Syria from Cold War to Media War
The world has been witness to unprecedented uprisings throughout the Arab World. The so-called “Arab Spring” has ultimately introduced a new perception regarding Middle Eastern politics, society and culture. It has carved out a new map of Arab politics, and it has brought national sovereignty and self-determination. The new political landscape of the Arab world seeks new movements to illustrate modernity, civility, liberty, and collective actions that will build a new stage for new Arab politics. Arabs understand that the fear that lived in the deepest parts of them no longer exists, as it has no place in their present daily routines or in their futures. The Arab sedition is shaping a new tone in Arab politics, and is modifying new Arab cultures in such a way as to decentralize the hegemony of the state and shift the power to the people. It is also empowering citizens to take matters in their own hands and make their own decisions, which challenge the centrism of the government monopoly and regime hegemony. No one predicted that such an act would plunge the whole region into rebellious movement. These masses of protests were created by the energy and ideas of young people who take risks and make themselves visible by demanding dignity, liberty, equality, and decent lives. Arab citizens have suffered from its lack of social and civil rights, and now the young Arabs try to gain freedom and social justice; they demand democracy, freedom of expression, open government, and the end of brutal humiliation and insult brought on by tyrannous regimes.
These protest movements are directed at citizens, as it is the people whose voices need to be heard in order to affect change. Arabs in these movements demand democracy as well as political and economic reforms. The protests movements in the new landscape of information allow for widespread participation, which means that people from all over who possess the same ideology can form a collective identity. It makes politics a form of citizens’ needs and choices. The identity in these new social movements has been established as a new public sphere through the cyberspace environment, which is indicated when citizens’ grassroots movements develop and are organized through social networks and other forms of information technologies. The mass protests in the Arab world have been comprised of the youth who are educated and moderated, and who sacrificed in order to demand political reform, democracy and social change.
The culture of political mobilization in the Arab world is a fledgling one compared to that of the West, since Arabs lack political structure, a constitution, and democracy, and all of these factors led Arab people with individual ambitions and revolutionary ideas that have grown embittered with the political state apparatuses and devices to take more action in demanding reforms and thus establish a new form of social movement. These manifestations have established an alternative way for a non-democratic society to develop a new landscape for social and political democracy and even create new Arab politics. The Arab mainstream media, on the other hand, lacks professionalism due the lack of political structure having been controlled by the authority.
New media and other social networks, along with other information and communication technologies like cell phones, have eased the access to widespread information beyond its former boundaries that were imposed by an authority that censored the information that was disseminated among its people. The ability to gain information easily has led to the decentralization of the monopoly of power and the hegemony of information that empowers citizens into more aggregated and grassroots movements and mass protests. The new media landscape entails exploring a phenomenon in the Arab world and its media, since the Arab mass rebellions are still relatively new and have only recently passed their first anniversary. Even though the collision of the revolution has shifted the peaceful movement into chaos and political conflict, the Arab Spring is an ongoing process, and there could be a way to analyze the Arab mainstream media constructers during the revolutions. Without knowing the roles of the Arab media mainstream and national channel networks during the uprisings, we cannot understand the politics in the Arab Middle East and its political position toward the revolutions.
Arab Media and Political Position
The Arab Spring has accentuated the descents of the Arab uprising and its implications. Yet, a quasi-absent role of the Arab mainstream media coverage has been missing since the new media took most (if not all) of the attention on the roles of social media and communication information technologies during the uprisings. The pivotal function of Arab mainstream media in coalescing popular aspirations must be considered in terms of understanding Arab politics. Nonetheless, there is a somewhat unattended scene on how Arab mainstream media reflects on the political positions of the rebellions and how the contradictions, double standards, and hypocrisy work during the mass revolts. The Arab media have introduced a new theme of Arab politics when state media categorized its enemy, its friend, and its sectarian political dilemma, and became a counterrevolution to one state and a pro-revolution to another state depending on the political interests. Hence, politics in the Arab media are not solely embodied by political power, political regimes, and political authority, but through new landscapes that are changing the socio-political environment of the Arab world. The Arab Spring has introduced a new perception in understanding politics in the Arab world, through the Arab media. When media became a political tongue of the state, its mission was only to reflect the state’s political position toward the Arab revolutions. Understanding Arab politics and certain Arab countries’ positions is achieved through media ideologies and media tendencies. For instance, Saudi media support the revolution in Syria by claiming the victory of the Free Syrian Army. That supportive position reflects the Saudi political position regarding the revolution in Syria, while that was not the case with regard to the coverage of the Bahraini uprisings. In other words, the state doesn’t need to make any declaration about its opinion or tendency toward an uprising, as the state media are presenting that.
