In the Arab world, journalism’s failure is society’s loss

Journalists play a powerful role in shaping public opinion and, therefore, have an important responsibility to provide balance, context and nuance in their reporting.

In Saudi culture, we criticize a person who embarks on a journey without a clear idea or proper knowledge of his or her chosen path. There should be particularly harsh criticism for those we consider intellectuals who adopt poorly thought out, or blatantly subjective positions, without taking into account the duty they have in society to guide and enlighten.

Some journalists do not discuss issues in depth and simply follow the line trotted out by officials and what is fashionably popular on the streets. It is an easy and comfortable route to a paycheck, but the consequences of it cause irreparable damage to their credibility and the Fourth Estate in general. When they lose their role as impartial observers, they often become culpable to wrongdoing.

Swimming against the tide

It is not easy to swim against the tide. In our culture, different voices risk severe censure even if correct. The difficulty increases if there is general mobilization or a campaign promoting a particular opinion in the media. It then becomes the responsibility of courageous intellectuals to offer an alternative view.

A lack of tolerance for alternate voices has dogged many societies

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

When fashions change, those expedient journalists and so-called thinkers quickly follow the latest craze. They flip-flop to whatever position suits their self-interest and keeps them in the public eye. This was particularly pronounced during the recent uprisings in the Arab world when journalists who had been part and parcel of the old regimes, repudiated their previous masters with indecent haste.

A comforting thought for all those who love the truth is that these defections from one position to another are recorded for posterity on the Internet, particularly through YouTube and search engines such as Google. This serves as the collective memory of the people.

Lack of tolerance

A lack of tolerance for alternate voices has dogged many societies. In the U.S. during the 1950s, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy hounded opponents of the government as traitors and communists, including politicians and journalists. McCarthyism was coined in 1950 to describe his witch-hunt. In 1954, the American people discovered that he had been making false claims and the U.S. Senate voted to censure him. Frustrated and isolated, he turned increasingly to the bottle and died in 1957 at the age of 48, partly due to complications caused by alcohol abuse.

Americans succinctly described McCarthy’s behavior as a form of “cultural terrorism.” That period has gone a long way toward entrenching freedom of speech in the U.S., of people’s right to express their views.

Just as many people flocked to McCarthy’s cause all those years ago out of fear and ignorance, there is a herd mentality in this country often expressed in new media. As soon as someone starts an attack, others follow without trying to logically analyze the situation. This exposes the fault-lines in our culture and way of thinking.

Leading cultural figures and journalists have a moral responsibility to objectively and honestly analyze what is happening around them. To help achieve this, our education system must move young people away from rote learning to become critical thinkers. When we start respecting the views of other people, embrace diversity and make room for different opinions, we lay the foundation for a richer and healthier society.

This article was first published in Arab News.

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Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

 

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