Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Hisham Milhem is the Washington correspondent of the Beirut daily al-Safir. Born in Lebanon, Milhem has lived and worked in Washington since 1976. Joe Stork and Sally Ethelston spoke with him in Washington in September 1992.

What are the salient features of the power structure of the Arab media? Who controls it? Who sets the tone?

Any generalization is problematic. We’ve been involved in journalism in Lebanon-Syria and Egypt for more than a century. That is why the Lebanese, the Egyptians and the Palestinians have been predominant in the Arab press.

Since World War II, in most Arab countries, the main media outlets and practically all the news agencies have been operated by the state. Before the Iraqi invasion, the Kuwait News Agency was not controlled directly in the way the Iraqi or Saudi or Syrian agencies are. But there was a chain of command, and it ended at the palace.

The recent democratic openings in Jordan, Yemen and for a while Algeria reduced censorship and expanded the parameters of free expression, but even there we still have a long way to go.

The Lebanese press was pluralistic. There were censorship laws; journalists were jailed, harassed; a few were killed, but on the whole it reflected pluralistic tendencies. Most newspapers in Beirut were privately owned but were financed by outside states, and sometimes wealthy individuals.

Who, for example?

In the 1970s you had the Iraqis and the Saudis vying to control the Arab press. After the oil boom, they had enough money to influence and buy media outlets in the Arab world and also in Europe. Many publications left Beirut following the Lebanese war, and ended up publishing from Paris and London.

Before the oil boom, when you talk about the Arab press, you’re essentially talking about Cairo and Beirut, and to a certain extent Kuwait. Afterward, you saw a plethora of publications in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain. They had money to hire Lebanese, Palestinian and Egyptian talent. Many Gulf publications now have bureaus and correspondents in Europe, and most in the United States.

A Saudi line is predominant in the Arab press published in Europe. Take, for instance, al-Hayat. In terms of production values it’s very modern — computerized, satellites, you name it. It’s owned by Prince Khalid bin Sultan.

In Saudi Arabia, the state essentially appoints editors. You can nominate anybody, but the approval comes from the Ministry of Information. Publication can be stopped, the editor can be jailed — and there are numerous cases of this. Many Lebanese and Palestinians who crossed the line were summarily deported.

The English-language papers are different, aren’t they?

There are things you can get away with in English but not in Arabic. Most of the Saudi English publications are geared toward the expatriate population: the Indians, the Filipinos, the Pakistanis, the Americans.

How did the Saudis come to control al-Hayat?

Al-Hayat was founded by Kamel Mroueh in Beirut. In the 1960s, it was seen as pro-Saudi. It was a feisty paper, widely read. Mroueh was assassinated; his sons inherited it.

Al-Hayat stopped publishing during the Lebanese war. Then Jamil Mroueh wanted to resume publication. The story goes that he was financed by Saudis to rejuvenate the operation. Then Prince Khalid offered a hefty sum of money to lease the paper for 20 years. In name it’s still owned by the Mrouehs. Khalid put in Jihad al-Khazin as the editor — he’s a Palestinian who had been the editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat. This was about three years ago.

Khalid wanted to use it in jockeying for political power in the kingdom. Al-Hayat now is distributed in Saudi Arabia. There was a problem early this year when another Saudi newspaper picked King Fahd as “man of the year.” A commentator in al-Hayat wrote a piece — which had nothing to do with King Fahd — criticizing Time magazine’s “man of the year” concept. The government felt that this was a slight directed against the king, so al-Hayat was banned from Saudi Arabia for 20 or 30 days.

Al-Hayat is regarded as the single most important newspaper?

Sure. It’s a newspaper that intellectuals, middle-class types read.

Al-Ahram was once widely read throughout the Arab world.

Now it’s essentially an Egyptian paper. Al-Hayat is more sophisticated and allows a greater degree of pluralism.

To what extent?

In terms of straight reporting, certain items would appear in al-Hayat but not in papers inside Saudi Arabia. Islamic fundamentalism and leftist issues are discussed by columnists and writers in al-Hayat. The Saudi influence is not apparent at first glance.

You won’t find anything directly critical of the Saudis, will you?

No. In the 1970s and the 1980s, you rarely read direct criticism of Saudi Arabia, except in Beirut or in the Egyptian opposition press. During periods of tension between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi-owned publications would attack Saudi Arabia and their outlets in Europe, but this was rare, and people knew that it was Baghdad-directed. So the Saudis were for a long time immune from direct attacks. They invested a great deal of influence, money and effort to control what was written about them in the Arab world — more than any other government except Iraq.

