At a session of the Olive Tree Middle East Forum at City University, the panel including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News, Jeremy Bowen, BBC News, and Dr Zahera Harb, senior lecturer at City University London, discussing the media coverage of the Arab revolts in 2011, all were in agreement that western media was at least three weeks late on the scene.
Jon Snow admitted they didn’t ‘do good’ and criticised the insistence by their London office to roll all the stories into one and said: “They were unique. Egypt was an Egyptian thing and the West lost their boy”, Libya had outside interference, Bahrain was badly covered, Syria restricted, Yemen difficult to access and the Saudi Arabia uprising that was quickly put out got almost no coverage at all.
Jeremy Bowen on his part talked about how the coverage started randomly and how judging by how past revolts that had been quickly and effectively quashed they didn’t think it critical to send their teams on the ground. “We kept an eye on it, but we didn’t expect much to happen”. By the time they realised their mistake, the revolution was truly underway and getting access had become more difficult.
Dr Zahera Harb is a Lebanese journalist and Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at City University, but even she was shocked by the revolts and how much was achieved.
While the Western media was caught flat footed on this one, state run media in the Arab countries turned radio and tv broadcast into even bigger instruments of government propaganda. Embattled leaders, instructed journalist to announce that calm had been returned and in their state of denial claimed the events unfolding were a result of foreign conspiracy.
As Dr. Harb pointed out in Tunisia, the government claimed thugs and outlaws were responsible, while Egypt came up with “exclusive lies exclusive to Egypt” forcing journalists time and time again to say “Calm has returned to the city”.
Arab satellite channel Aljazeera offered comprehensive coverage for Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but failed to show anything on Bahrain claiming media had been banned, though the argument is the situation was similar in Libya and Tunisia where they provided coverage. But this was unique for the Arabic channel since the Aljazeera English which is international kept reports rolling and is not meant for the Arab market.
Dr. Harb believes that Syria, using it’s electronic army propagated stories that discredited the country’s opposition, which is quite desperate, when they fell prey to pro-regime media plots schemes. It didn’t help that they exaggerated the numbers of casualties and fabricated stories. However the biggest problem in Syria is the hypocrisy of the regime and the narrative of the regime is getting oxygen from the poor organisation of rebels.
All in all the Media Coverage of the Arab Revolts 2011 was rather distorted, and the only reason the story was seen unfold is because people media made it possible to sidestep the many of barriers.