The political position of any Arab state toward the Arab uprisings will be seen and understood through the state’s media, even in a large-scale channel network like Aljazeera. Through the mainstream media, one should understand Arab politics and political reflections toward the rebellions movements. The Arab media coverage of the uprisings reflects the state’s position rather than an integral position and independence from the state. However, this media reflection of state politics is not exceptional in the Arab media. Since the revolution started in Tunisia, Aljazeera, in particular, has played a significant role in determining the political position of the new Tunisia. Even some scholars and other observers have noticed that Aljazeera played significant roles during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions; its coverage toward Bahraini uprisings, however, was somewhat restrained, as is the case regarding the other Gulf countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar. That exercise of restraint resulted in biased, imbalanced news that lacked objectivity. Aljazeera, as a leading channel network in the Arab world, played a significant role in covering Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, and Yemeni revolutions; this outstanding coverage of the Arab revolutions has shifted in the case of Bahraini revolution. However, this is not only applicable to Aljazeera, as it applied to most media in the region. Aljazeera and other media Gulf outlets, such as Alarabiya, have played the same roles as Aljazeera did toward the uprisings in Bahrain. However, the political ideology of both Saudi Arabia and Qatar has only served to connect the two in the case of Bahrain and Syria, as well as Iran, which was certainly not the case in the past. One intellectual figure has concluded that Aljazeera and Alarabiya’s coverage in Syria is reflective of the political position toward the crisis in Syria, as the state is using its propaganda to establish its political interests and its political ideology. However, before the revolutions, Aljazeera’s political position was with the reluctant states that included Syria and Iran and other resistance organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, but that position changed after the Bahrain uprisings. Yet, the overall visions toward Hamas and Muslim Brotherhoods did not change.
Politically speaking, there could be a mutual agreement between Qatar-Aljazeera and Saudi Arabia-Alarabiya, two prominent channel networks, in the cases of Syria and Bahrain. However, ideologically, Aljazeera was supportive to Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist Egyptian candidates, while Alarabiya continues to support the old regime. During the presidential election in Egypt, for instance, Aljazeera was looking at the Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fettouh as a favorable candidate, then to Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhoods candidate. Meanwhile, Alarabiya focused more on Ahmad Shafeeq and Amr Musa. How the networks view these candidates is a reflection of the political ideology that exists within Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Moreover, the Arab media became associated with the status quos of Arab politics. Arab media is not becoming a servant for Arab citizens, even though there was unprecedented coverage during the Egyptian revolution; instead, the media remains a tool to serve political interests. It can be argued that Arab media had no citizenry roles during the Arab Spring, as much it has been used for political purposes that serve governments.
Hence, media serve politics in times of crisis, and that has been observed throughout history. During the Arab uprising, that was an extraordinary observation to understand how media serve politics. In fact, studying Arab media is extremely important because studying the media leads to understanding Arab politics. The interrelation between media and politics in the Arab world is impeccable. By looking at Arab media, one should understand the fact that most, perhaps all, media outlets are government-supported, whether directly or indirectly. Government funds given to media restrict the media and prevent it from speaking out against the state. Even though businessmen could provide funding to the media, those businessmen have relationships with the political authority, and there has been a fair amount of alliance between them. As a result, the media cannot be fully independent from the state and thus lacks professionalism and efficiency.
Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein in 2003, pundits and other institutional organizations have observed and analyzed the influence of Iran in Iraq with regard to how much influence Iran has in Iraq, and how that could affect the geopolitics of the Gulf and Levant regions. The collapse of Saddam has shifted the regional balance of power for both Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to RAND report in 2009, Saudi Arabia and Iran are divided by the long-standing structural tensions, and political and ideological changes have shaped the bilateral relationship between the two. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been the central players in this unfolding transformation based on the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Since the sectarian division affects primarily Gulf countries and Syria, the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’ brought the sectarianism issue to the surface not through politics but via media implication.
The revolutions in Syria and Bahrain transformed the cold war into a media war. This new media war appeared in media-driven propaganda that emerged between Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is happening in media coverage between pro-Iranian propaganda and pro-Saudi propaganda is a cold war, which is how the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been described. The revolutions in Syria and Bahrain transformed the cold war into a media war. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia and Iran never actually had diplomatic exchanges between them; instead, the media channels became mediators between the two. In the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit in Mecca that was held August 14-15, the Saudi King invited Ahmadinejad to the conference and the latter accepted the invitation. On August 9, Saudi Arabia claimed it would not allow Israel access to its airspace for a unilateral attack against Iran. Additionally, the mainstream media in Saudi Arabia have reported stories regarding the “strong” tie in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its “somewhat” support of the regime in Syria.
However, in the media narrative there is a different story.In oIn During the Arab Spring, Arab media became a political tool more than anything else – more than a means of conducting the truth and addressing responsibilities and accountabilities. That can be seen as the Iranian government supports the Syrian regime through its channels like Al-Alam and Al-Manar, and even the most professional English network Press TV. The Saudi-funded media goes beyond supporting the opposition toward the out rightly refusing to identify the Syrian regime, arguing that Syria’s regime is off state, which means that the Syrian government lead by Assad is no longer recognized by Saudi authority. The Saudi media make such a claim because the Saudi government says so. In the other words, what the pro-Saudi media say regarding the revolution in Syria reflects the Saudi political position toward the Syrian crisis and, thus, the media reflects the state’s policy. In Bahrain, it is Iranian media that finds favorable coverage. The pro-Iranian media support the Bahrain revolution, encouraging people to stand against the government and demand freedom and equality; the case regarding Syria was the exact opposite. Al-Alam, in particular, disregarded the revolution in Syria, arguing that what was happening was merely chaos resulting from Saudi Arabia’s support of militia terrorists. Alarabiya on the other hand, determined that the revolutionaries in Bahrain were merely teens and vandals. Despite the fact that some chaos has resulted from the revolution, pro-democratic movements have been attenuated by the governments.
The Syrian revolution was a great occasion to play politics between Iran and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. It is a proxy war between the two. Therefore, the revolts both in Bahrain and Syria divide the media into two directions; each direction reflects the political positions of either side. Russia, China, and Iran, for instance, are more concerned with the revolutions in Bahrain, and have been paying less attention to the uprisings in Syria. Lebanon and Iraq stand somewhat against the revolutions in Syria, where the coverage about Bahrain garners more attention. Politically, the Syrian influence toward Lebanon is historical, while the new government in Iraq, after the American invasion, is more loyal to Iran and Syria than other Arab States. Thus, the Arab media during the Syrian uprising has shifted into political affiliation more likely, and the media networks became a voice of politics rather than a voice of truth. This voice of politics revealed a tone focused on power and counterpower, propaganda and counterpropaganda. The media war between the pro-Assad regime and pro-oppositions became a political conflict. In contrast, Arab media in the Gulf countries became pro-government toward the Bahraini regime, while in Syria the media became pro-oppositions and pro-revolutionaries. Likely, American media have forgotten the revolt in Bahrain, concerning themselves more with the events in Syria and the scenario following Assad’s collapse. In this case, it is clear that the media play politics that reflect the political positions of the state as a whole. Therefore, the political conflict, instead of appearing via political declaration, appears through Arab media channel networks. The conflicts have been shown in Arab media; however, the media does not reflect reality, but rather reflects the governments’ policies. These conflicts underscore the fact that the media is a tool for political alliances rather than for conducting truth and analyzing events.