Publishing in the West did not mean greater freedom. Most publications were financed by Arab governments, and they had to operate within the usual constraints in order to distribute in the Arab world.

What is it like as a journalist to work for the Arab press?

If you work for a radio station not owned by an Arab government — say Radio Monte Carlo Arabic Service — you are not subject to the same constraints as those of us who work for publications in Arab countries. I remember an incident in 1989, when the Iraqis held a major air show. One Egyptian fighter plane was shot down in broad daylight: The pilot had strayed over Saddam’s palace. I heard about it from an American source. Another American source corroborated the story. I spent about a day and a half trying to find out exactly what happened. I worked at that time for al-Qabas [Kuwait] as well as al-Safir [Beirut]. I couldn’t get the story to Beirut because of the fighting. I knew I’d have problems publishing the story in Kuwait, but I sent it anyway. Both Iraq and Egypt hushed it up. Kuwait said: We can’t publish it.

And this was a privately owned newspaper.

Yes. After two full days, I managed to send it to Beirut, where it was published. The following day, the Washington Post published the story. After that, Egypt and Iraq acknowledged the story and the Arab world picked it up. It had became legitimate.

There is an interface between the media in the Middle East and in the West.

In general, most Arabs get their news from radio stations not owned by Arab governments — BBC, Monte Carlo, France. There is widespread cynicism when it comes to radio stations owned by the governments.

Not just the intelligentsia?

I’m talking about Arabs who either don’t read the papers regularly or read only one paper. People who don’t read foreign languages. You can pick up these [foreign] stations over regular AM receivers. That’s why radio is king in the Middle East.

Most Arab papers, including those with correspondents in major capitals, rely heavily on the wire services — AP, Reuters, Agence France Presse and UPI. Western influence in the Arab press stems from this reliance — even for stories about the Arab world. You don’t have the tradition — maybe because of political restrictions — of Arab publications having correspondents in Arab capitals. Cairo is the exception, and Tunis while the Arab League was there. Even newspapers that go beyond daily events — a story, for instance, on women in Morocco — get it from a Western outlet.

Yemen and Morocco are two places hardly ever dealt with in the Western press. Is that also true in the Arab press?

For all the talk about Arab nationalism, we Arabs have a great deal to learn about each other. One of the recurring criticisms that you hear in North Africa about us Mashriqis is that we don’t know much about them. Few people in the Arab world know anything about the complexity of the Kurdish problem in Iraq, or the problems of southern Sudan. When the bloody fighting occurred in South Yemen in 1986, in which thousands of people were killed, most of our coverage was based on the wire services.

So the knowledge of Arabs — I’m not talking now about scholarly work, which is also rare — but knowledge of average Arabs in Cairo, let’s say about life in Yemen, is very limited.

You rarely find in the same publication different voices about the same issue. Al-Safir, during the Iran-Iraq war, was probably one of the few Arab newspapers where you found straight reporting of the war. Editorially al-Safir was against the war, but individual commentators and columnists took a pro-Iraq line. Another fellow was sympathetic to Iran.

Are there things that are off-limits in al-Safir?

Well, for years we were prevented from distributing in East Beirut and in south Lebanon under the Israeli occupation. At times, militia leaders who weren’t happy with us prevented our distribution in their areas. Our editor almost got killed in 1985; our newspaper was bombed and rocketed.

Are there things that you can’t talk about because of the political slant of the owner?

Now you’re presenting me with a problem. The owner of al-Safir is an old-style Arab nationalist, but the newspaper is open to a variety of perspectives. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, you sometimes find references to al-Safir in the New York Times as leftist and “pro-Syrian,” probably because editorially we don’t pull punches when it comes to Israel. It’s not financed by Syria; it’s not always distributed in Syria. On the Gulf war, editorially the newspaper was bluntly against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and against the war option before it began. The newspaper was not distributed in Syria on numerous occasions because of positions it has taken.

Has al-Safir done critical things about Syria?

We rarely talk about internal Syrian politics. This is difficult — from gathering the information to publishing it. You don’t find frontal attacks on Syrian foreign policy, although there are nuanced criticisms.

It’s hard to talk about what’s happening in Lebanon without talking about Syria.

That’s true. But Syrian policy in Lebanon is very problematic for all Lebanese publications. I don’t have any constraints on what I write from here. I write about the Syrian-American relationship often.

Do people in the Arab world know much more as a result of there being an Arab press corps here in Washington?

