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World

Independence: wishful thinking for Arab media?

The Arab Spring brought with it many freedoms to the region's media. But now, many media outlets are feeling renewed pressure from both the old and new political elites.

More than 30 journalists have been killed in Syria. Editors-in-chief get kicked out of Egyptian government papers. Tighter media policies are in effect in Tunisia. And there is increased competition between broadcasters from Iran and the Gulf States. As different as these examples might be, they do point to a general trend in the Arab media landscape since the beginning of the Arab Spring revolts: newspapers, TV and Internet are increasingly coming under government control again – or at least under government observation.

The media in the Arab world are currently going through a complicated and often contradictory development, Soazig Dollnet, Middle East specialist at Reporters without Borders, told DW. At the beginning of the revolutions, press freedoms took a big leap in many of the countries. But then the development came to a halt and "in many countries there are now concerns over a backlash. So there are no grounds for talking about a victory for press freedom," Dollnet said.

The media's influence

Al Arabiya office in Dubai

Broadcasters like Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera are hugely influential

The reason behind the repressive stance many governments are now taking toward the media is its role during the revolutions. Television, newspapers and the Internet demonstrated to what extent they could influence political developments.

The most telling example was Egypt. The success of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak was closely linked to the reporting of Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera. The network reported, as some pro-government forces criticized, mostly from the perspective of the protesters and adopted their positions. Certainly, Mubarak perceived it that way and only a few days after the beginning of the protests, banned the reception of Al Jazeera.

Now, in Syria, the – Arab and Western – media are playing a significant role. With foreign sympathies clearly favoring the rebels, the Assad regime internationally has little chance of presenting its view of the situation.

Government pressure

In light of these experiences, many governments in the Middle East now try in part to control the national media. In Tunesia, a new law to protect the media is being implemented only hesitantly, said Dollet. She explained that Reporters without Borders was concerned about the influence that the Islamic Ennahda party had on the new staffing of public radio and TV or newspapers.

She also is concerned about developments in Egypt. While Mubarak is no longer in power, parts of his old regime are still in place. And the change of editors-in-chief that new President Morsi had ordered, suggest to Dollet that the new government seeks to continue with government control of the media.

Egypt's new president Mursi

Morsi has changed the editors in chief at state media outlets

Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS Middle East correspondent and now with Washington State University, is equally concerned about the current developments in Egypt. He believes there's a great danger to the freedom of the Egyptian media, he told DW. The government media was once again forced to be an instrument of the regime, albeit a different regime, Pintak explained.

And like Dollet, he is skeptical about future developments. "The independent media have taken one step forward and two steps backward on several occasions. There is now a more lively media scene, including some influential TV channels, but these are still under pressure from the government."

"Media war"

Qatari staff of Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera is one of the region's most influential TV broadcasters

This pressure also persists on the Arabian peninsula. But Pintak detects some changes there; for instance in Saudi Arabia, where the media are going through slow changes. Pintak explained that the grip on the Saudi media has been somewhat loosened but that there still are a number of red lines that everyone is aware of. And while some parts of the media are rather liberal, others have to be more in line with the conservative elements of society.

Dollet believes that Gulf state media, like Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, will increasingly compete with Iranian broadcasters. She expects a media war over which will be the most influential outlet in the region. "The most contested battlefield in this war will be in the audiovisual media. The weapons," she says, "will be information, misinformation and very biased reporting."

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