Media really is in a crisis all around the world. The recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon—in particular Lebanon—demonstrate that on both levels. For decades the confessional set up in Lebanon led to a total corruption of its media with titles like Annahar—although still publishing—beginning to represent the antithesis of what we once knew to be journalism.
The protests across Lebanon are demanding change. People from all classes and religions are calling for a new system entirely which can stop corruption pulling Lebanon down to “third-world” status. It’s not very well organized. There is no leadership or a manifesto. Perhaps there will be in the coming days, but what we are hearing so far is that there is a wide consensus which wants the present system run by cheap gangsters and oligarchs completely scrapped. And, in time, the old giants of media which it supported will also have to go and be replaced with real journalists, carrying out real, old-school journalism.
There was a clue in the last few weeks that media—even partisan media—has had its day in the Arab world when prior to his resignation Saad Hariri announced that, as part of his reform package to save money in Lebanon, he was going to completely shut down the ministry of information.
Lebanon was not the only Arab country to shut down a ministry. Morocco had done just that a few days before, with its own Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Remarkably, in October, Lebanon was not the only Arab country to shut down a ministry. Morocco had done just that a few days before, with its own Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Both these institutions were shut down for more or less the same reasons, although in the case of Lebanon, the ministry really didn’t even bother doing any fake media promotion work in handling journalists, preparing press releases, or promoting the messages of the government.
In the case of Morocco, it was the opposite. Yet, with much activity, there was no net result.
In both cases, however, the conclusions were the same: such business models of communication in the “Facebook Arab Spring 2.0” age are entirely irrelevant and merely banal exercises of agonizing futility.
I know one former minister of information of an Arab country who is actually embarrassed to admit his previous job. This will be a trend in the coming months and years across the Arab world as the people and governments which claim to represent them, will look at such institutions with disdain.
In the pre-internet age, such institutions had a role: to monitor foreign journalists living in those countries and try and foster amiable relations with them. In recent years in Morocco, however, this modus operandi did a full 180 degree turn as the ministry became a sort of extension of the police state to make sure that experienced foreign journalists of caliber (i.e., anyone over the age of 40) simply could not reside in the country.
Rabat still hasn’t joined up the dots and spotted the link between falling levels of both foreign investment and tourism and its own efforts to micro-manage media having failed spectacularly. It also implicates the question of corruption and how many public sector institutions barely function, or when they do it is only through kinship or bribery.
Morocco is getting poorer, and corruption is eating away at its infrastructure.
In fact, Morocco is getting poorer, and corruption is eating away at its infrastructure: absurdly under-qualified people appear in senior jobs supported by junior staff who know the system forwards and backwards and have to support their bosses, sometimes with comical results.
I have witnessed this myself firsthand, which makes me wonder how a new trade deal with the UK will work out when there aren’t any British firms lining up to impale themselves on the Midnight Express nightmare of Moroccan administration. In short, corruption is getting out of hand in Morocco.
And it’s contagious.
Even the British ambassador is incapable of condemning on Twitter Moroccan men who beat their wives or the sentencing of a female journalist on trumped up charges of abortion, but has plenty of time to learn polo, ingratiate himself with visiting royals, and tweet about his sock crisis—this in a country which last year tried thousands of people for sex out of wedlock, 170 people for being gay, and 73 for pregnancy terminations.
How does a country like the UK, which prides itself on human rights and liberty, stay quiet when on the day of the trade deal, news emerges of the Moroccan state throwing into jail for 15 years the editor of a newspaper—the same newspaper, by the way, linked to the female journalist with the abortion case—with the same theme of fabricated charges—extramarital sex—as the louche basis of a legal case?
In Lebanon, they were advanced. They went well beyond the Moroccans and decided from the get go that the only thing a government could do was monitor press coverage, which was the main role of its ministry there, although you don’t need hundreds of civil servants to do that. Remarkably, Lebanon, an administration which is more or less run by Hezbollah beat the Moroccans hands down on efficiency, but still couldn’t see the point of such an anachronism.
In both the Lebanese and Moroccan cases, each ministry was closed to save money, demonstrating that Arab governments have accepted that they have lost the media war to factors that they simply can’t control.
In both the Lebanese and Moroccan cases, each ministry was closed to save money, demonstrating that Arab governments have accepted that they have lost the media war to factors that they simply can’t control: citizen journalism, fake news, and the sheer number of people who take to social media and, more or less, do the journalists’ jobs for them.
But now Lebanon is burning. Its new political set up, which might take months or even years to secure, will have a new attitude towards old-school media. Dozens of new websites will be formed with high-caliber journalists heading them up, financed by the wealth that Lebanese hold abroad. There will be no place for the establishment giants which didn’t hold the corrupt vultures to account and investigate graft, even when they are handed dossiers packed full of evidence for them simply to examine.
This new approach towards media, which starts with the state effectively flushing its own propaganda ministry down the proverbial toilet, might well spread too, to other Arab countries which are at a crossroads, such as Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, and Tunisia―the latter being the country which more or less invented the fake news model under Ben Ali and is still suffering from a shocking credibility deficit in its own media today.
If Lebanon sparks similar movements in countries like Egypt, then this could even happen under Sisi’s brutal rule, where a journalist told me recently that “we no longer really do journalism as you know it. We self-censor so much here that you can hardly call it journalism.”
Iraq is a prime example, where people barely have basic services while their government manages at least $7 billion a month in oil revenues.
In both Lebanon and Morocco, what exists is a farcical representation of media. But we should not delude ourselves that the collapse of media in general in these countries is entirely down to repressive elites who aren’t able to look forward, when facing uprisings by people who simply have reached a breaking point when it comes to living under corrupt regimes. Iraq is a prime example, where people barely have basic services while their government manages at least $7 billion a month in oil revenues.
In Morocco, poverty coupled with corruption and inequality (all the ingredients of Tunisia’s Arab Spring) are forcing people to demonstrate, yet fewer seem to believe the King is listening any more or cares. This, along with the fact that the protests in Beirut are covered quite extensively by Moroccan media, draws many analysts to conclude that a Lebanon-type, peaceful national strike is heading its way to Moroccan cities.
Foreign journalists in these countries are also culpable. Recently, a foreign TV news reporter said in a report that Iraq was netting $50 billion a month from oil. In Lebanon, many experts are shocked at how sloppy the reporting is from foreign hacks who focus on the burning tires and the heavily army soldiers, but don’t seem to be able to report the peaceful demonstration accurately, preferring click bait cliché style instead.
Ben Wedemen, CNN’s most senior correspondent, who is based in Beirut, stunned many experts by his outstanding ignorance of Lebanon’s crisis by referring to lebanon’s $80 billion dollars of debt as “foreign” when, in reality, barely 10% of it is. Think about that for a minute. When a CNN correspondent of that vintage can barely bother himself to research the details and get the facts straight, but slips into cliché-auto mode, then what hope has Lebanon in resolving its problems, least of all through international media setting the example to local journalists?
At the time of this writing, CNN anchors now based in Beirut have not only had to change their sensational story about the central bank governor warning of an economic meltdown on their website, but have gone to new levels of farce by naming him after a sausage which has its origins in Eastern Europe. His name is pronounced SO-LA-MAI, but “salami” has stuck.
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