On the other hand, the Syrian media, along with some other Iranian-funded and pro-Iranian government channel networks like Al-Manar, Al-Alam, and Dunia, side with Assad and stand with Syria’s regime, criticizing the opposition and other revolutionaries. These two channels became an Arab media counterbalance to Aljazeera and Alarabiya. Syrian pro-regime Alwatan TV claims that what happened in Syria is based on conspiracy activists who wanted to destroy the land of resistance. They claim, just as the government did, that revolutionaries are nothing but terrorists. Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi visited Iran to take part in a non-aligned conference in late August. The Iranian media replaced Morsi’s statement wherein he claimed that people in Palestine and Syria should fight to gain their freedom; the Iranian media replaced “Syrian” with “Bahrain,” according to Aljazeera. Moreover, Bahrain has complained to Iran over this name switch.
The media war has not stopped yet. The Arabic and Egyptian satellites, Arabsat and Nilesat, respectively, have denounced and removed the Syrian channels along with Iranian-Lebanon supportive channels like Al-Alam and Al-Manar. In early September, Nilesat and Arabsat stopped broadcasting Syrian television stations for good or until the regime changes. That decision was made shortly after a meeting of Arab League ministers in Cairo, and was part of a media war over the Syrian crisis.
Even before the revolution took place, Arabsat removed the Iranian channel network Al-Alam from its broadcast in 2010. After the revolutions, the channel was also removed from Nilesat. Moreover, the Al-Alam propagated its media agenda against Saudi regimes, denouncing the Saudi/Gulf intervention in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia and its media mechanism have focused more on the case of Syria as a national crisis and as a sectarian problem than on its political dilemma. The sectarianism is a superficial analysis and has convinced citizens of Gulf countries that the protesters in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are Iranian supporters. Interestingly, while pro-revolutionaries in Syria claim that the regime is sectarian with an Alawite minority that rules in a Sunni majority, the pro-Bahrainis claim that the Alkalifa Royal Family is a minority Sunni that rules a Shia majority. The same political “sectarian argument” narrative has been repeated on both sides of uprisings. This also applies to other protest movements, as citizens have been brainwashed into believing that they are Iranian-loyalist movements rather than nationalist movements. For instance, TV shows have featured two Saudi activists as guests, and both of them were blaming Iran for what happened in the country rather than blaming the government itself. It is the norm for two opinion leaders to state something that is equivalent to the government’s position, and the Saudi government’s position is, therefore, following the norm of the US. In Saudi Arabia, the media tries to turn the crisis into an issue of sectarianism rather than a matter of politics, and it uses clerics to support that argument. This is done primarily to reflect the political dilemma in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia as well as in Bahrain.
Pro-Saudi media have determined that the revolutionists are not loyal to their country. The Saudi foreign minister has mentioned that the problem in Syria is encouraged and “somewhat” supported by Iran, as is the situation in Bahrain. Saudi media have echoed the same. As such, both the pro-Syrian regime media mechanism and the pro-Bahraini regime media apparatus claim that the conflict is a sectarian issue rather than a democratic movement. Analyzing revolutions in Bahrain and Syria as sectarian removed the concept of the uprisings from a pro-democratic movement context to a religious context. The media have claimed that these are not political or power-related conflicts and have thus hijacked the essential narrative of the cause of the uprising in both countries. Such a sectarian discourse has not only appeared in the mainstream media, but it also reflects Saudi and Iran political ideology.
As a consequence, the media usage as a political power and political tool is not a new phenomenon, and Arab media is not an exception. Media have always been tools for political power, either in democratic or nondemocratic societies, because media is a part of the political circulation of hegemony that conducts ideology and the political agenda. While it could be more easily observed that the media is a political tool for regimes in nondemocratic society, media has been used for purposes of control and manipulation of the masses in democratic societies. The Arab Spring is a perfect occasion to study the media tendencies in each Arab state and how media serves the political interests in the big picture. Media is a way for the government to manipulate society. As such, more independent media and journalists are needed to cover the war and other international crises so that the facts may be shared and the truth can be disseminated and no longer hidden.