In my case, yes. But you can have the most skilled reporters, and if they are working for publications that heavily edit their work…. Sometimes editors over there think they know even better than their own reporters. You don’t find many in-depth articles about how the system operates here. A great deal of time is spent on the influence of the Israeli lobby. The one-dimensional way in which many Arab publications deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict, with American support for Israel, the West vs. the Arabs, the West vs. Islam, reinforces stereotypes. The political dimension is paramount. Society is largely ignored. The image of America in the Arab world is very much a caricature.

As superficial as the American image of the Middle East?

Absolutely.

What degree of access do you have to high US officials?

Their view, not wholly incorrect, is that most Arab press is an extension of the Arab governments, so why bother? “We talk to the ambassador, we don’t have to talk to the journalists.”

You mentioned the Kurds and southern Sudan. To what extent has the Arab press dealt forthrightly with issues of minorities, issues that impinge on the question of Arab nationalism?

I think the inadequacy of the media in dealing with issues like that is almost scandalous. I’ll tell you bluntly, [the Iraqi gas attack on the Kurdish town of] Halabja was not mentioned, pictures from Halabja were not seen for years in the Gulf press, in many Arab publications. They were mentioned in Beirut, yes. Halabja was covered with a vengeance in Kuwait and in the Gulf after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

I always saw the mosaic that is the Arab world not as a source of weakness, but as a source of richness. Kurds should have full political, cultural and language rights: This is not only good for the Kurds but good for the Arabs. And I don’t see any contradiction between that and being someone who believes that we Arabs, whether from Morocco or Yemen, share a great deal. But who said that we are all alike?

This perspective is not reflected in the Arab media?

It’s not, and it may not be shared widely among Arab intellectuals. You rarely have a serious debate among Arab intellectuals about the problem of the Kurds. It’s either, “we support the Iraqi government 100 percent,” or “we don’t know much about it.” Or “it didn’t happen.” Or “these are mistakes on the part of the Iraqi leadership.&rduqo;

One of the biggest intellectual scandals that occurred following the Iraqi invasion was the absence of debate in the Arab world from August 2 until the beginning of the war, even in those societies where you had relative openness — Jordan, North Africa, Yemen, even Egypt. Sometimes you heard tremendous noise, but not debate, not give-and-take.

The tragedy was that in those societies where you have relative openness, there was another form of censorship. It was difficult in Amman not because of the government but because the whole mood was against this. You had a collective resignation from critical inquiry. Here I would fault the Arab intelligentsia more than the journalists, because this is the function of people who claim to think critically.

It wasn’t because there weren’t Arabs who had their reservations — there were.

Yes, but I was criticized because I was harsh on Saddam, that I was making it easier for the Americans to attack Iraq — as if I were that important. Not only couldn’t you criticize Iraq in the Arab press: People wanted to shut you up even here. That’s a sad commentary not only on political repression and terror in the Arab world, but even on people who are overseas.

You affirm your Arab identity only when it’s against the Persians? What does it mean when someone like Saddam uses Arab nationalism to justify a war against an important segment of his own people, the Kurds, or to trigger the two biggest calamities that have befallen the Arab world since the 1967 defeat — the war against Iran, and the Kuwait crisis — in the name of Arab nationalism?

Many Arab intellectuals who are otherwise smart and decent supported Saddam when he was fighting Iran, and looked the other way when he was torturing Iraqis, because the regime was allegedly secular and Arab nationalist and was building an industrial base. The price — wiping out a whole Iraqi generation, creating a culture of political cynicism based on brute terror — that price they would not see.

Has the Arab press covered the violence against the Copts in Egypt?

Recently our Cairo correspondent wrote about how the Copts are collecting weapons in their own churches, their feeling of fear.

Bosnia is a major story. These people are Slavs, they are Westerners, they are blond and blue-eyed, but they’re Muslims, so they’re being treated like animals. How will they deal with us? The Iranians, the Islamists are playing it up.

We cover Somalia from the wire services. Once in a while we use one of those awful pictures. But there’s very little comment on Arab or Muslim responsibility. It’s seen as a Western problem or a UN problem.

In the end, it’s not a question of journalism: What you have in the Arab world is subjects, not citizens. We are on the margin. Half a million men and women came from the West and fought a major war last year, and millions of Arabs sat on the sidelines and helplessly watched their own dark future unfold. The decision to invade Kuwait was taken by Saddam and some of his half-brothers. The decision to invite the Americans to Saudi Arabia was taken by Fahd and some of his half-brothers. The decision to launch the war was taken by Western powers. Yet the war took place on Arab soil and most of the victims were Arabs. Where were we?

How to cite this article:

Sally Ethelston, Joe Stork "Politics and Media in the Arab World," Middle East Report 180 (January/February 1993).
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