Eclipse of Reason: The Media in the Muslim World

By Affendi, Abdelwahab | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview
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Eclipse of Reason: The Media in the Muslim World


Affendi, Abdelwahab, Journal of International Affairs


Following the March 1993 killing of 10 suspected Islamic militants and the wounding of 21 others by government security forces in Upper Egypt, a British correspondent in Cairo scoured the English-language Egyptian Gazette to see how these events were covered by Egypt's official media. The Gazette's lead story the following day, however, was about the flaring of violence and clashes between protesters and security forces in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. The second story was about the shelling of Sarajevo by Serbs, while the third was about clashes between Islamic militants and security forces in Algeria. The previous day's bloodshed in Upper Egypt was buried in a three-paragraph story on page two. On that same day, the government-controlled television news also ignored the arrest by the security forces of 118 so-called Islamic extremists.(3)

This kind of government news management is not exclusive to Egypt. In fact, compared to many other Arab and Muslim countries, the Egyptian press is rather free and vocal -- if lacking in credibility. The Egyptian opposition papers likely printed some exaggerated account of officially ignored government operations against the militants, leaving the reader to guess at the truth, somewhere in between the two accounts. In countries like Saudi Arabia, however, the media are far more tightly controlled; for example, the Saudi public was not officially informed about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait until three days after the fact. This led Saudis to turn en masse to foreign radio stations; radios soldout quickly in the days following the invasion.(4)

Still, Riyadh's manipulation of news and information is little different from the information control practiced by other authoritarian governments for decades. This media control, however, is not confined within Saudi borders. For example in July 1987, the Saudi police broke up an Iranian demonstration during the pilgrimage in Mecca, causing over 400 deaths. According to the Saudis, the Iranians had instigated the violence and the Saudi police had only responded. Not surprisingly, the Iranians claimed that the demonstration was entirely peaceful, and that the behavior of the Saudi security forces was completely unwarranted. Neither side, however, was willing to mention the other's viewpoint, although some elements of the Iranian version could be gleaned from the vitriolic Saudi account.

More significantly, media outlets from Jakarta to Casablanca, while carrying the Saudi story, made no mention of the Iranian version. Had it not been for a few Western magazines and newspapers, Teheran's side of the incident would have been essentially non-existent.(5) This is evidence that the Muslim world is witnessing what some Arab and Saudi journalists are beginning to call the "Saudi Age:"(6) Over the last two decades, Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf countries have gained control of the most influential publications in the Arab world and expanded their influence to Europe. Even the Western press has noted the distorting effects of Riyadh's growing power over media outlets in the Middle East, particularly the print media and satellite television.(7) Moreover, the Saudis are not alone. They and their regional rivals -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Syria -- have been struggling for an absolute monopoly over publications and television and radio stations targeting Middle East audiences.

Fearing the use of independent media by political opponents or dissident groups, the governments of these countries have sought to suppress any criticism of their policies or leaderships, as well as to avoid damaging revelations about personal or political scandals. After excluding hostile material from newspapers, magazines and the airwaves, some have then used the media as a vehicle for their propaganda.(8) The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, want to buy peace to enjoy their riches unmolested; all have sought to suppress any ideas that might emerge to challenge their government's monopoly on power.

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