Sticking to Sectarian: Overview and Analysis of the Arab News Media Landscape

Over the past several weeks, a variety of narratives have emerged from Arab media regarding the ‘crises’, ‘revolution’, and/or ‘terrorism’ gripping Iraq. Whether homogenizing the combatants or hyping conspiracies, media biases in the Middle East follow sectarian and regional geopolitical lines. These networks pursue the coveted victimhood narrative for Sunni and Shiite sectarian groups. They hope to thereby secure the moral high ground and block sectarian support for their political views. Even now as media coverage on Iraq shifts to Gaza, sectarian network lines have been clearly drawn.Al-Arabiya, a Saudi owned news network often accused of such behavior, covered the conflict in a distinctly anti-Iranian, anti-Maliki manner. Al-Arabiya also reported several times about purported Iranian-American cooperation in Iraq and on alleged government abuses against civilians in the north by “Maliki forces”.The narrative of Iranian forces cooperating with American forces to occupy the North seeks to call into memory both the American occupation and the Iraq-Iran war, construing Iraqi Shia as collaborators with the two great threats to fundamentalist Sunni Islam: Iran and America. The term “Maliki forces” or “Maliki’s army” delegitimizes the Iraqi army to northern Iraqis, creating a diametric political arena in which Maliki (code for Shia Iran, in these channels) pits himself against the northern Sunni tribes. Such subtle word choices are nonetheless powerful in their implications, especially as they become normalized by viewers and consequently normalizing the sectarian polarization.

Recent articles from FARS, BBC and the Wall Street Journal (three sources with admittedly very different media biases) have all noted the sectarian aspect of the coverage by outlets like al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, although FARS (conveniently) failed to note the media blackout imposed by Maliki on parts of the country. It also neglected to note that not only FARS, but also many news outlets aligned with Shia political forces, whether Al-Manar, Al-Iraqiyya or Press TV, have focused solely on the ISIS contingents of the forces fighting the government and ignored the role non-ISIS Sunni militias have held in the conflict. Highlighting the purported role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in funding the conflict, and claiming the entirety to be a Gulf State conspiracy, these news outlets do the same as Al-Arabiya, seeking to diminish their own side’s role in the conflict.

By using rhetoric that reverberates across the region with its implicit call to arms for Sunni against Shia and Shia against Sunni, Arab media outlets propagate regional polarization. Such sectarian-directed coverage impacts both the perceptions of the conflict and the relations between different sectarian groups in the Middle East. Almost 70% of viewers consider their TV media coverage accurate (notably 71% of Saudis believe their news is un-influenced by the government); these tilted perspectives reach accepting audiences. The influence on public opinion exerted by these channels cannot be underestimated. The attitudes they risk engendering in their viewership pose a tremendous threat to any chance of regional sectarian reconciliation. Instead, they harden victimhood narratives on each side of the conflict, feeding the masses exactly what they wish to hear, neglecting to note the nuanced, plural nature of the many tragic victims of this current conflict.

As the ‘sectarian’ conflicts pockmarking the Middle East continue to rage, the media continues to polarize, and in the process it loses accuracy. It reflects the governments and groups that back them, who exist in a state of sectarian conflict. Saudi Arabia (al-Arabiya), Iran (FARS, Press TV), Qatar (Al-Jazeera), Iraq (Al-Iraqiyya), Hezbollah (Al-Manar) and countless others have all discovered the power of established media outlets in the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim worlds. The current news coverage on Iraq demonstrates that these sectarian rifts are settling in for longer-term conflicts, as money flows into long-term propaganda infrastructure on both sides, in the form of new TV channels and news websites.

New channels appear with the express goal of providing a counter-narrative to channels they deem as opponents instead of focusing on providing a narrative of neutrality. The media landscape becomes cyclically polarized.

The results are palpable in daily conversation, where people cite ‘news reports’ as evidence for ‘the invasion of Iraq by Iran’ or ‘the cooperation between America and ISIS’. Moderate voices, those Shia who might call for Maliki’s ouster from office or those Sunni who may call for a second awakening are marginalized by this sectarian media coverage, and as a result, potential solutions to the crises are lost.

Do people want a neutral source for the news? Of course they say they do, but a neutral source, which would aggressively criticize the war crimes of both Assad and the rebels, or which would cover the failings of both Maliki and the Sunni tribes? Watching current news analysis from the region, it seems more likely that many people have slid into the comfortable role of the unchallenged viewer, being told exactly what they believe by the news, and conveniently ignoring facts to the contrary. Having now engrained that mentality into many, it would seem unlikely that people would seek to move towards a more complicated media environment in which they are challenged.

If Arab populaces are interested in being challenged; however, it is crucial for what remains of Arab civil society to step forward and begin independent monitoring of these news channels, their funders, and their coverage of issues. More importantly, the coverage of these news channels demonstrates exactly how polarized the region is becoming. Even while seeking to improve the quality of information, efforts must be increased to create reconciliation between communities and counter the effects of current media coverage, which would have them at each other’s throats. While a strong, popular independent news channel would be vital in this process, until it exists, efforts must be doubled to counter fracturing news reports.

Image Source: Al-Arabiyya

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