Reprinted from Asia Times
In one of his numerous videos on YouTube, Okasha, the star and host of the Cairo-based privately funded al-Faraeen channel, tries to explain the differences between the brains of humans and water buffaloes. Along with Adeeb, they occupy a large space of Egyptian media discourse, wreaking much havoc with their mostly unsubstantiated and outrageous claims.
Their demagogic discourse presented through daily campaigns of misinformation and vilification of those perceived to be enemies of the state is dangerous, especially when there is little room to counter these claims through critical thinking and sensible discussions. But what is interesting is that neither Okasha nor Adeeb -- and many others like them -- were never meant to be entertainers per se, however entertaining they inadvertently may be.
In the last year or so in Egypt, much of what has been achieved in terms of carving space for alternative voices in the Egyptian media was quickly and decisively reversed. No matter how hard Bassem Youssef tried to tone down his satirical political message, he failed. His show, Al-Bernameg (The Program) came to an abrupt conclusion last June. "The current atmosphere isn't fitting for a comedy show or any other show," Youssef said last June.
"The current atmosphere" is damaging the freedom of expression in other Arab societies as well, more so in the last four years when popular upheavals took over several Arab countries, igniting unprecedented regional rivalries. Since then, the polarization of Arab media has reached extreme points. There is little room for opposing views, and regimes are fighting an epic battle for survival by using every possible tactic to win, even if by deception, intimidation, or sheer lies.
It is not that media in Arab countries have been examples of transparency, equality and democracy -- far from it. But, to an extent, there was a media evolution underway, dictated partly by the advent of the Internet and subsequent rise of social media, plus the heated competition from pan-Arab satellite channels.
That evolution, if it had not been violently interrupted by a brutal media war should have had some positive contributions. These are the rise of sociopolitical consciousness, affirmation of collective Arab identity, and, more importantly, the creation of a space where the Arab citizen, any citizen, could find room for self-expression free from the confines of government censorship and retribution of the state.
But now the state, desperate to survive burgeoning popular pressures and massive mobilization, has begun to appreciate the adverse repercussions from free media platforms, and is cracking down. It seems that the only spaces that remain open in the state-sanctioned media are populated by the likes of Okasha and Adeeb.
At this critical stage of popular transformation, the stunting of critical Arab media will register its negative impact for years to come. To save themselves, some Arab regimes have chosen to sacrifice the intellect of their societies.
But the issue has its roots in a context that came much earlier than the Arab Spring.
Of course, that discourse too was manipulated to fit fantastic political ambitions, whether they were genuine -- as ones fairly expressive of the will of Arab masses -- or fabricated as self-serving agendas by dictators or ruling classes.
The early attempts at pan-Arab media, however, were often used as platforms for regional Arab conflicts. In time, Arab rulers began understanding the immense value of owning and manipulating media to their advantage. And whenever possible, they censored, controlled and punished those who couldn't be bought or refused to be censored.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, argues Paul Cochrane, was a breaking point between attempts at manipulating and intimidating media and owning it. The regional break-ups that resulted from that war were so severe that they effectively ended the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), an alliance that united Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and North Yemen. And they further strengthened another: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The latter had wealth, and that meant media access.
The post-war period brought a buying frenzy, where some rich Arab countries and wealthy businessmen attempted to consolidate their control over Arab public opinion by using newly founded satellite television stations and uniting various Arab societies around cheap entertainment.
When Al Jazeera was launched in 1996, and despite the fact that it was funded by a country that itself is not an icon of freedom of expression, a new type of competition rose between rival Arab countries. Other media soon sprang up that were also funded by rich Arabs and manned mostly by Arab intellectuals and journalists from poorer countries. In that new media realm, "freedom of expression" existed as long as they offered views, at least politically, matching the political agendas of the funders.