Image courtesy of http://www.npr.org
A few weeks back, I was contacted by Jason Stern, someone I knew from contributing to a previous project of his, asking about press freedom in Bahrain. Jason mentioned that he now works with ‘Committee to Protect Journalists: Defending Journalism Worldwide.’ We spoke for a while and I answered his questions to the best of my ability, where he later published this article on Bahrain, “To Bridge Divide, Bahrain Should Expand Media Access.”
I personally think it was a nice and fair article, with some points that I may argue against. However, during my discussion with Jason, important notices came to mind that I would like to share with you all. Let’s start with my quote in this article and move forward from there.
Saqer Al-Khalifa, a former media attaché for the Bahraini government, told me in an interview that while he reads a lot of oversimplified and biased articles on Bahrain, the government must learn to better engage critical journalists. Denying them access, he continued, is not “the way the 21st century should work.”
Today, there are many types of journalists with various different levels. Even if you ask them about it, you’d see them carefully identifying and distinguishing each other based on years of experience, specialization in terms of topic and geographical coverage, and whether or not they are Opinion editors, columnists, or simple journalists. Columnists can write about their opinion, be factual researchers, or even contribute to academic publications and write books. Moreover, each newspaper, publication, researcher, journalist, and columnist may target a different set of audience. Some would target the public opinion of a region or a country, and others may set their goals towards influencing domestic or foreign policies with decision makers, either directly or indirectly through public opinion. Every writer has his own unique audience.
When I worked in Washington, D.C. in an effort to engage with the media and research centers about what we largely believed was a false understanding of what happened in Bahrain in 2011, I noticed a very big mess. Because the Arab Spring came so fast and grabbed many people’s attention in a sudden, the ‘Journalism House’ was structurally not in order. The audiences, in all shapes and forms demanded information about the Arab Spring, while a large part of the ‘Journalism House’ was incapable of delivering to the requested informational demand. The reason is very simple, they were not adequately experienced in Middle Eastern Affairs.
But that’s only half the story, and referring only to Bahrain, we are to be blamed for much of the false analysis portrayed on us till this day. Journalists, columnists, and others are told by their editors to cover certain areas where they gauge their audiences’ demands, and they won’t shy away from writing on Bahrain simply because they’re not experts in this area. To them, all it takes are a few interviews here and there for a story to be published. In a way, even before any published article, governments are always at a disadvantage because there’s always much work needed to be done, especially here in the Middle East. For better stories, journalists tend to mostly see the jar half empty, and we have many half empty jars in this part of the world. Half empty jars simply sell better.
While Western and Middle Eastern cultures are vastly unalike, we in Bahrain remain failing to understand that Western journalism is using a Western eye to view the Middle East and Bahrain. Instead, what we do is turn cynical on this perceptiveness and distance ourselves from a 21st century norm, which is utilizing and benefiting from journalism. If Western journalists and analysts fail to learn how to read Arabic, then we simply should speak to them in their own language!
The crux of the subject here is for us to acknowledge that behind each writer, is an audience. If it is an audience that we want to reach to, then we should engage with the mediator. For the large part of my work in Washington, I found myself discussing the Arab culture and the differences and similarities with the Western culture, through a language that they would understand.
For now, I believe that much work is needed for us all to make sure that we feed the right information to journalists in a way that would enable them to write constructive and significant articles. It takes a while to become an expert on the Middle East, but this is not an excuse for us to prevent engagement with them. Instead, we need to increase our engagement and educate the western audience through comparative means. Especially for Bahrain, this is vital for our socio-political survival.