
Aktham Suliman, Nakhle El Hage, and Khaled Hroub were guests at a discussion on the topic "A Look Westward – Arab Media Five Years after 9/11," organized by Deutsche Welle.