We can tell how old our newspapers are by looking at the satellite dishes on our roofs | Hassan Daoud
We can tell how old our newspapers are by looking at the satellite dishes on our roofs Print
Hassan Daoud   
  We can tell how old our newspapers are by looking at the satellite dishes on our roofs | Hassan Daoud Amman's recently released Al-Ghad newspaper is housed in its own building, fully equipped inside and out. Offices and conference rooms are divided by glass walls so that each floor seems like one vast room. The building is as well organized and furnished as the headquarters of any major international newspaper and it houses its own enormous--and spotless--printing press that one can watch churning out copies from the spacious and modern film recording studio. Moving through Al-Ghad's glass-plated rooms and floors, it feels as if Arab journalism has entered a new age, a conclusion supported by the newspapers and media organizations currently proliferating throughout the region. The people responsible for these projects realize that the days of starting a newspaper up in an under-equipped office on one or two floors of someone else's building are long gone. That might have true in the past, when publishing any newspaper was an enterprise fraught with risks and dangers, and when ambition could overcome the laws of probability. Nowadays, newspapers go nowhere without a large chunk of capital to set them on their way. Everything has to start life ready-made and gigantic... a credo that applies most to TV station start-ups, which have no chance unless funded by governments or venture capitalists with bigger budgets than the Ministry of Information. When we visited the Al-Ghad newspaper in Amman, everything was brand new, ready to go and clean as a whistle. As we wandered around we said to each other that it seemed ready to begin, as if, standing in this building that had already started printing newspapers and reporting events, we felt as if everything around us was waiting for a green light to kick into action.
The new paper has already informed its readers of what might be described as its founding principle: "Unmasked and with conviction." This slogan appears on leaflets and enormous posters we saw plastered up at innumerable Ammani crossroads, and seemed to us just another media Arab catch-phrase. "The truth and the whole truth" was the slogan used by other newspapers. One former journalist gave himself a name--"The honest pen"--that was copied so much that the original owner of the title is now long forgotten. Everyone knows that the much-vaunted truth and honesty in such slogans is so much empty boasting, or perhaps at best a dubious promise to show more courage than is strictly possible. We once read a re-issued edition of Ramiz Serkis's account of journalism under the eye of the OttAmman censors, and all mentioned to each other how similar it was to our own experience. The ways Serkis tricked the censor and played with his words are still the same ones used some hundred years later: describing facts with metaphors and transforming genuine incidents into stories. For us, now, these journalistic and media institutions seem to be waiting for the moment when the Arab world grants journalism its freedom, something the region's governments are almost as interested in as the implementation of their policies. For the moment, however, the "free" journalism is content to remain within the bounds of its official cousin, whose funding and whose editors are appointed by the state. It is content to set aside diverse and innovative investigative reporting or widen the sphere of its interests. The official version of events continues to dominate the front page, and the headline is always an account of the President's latest activities. At a UNDP-backed workshop held in Amman on the 9th and 10th April, one of the topics up for discussion was a debate on the possibility of creating "a public and independent media in Arab countries." Although public media outlets in the West receive public funding, they are nevertheless independent from government interference. Alongside the other five topics, the workshop looked at the possibility of creating Arab media that was both independent and public, i.e; that was funded with public money, yet independent of state policy. At the beginning of the debate it seemed to me that the ambitions of the project's supporters far outran even the most optimistic vision of possible reforms. "It should be a public--not official--media along the lines of the BBC or the World Service," declared one participants by way of explanation. These words brought back memories of listening to the World Service, and asking myself why the British government was paying money with no gain for itself. A while ago, I'd asked a former employee of the World Service's Arabic department what Britain got from the arrangement. He had no ready answer, but after thinking for a moment, he told me that it benefited from the English language educational programming. This answer makes it easier for us to understand, we who are accustomed to seeing the point of the media as a means of announcing the successes of state policy, regardless of how much disinformation, dressing-up or dishonesty is involved. In other words, the official media's accounts of the President opening a factory, receiving a guest or issuing a statement. It occurred to me that the idea of creating a publicly funded and independent media is something of a tall order. It would be difficult enough to extricate the media from the network of interests it is enmeshed in, without the dealing with the belief that the state's money is the state's alone and that its primary function is to be spent on the state itself. It seems almost impossible to single out the heavily restricted media from all those other sectors so attractive to investors.
Setting up a media both independent and public media is a double-sided venture, not a single project. As I saw it, it should more properly be a final step, rather than a subject for initial debate. In journalism and the media, the public has taken control of the private, coming to view it as one of its many sectors. Perhaps more attention should be paid to privatizing the privately-owned media, which however much it subjects itself to state control (self-censorship and state censorship alike) remains sidelined by the public sector, instead of taking its rightful place at the head of the table.
It is as though the old laws of censorship have never changed. The taboos of today are nearly identical to those enumerated by Ramiz Serkis almost a century ago. It's as though the censors never had the time to review the way they work; as if not one censor has ever gazed out over the skyline of an Arab city and seen the satellite dishes carpeting the roofs and balconies of its buildings and setting our newspapers back by decades. Hassan Daoud