Criticizing the Arab media

The pseudonymous Abu Aardvark has an important essay today about the Bush administration’s criticisms of the Arab media. It’s crucial to note that many of the Arab media stations that are most helpful for promoting reform throughout the Middle East—like Al Jazeerah—are usually the ones targeted by the United States for expressing “anti-American” views. Of course, the whole point of free and healthy dialogue is that sometimes unpopular things get said, but that point seems to be lost on the White House.

At any rate, Abu Aardvark notes that the net effect of such criticism is that, paradoxically, it promotes the essentially anti-democratic media voices that are largely controlled by Arab despots:

The vast majority of the Arab media remains in state hands… and those regimes will probably do what America tells them and clamp down on their own media. Most of the Arab satellite television stations… are becoming copies of [the American-sponsored] Al Hurra – indeed, he argues, “we do not exaggerate if we say that the margin of freedom on al Hurra is wider than in most of its Arab counterparts.” The American ambassadors in Arab capitals are becoming the real censors and editorial advisers for most of the Arab media, he argues, pointing out how American embassies have filed complaints when these stations have hosted guests who expressed anti-American views…

Atwan [an editorial writer] continues with these troubling words: America “is rivaling the dictators of the Arab world in its repression of competing opinions, and in its financing of television stations to distort the truth, and in funding propaganda and false news reports.”

Rest assured, people in the Middle East are noticing, and the whole affair ends up blunting the effect of all that pro-democracy rhetoric tossed around by the White House. This isn’t something that can be fixed simply by trotting out a better public relations campaign; the actual policies at work here—not to mention our hazy understanding of Arab media—are the primary problem.