Mission & Name
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The Age of TV Jokers:
Arab Media on the
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, November 17, 2014
As I was finalizing my research for this article, I found myself
browsing through a heap of hilarious videos by mostly Egyptian TV show hosts
Tawfiq Okasha and Amr Adeeb.
In one of his numerous videos on
youtube, Okasha, the star and host of the Cairo-based privately funded al-Faraeen
channel, tries to explain the differences between the
brains of humans and
water buffalos. Along with Adeeb, they occupy a large space of Egyptian
media discourse, wreaking so much havoc with their mostly unsubstantiated
claims, frequent incite and outrageous claims.
discourse presented through daily campaigns of misinformation and
vilification of those perceived to be enemies of the state is dangerous,
especially when there is little room to counter these claims through
critical thinking and sensible discussions. But what is interesting is that
neither Okasha, nor Adeeb - and many others like them – were never meant to
be entertainers per se, however entertaining they inadvertently may be.
In the last year or so in Egypt, much of what has been achieved in terms of
carving space for alternative voices in the Egyptian media was quickly and
decisively reversed. No matter how hard Bassem Youssef tried to tone down
his satirical political message, he failed. His show, Al-Bernameg – The
came to an abrupt conclusion last June. “The current atmosphere
isn’t fitting for a comedy show or any other show,” Youssef said last June.
“The current atmosphere” is damaging the freedom of expression in
other Arab societies as well, more so in the last four years when popular
upheavals took over several Arab countries, igniting unprecedented regional
rivalries. Since then, the polarization of Arab media has reached extreme
points. There is little room for opposing views and regimes are fighting an
epic battle for survival by using every possible tactic to win, even if by
deception, intimidation, or sheer lies.
It is not that media in
Arab countries has been an example of transparency, equality and democracy -
far from it. But, to an extent, there was a media evolution underway,
dictated partly by the advent of the Internet and subsequent rise of social
media, let alone the heated competition by pan-Arab satellite channels.
That evolution, if it were not violently interrupted by a brutal media
war should have had some positive contributions. These are the rise of
sociopolitical consciousness, affirmation of collective Arab identity, and,
more importantly, the creation of a space where the Arab citizen, any
citizen, could find room for self-expression free from the confines of
government censorship and retribution of the state.
But now that
the state, desperate to survive burgeoning popular pressures and massive
mobilizations, began to appreciate the adverse repercussions from free media
platforms, and began
cracking down. It seems that the only space that remains open in the
state-sanctioned media are those of the likes of Okasha and Adeeb.
At this critical stage of popular transformation, the stunting of critical
Arab media will register its negative impact for years to come. To save
themselves, some Arab regimes have chosen to sacrifice the intellect of
But the issue has its roots in a context that came
much earlier than the Arab Spring.
In the post-colonial Middle
East, Arab countries - especially those who suffered greatly under the
reigns of western powers - were eager to knit separate identities for
themselves that were neither French, Italian nor English. They sought
regional allies among their own brethren, building cultural bridges where
Arab radio stations and newspapers served as the medium of political and
Of course, that discourse too was manipulated to
fit fantastic political ambitions, whether they were genuine – as ones
fairly expressive of the will of Arab masses – or fabricated, as
self-serving agendas by dictators or ruling classes.
pan-Arab media, however, were often used as platforms for regional Arab
conflicts. In time, Arab rulers began understanding the immense value of
owning and manipulating media to their advantage. And whenever possible,
they censored, controlled and punished those who couldn’t be bought or
refused to be censored.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991,
argues Paul Cochrane,
was a breaking point between attempts at manipulating and intimidating
media, and owning it. The regional breakups that resulted from that war were
so severe that they effectively ended the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), an
alliance that united Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and North Yemen. And they further
strengthened another: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The latter had
wealth, and that meant media access.
The post war brought a buying
frenzy, where some rich Arab countries and wealthy businessmen attempted to
consolidate their control over Arab public opinion by using newly founded
satellite television stations and uniting various Arab societies around
When Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 and
despite the fact that it was funded by a country which itself is not an icon
of freedom of expression, a new type of competition rose between rival Arab
countries. Other media soon sprang up that were also funded by rich Arabs
and manned mostly by Arab intellectuals and journalists from poorer
countries. In that new media realm, “freedom of expression” existed as long
as they offered views, at least politically, matching the political agendas
of the funders.
One cannot discount the fact that within that
rivalry, independent journalists and intellectuals managed to navigate space
for themselves, and by doing so pushed the boundaries of the debate like
Then the Arab Spring started. Its decisive collective
agenda (regime change) left no room for political bargaining or
compromising. It further
mixed up regional agendas, creating new alliances, and once more
emphasized the power of the media in its ability to harness and sway public
opinions. Even pan Arab news networks with a level of credibility, were soon
tainted in their rush to influence the public discourse. The media split
between geopolitical allegiances as each camp had its own funders and many
Social media is harder to control, for it remains
a relatively free space. However, it compels a degree of anonymity to its
users, which opens up a whole new challenge in attempting to authenticate
information through the endless stream of content and decipher genuine
voices from that of government propaganda.
Though the media public
discourse is severely restricted to some, it is generously open for others
such as for those morally flexible intellectuals and media jokers who
applauded the Israeli war on Gaza, as the rest of the world protested
its devastating carnage. For now, Okasha and Adeeb will continue to take
center stage, while thousands of brilliant voices of intellectuals and
journalists are muffled and censored.
It is hard to imagine that in
this age of awakening, such mockery will continue for too long.
- Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People's History at the
University of Exeter. He is a consultant at Middle East Eye. Baroud is an
internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the
founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a
Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).
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