Interview with Kamal Hamidou, Head of the Qatar University Mass Communication Department
Ph.D in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism
In this interview, Professor Kamal Hamidou, Head of the Qatar University Mass Communication Department, examines domestic and international media operating in Arab countries, most notably Qatar, from a geopolitical perspective, that is, with implications in the field of international relations, and in light of Islam. On the one hand, conflicts triggered by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, in France, and, on the other hand, the media as factors of Peace among Civilizations are also topics addressed in this work.
Keywords: Arab world; International Communication; Islam; Public Diplomacy; Qatar.
Examining the media in the Arab / Islamic world
Jorge Marinho (JM) - From your standpoint, in order to examine the national and international media operating in Arab countries, should the Middle East's geopolitical importance be taken into account?
Kamal Hamidou (KH) - The media have always been tools of communication and tools of public opinion governing at the national levels. Just as it has always been a major tool in power struggles and propaganda/counter-propaganda actions, whether between the world powers, among the different zones of influence in the world, or quite simply between neighboring countries engaged in territorial conflicts or in any other conflicts of interest. This is more valid nowadays, where objectivity and impartiality as journalistic standards are flouted by the editorial rooms under the influence of politics, funders, editorial lines, or quite simply by the bias of the journalists themselves. This is truer for media whose coverage area is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where the internal political issues as well as the international dimension of those issues largely determine the content of local media as well as the content of international media that target Arab audiences in the region. The geopolitics of the MENA region taken in the context of its national, regional, international challenges is, therefore, an important element to be taken into consideration in the analysis of regional and international media operating in Arab countries, or those targeting the Arab world from other places.
JM - In Arab countries, including Qatar, is there freedom of expression and of the press like in Western countries? How is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the freedoms of expression and information, viewed in Qatar and in other Arab countries in general?
KH - The Arab world knew some valuable experiences of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the twentieth century through the Lebanon experience in the 1970s and the Algerian experience in the 1990s. However, both experiences have unfortunately ended, since the Lebanese experience was marred by the civil war, which broke out in 1975. The Algerian experience was hampered by an internal political and military conflict that put an end to the dynamics of media openness and pluralism started in 1990. There was also the Kuwaiti model, which has been characterized by a freedom of tone that had no equivalent in the Gulf countries since the 1980s. There are also other more or less successful examples in the 21st century, such as the Tunisian example after the Jasmine Revolution in 2011.
That being said, it is true that, politically and socially speaking, the Arab world, in its majority, has not yet fully integrated diversity and democracy as intrinsic values in the same way that the Western world has done for a long time. This is due first to the different paths towards democracy in the two civilizational spheres. Regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its principles are recognized and transcribed in most constitutions and political charters in the Arab countries. This is the case of Qatar, which, in addition to transcribing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into its texts and laws, has launched a multitude of governmental and non-governmental initiatives and popularization actions in previous years. However, although integrated into the official texts in almost every country in the MENA region, the culture of human rights is not present in every-day life and in everyone's lives, and religion has nothing to do with it. The fundamental precepts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do exist in the Islamic religion, since Islam openly preaches equality and emphasizes the dignity of human beings by clearly stipulating that only piety, in the sense of exemplary behavior towards Allah and others, may give rise to a distinction between one human being and another.
JM - In your opinion, does Islam change the way freedom of expression and freedom of the press are viewed, compared to non-Islamic countries? If so: to what extent does such change occur?
KH - Islam as a normative religion present in the daily lives of Muslims necessarily influences the way in which citizens of Arab-Muslim countries perceive freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Islam, indeed, imposes a moral and ethical framework, which every individual, whether he is citizen or media professional, must abide by in any process of information. For instance, it is clearly mentioned in the Quran (Chapter 49 Verse 6) that any reporter has to verify the information as well as the source “You who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.”
Unlike the liberal approach that dominates practices in most media systems in Western countries, Islam advocates ethical, moral and social responsibility in the elaboration and dissemination of media content. Media of Arab and Muslim countries observe a lot of reserves and restraints. With rare exceptions, sensationalism has no place in media practices in Arab-Muslim countries and anything that crosses the limits is considered deviant and is socially and morally condemned. Islam bans slander, defamation, attack on human dignity, racial discrimination, attack on religions, etc. Journalists and media content designers must, therefore, assert a sense of responsibility that is rooted in religious norms, often built on the principles of good vs. evil. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech end, therefore, at the borders of the common good and the dignity of the human being, because in the Muslim conception of the role of the media morality is paramount over information and every message must be a bearer of noble values.
