This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
In the wake of the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, many commented on the diligence of Al-Jazeera in Doha in pursuing the story, uncovering Saudi Arabia’s official role in the crime and linking it to the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis.
When the two countries later made up, that supposed diligence began to dissipate.
Relying on traditional Arabic-language media outlets to get one’s information about world events is a fool’s errand. But given the lamentable fact that most Arabic-language media outlets are affiliated with or influenced by authoritarian regimes, tuning in can inform you about the proclivities of the regime in question.
I tried to do that in the past few days to get my news about Ukraine. It’s something I almost never do, because, aware of their ties to autocrats and regional powers, I am afraid I do not trust most media outlets in the region.
The regional connection to what is happening in Ukraine today is being stretched and pushed and distilled in all sorts of ways by Arabic media, and that includes the Arabic services of foreign outlets as well as alternative media in addition to traditional, mainstream ones.
For instance, significant attention has been given to the role that Turkey is playing in this war, including the dissemination of some inaccurate information about its military support for Ukraine.
More attention is being given to the state of U.S. relations with Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in light of the continuing increase in oil prices due to the sanctions on Russia. A Wall Street Journal report saying that Gulf regimes declined to organize calls with President Joe Biden to talk oil prices dominated the news on many Arabic-language media outlets.
It appears that most serious media outlets in the region are uniting in calling Russia out on its war on Ukraine and the false justifications it gave to effect its invasion, as opposed to wider divides among those outlets when it came to past major events. As H.A. Hellyer pointed out in a recent article in Time magazine, this time Syria is the only country in the region that thoroughly stands out in its blatant and open support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is reflected in its media.
Syrians who are in the opposition have been talking about the Assad regime’s response to Putin’s war on Ukraine, recalling how a Russian officer dismissively treated Bashar al-Assad during Putin’s first visit to his ally during the war and how Assad had to go see Putin at a Russian base in Damascus during the second visit.
Al-Mayadeen, a highly hypocritical regional TV channel that was borne out of the need of Iran’s allies in the Middle East for a seemingly more intellectual and professional means of disseminating pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah propaganda, tried to be careful with its Ukraine coverage.
It failed, however, at hiding its predilection for Putin and all the lies that the Kremlin has been putting out about Ukraine. In a recent report, it spoke of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s turning his country into an “open hub for mercenaries” by inviting foreign fighters to join his struggle, while it said that Putin is open to the idea of getting foreign “volunteers” to support Russia’s military operations.
In addition to comparing what Putin is doing today in Ukraine with what he has been doing in Syria for years, there is the comparison of Israel’s position on this war with what it has been doing in Palestine for decades. Israel was called out on its hypocrisy and double standards when it condemned Putin’s invasion, given its role as an occupier in Palestine. When Ukraine criticized Israel’s minimal efforts to take in Ukrainian refugees, the statement was also amplified in Arabic media.
On the other hand, comparisons that international media correspondents made between Ukraine, which was called “relatively civilized,” and “developing third world nations,” implying that wars are less worthy of sympathy in the latter, caused uproar. Those comments were quickly translated into Arabic and disseminated via local and regional stations that gave their audiences the frustrating news that their suffering seems to be worth less than that of Europeans.
Media outlets affiliated with regimes other than Syria’s seem to have been a little bit more reserved in their editorializing, preferring not to adopt a hostile tone toward Putin even while calling him out on the invasion. Strange takes and angles are also all over the smaller, local media outlets in the region. Channel 9 in Tunisia, for instance, which has millions of followers on social media, gave a Muslim cleric room to talk about how this is “the first time we see war between those who have invaded the Muslim world.”
I was not surprised to see scare-mongering reports in which a melodramatic voice-over performer fantasizes about the Russian apocalyptic bomb that is going to destroy the planet. There were also many reports that tried to draw comparisons to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, at the risk of oversimplifying the war and its intricacies.
Arabic services of international media outlets are often more trusted out of a belief that they uphold the same standards and provide a quality matching that of the original service. But that is not always the case.
The largely redundant CNN Arabic website, with its poor curation and language, and the disastrous Huffington Post Arabic, which lasted only three years and caused the original company much embarrassment over the conservative and very illiberal tone, are good examples of that.
If you consider Sky News Arabia, it’s often close to being a regime mouthpiece for the UAE. Despite it having people on the ground conveying the latest developments, it still dabbles in some strange takes about the war, like this video in which it said that the West is “trying to demonize Putin … but Western propaganda with all of its instruments is not working.”
As often happens, Arabic-language media tends to quote English-language international media virtually as scripture. It used to happen to me often when my colleagues and I at an international outlet would say something in an American or a British newspaper, as a follow-up to a story that local and regional Arabic-language media had beaten us to, and they would take our report as the definitive confirmation of the story.
That sometimes overshadows the serious work that correspondents on the ground are doing in Ukraine. For despite the reported tensions between the Gulf regimes and the Biden administration, channels that are associated with those Arab monarchies, like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, have been covering the situation in Ukraine extensively, with live shots from different parts of Ukraine where there are correspondents on the ground.
I haven’t heard anyone pronounce the name of the Ukrainian capital as Kyiv, the Ukrainian way. Rather, I’ve heard Kiev, the Russian way. But I won’t dwell on that too much now as this is probably not intentional and it’s still a common phenomenon around the world. Arab media still overwhelmingly says Peking for Beijing, for example.
I trust some of those who work for media outlets that I generally do not like — including Sky News and Al-Jazeera. Even now in Ukraine some excellent reporting is being done in Arabic.
Unfortunately, Arab media still has a lot of work to do in order to gain the trust of those like me who have the privilege of getting their news from international media outlets. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for most Arabs, these local and regional media outlets are the only place from which they could get their information.
Even for aspiring journalists who want to work but can do so only in Arabic, there are not many options available that provide a decent career path that don’t carry some question marks. For while English-language media has many issues, it is often safer to work for an international outlet than an Arabic one that has suspicious ties to the region’s dictatorships and their patrons.
Combined with the continued struggle of independent and alternative media to reach sustainability, this means that the media scene in the region will linger as is for a while, and the good exceptions must be sought wherever they can be found for one to get an idea of what really is happening, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere around the world.