Top editor slams Arab journalists for ‘political activism’ bias

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The editor of the world’s biggest pan-Arab newspaper has hit out against Middle Eastern journalists, saying they lack objectivity and are “more politicized than you would ever imagine”.

Adel al-Toraifi, the editor-in-chief of the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, slammed media standards in the Arab world, claiming that many journalists let their personal views get in the way of the story.

“Journalists in the Middle East are political activists. They are not true journalists,” said al-Toraifi.

“Whenever you open a discussion, instead of it becoming a fact-checking debate about journalism, it somehow disintegrates into a political exchange. [It’s] the extreme siding, or the extreme manipulation… either victimization of one group or demonization of another.”

Al-Toraifi called for “more professionalism” among regional journalists.

“It’s not a problem for any journalist to have views… You can respect human rights, but you should not transform into a political-rights activist, or a lobbying person, at the expense of your own journalism and reporting,” he said.

The problem is most severe among private media channels, compared with those under government control, al-Toraifi said.

“I think some satellite [TV stations] and some newspapers in the past 10 years have done more damage than what government-sponsored media has done in the past six decades,” he said. “When it was sponsored by the government it had, somehow, some red lines. When it wasn’t sponsored [by the government] it indulged itself in demonizing schemes… You would be reading something which cannot stand in a court in Europe or America. It’s a kind of reporting which is not reporting.”

FULL INTERVIEW with Adel al-Toraifi, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat

Adel al-Toraifi, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, says only financially independent newspapers can succeed. (Photo courtesy: Asharq al-Awsat)
Adel al-Toraifi, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, says only financially independent newspapers can succeed. (Photo courtesy: Asharq al-Awsat)

Al-Toraifi, who is also editor-in-chief of The Majalla magazine, took up the editorship of Asharq al-Awsat on January 1.

Al-Toraifi declined to single out any individual journalists or media outlets in his criticism. Nor did he comment on whether this was a problem at Asharq al-Awsat.

But the editor did say he wanted the newspaper he heads to set an example for good journalism.

“If I ever had a dream to achieve, it is to make Asharq al-Awsat a school to be reckoned with of professionalism, and of a sound business model for a future newspaper,” he said.

Abdul Hamid Ahmad, editor-in-chief of the Dubai-based Gulf News, broadly agreed that some media outlets in the Arab world lack objectivity.

“We must stick to standards of ethical journalism and apply them to our practice. Many outlets talk about ethical journalism but don’t practice it… Some Lebanese TV channels are regularly highlighting figures that promote sectarianism rather than condemn it,” he said.

“I don’t think it is ethical to shed light on figures promoting sectarianism. It is perfectly acceptable for sectarianism to be discussed in an analytical manner, but not to be promoted in a way that dangerously stirs public opinion”.

Standards have declined in the wake of the Arab Spring, Ahmad added.

“Objective journalism is descending due to tightening rules on journalists, especially after the recent acceleration of events over the past five years, and the lack of clarity in attitudes,” he said. “Instead of having a social dialogue about events and incidents, most opinions are rather eliminating or eradicating each other”.

However, he added that a lack of objectivity was not a universal problem in the Arab media, as suggested by al-Toraifi. Ahmad also disagreed with al-Toraifi’s remarks on ownership of the media.

“We cannot base the level of credibility and professionalism of a news outlet solely on the party funding or subsidizing it, it’s too judgmental to set an absolute verdict based merely on this factor,” he said.

“There is a decent number of news outlets – such as Al Hayat, As-Safir, and Al Nahar – backed by both governmental and private sectors, that enjoy reasonable degree of objectivity and a high level of professionalism.”