JM - Given your analysis, in Arab countries generally speaking, and specifically in Qatar, how important are social media from an information perspective?
KH - In Qatari society, just like all societies in the Gulf countries, there has been an unparalleled and unprecedented passion for social media. This may be explained by the fact that these social media started off by constituting an alternative to the official media which did not give enough space for dissonant speeches in these societies. However, it should be noted that the enormous use of social networks in these countries remains intended primarily for entertainment purposes and secondarily for information purposes on apolitical subjects. Rare are the uses that address internal political affairs or that address public affairs except in Kuwait. The limits of freedom of speech set here and there by restrictive legal arsenals ended up by calming the ardor of actors who believed, at a specific moment, that they could use the potential of these media in political mobilization or to free expression on public affairs. This was the case, for example, in Bahrain following the political riots that broke out in the country after the Arab Spring in 2011.
In addition, and in parallel with the legislation of texts that reduce the margins of freedom on social networks, many countries armed themselves after the Arab Spring Revolutions with technological spy tools acquired from Denmark and Israel. These technologies gave states the possibility of controlling content by identifying the sources, which contributed largely to limiting the use of these networks to subjects related to distraction or apolitical information only. That being said, the use of these social networks for information on foreign political information remains high, especially since the boycott announced against Qatar by its neighboring countries. This boycott, which gave rise to a war of public opinion in the region, opened the door to an intensive use of these networks to justify the respective actions and policies of belligerent countries in this conflict.
International Communication geared to the Arab world
JM - Currently, traditional media and social media (can) serve to influence the hearts and minds of their audiences. From your standpoint, what should a country's Government do when its population or part thereof is targeted, via traditional media and/or social media, by entities linked to foreign governments, in order to exert political and economic influence abroad, in the short term and, mainly, in the middle and long term? Thus being the case, what preventive and protective measures should the receiving country's Government take?
KH - The use of new media at a global level does indeed give rise to manipulations and actions of disinformation, which can significantly influence public opinion in any country in the world and destabilize it. Indeed, many countries nowadays resort to social media by means of either cyber armies, supercomputers, super calculators or advanced software and applications in order to shape content intended to fabricate opinions in target societies, by influencing individuals in their political and ideological choices through subversive contents. These uses pose serious challenges to nations and to state regulatory institutions, which lose their monopoly on public opinion and national consensus building. The only recourse left to governments in these cases is to use the same social media to counterbalance the subversive discourse, by turning to an educational and explanatory approach instead of a propagandist approach, in order to reach the receivers' reason instead of their emotion. In the medium and long term, states can turn to intensive use of these media in domestic political communication, on condition that this work is carefully prepared in terms of communication efficiency. The success of these actions can be guaranteed only if the contents are expertly adapted to the target audience in terms of language and arguments used.
JM - How do you view international media linked to foreign countries (for example, the U.S.'s Alhurra TV and Radiosawa, Russia's RT, Germany's Deutsche Welle, France's France 24, China's CGTN, Japan's NHK, and the United Kingdom's BBC) broadcasting to audiences in Arab countries?
KH - These news channels are engaged in a fierce media battle by mobilizing colossal material resources to exert informational, political and ideological influence on Arab opinions and ideologies. They seek to compete with local channels that dominate the pan-Arab media landscape such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Sky News Arabia, in the three dimensions mentioned above. In addition to the previous channels, there are other important foreign channels that broadcast from the Middle East region itself or from a nearby area that target Arab audiences, such as the Iranian channel “Al-Alam,” the Turkish channel “TRT Arabic”, and the Israeli channel “I24” in Arabic.
The work of all of these channels is part of the so-called soft power and public diplomacy efforts. All these broadcast programs convey a vision of the world that reflects the cultural, political and ideological values specific to the countries that fund these channels. That being said, the effectiveness of these channels remains relative and their respective popularity depends on the degree of objectivity they demonstrate when covering subjects that affect the region, especially on major mobilizing or controversial issues. This is what explains why the BBC often tops the region's ratings, given that it has traditionally a much more objective and balanced approach. It rarely acts as a tool of domination in the hands of the former colonial or protective force that was the Great Britain of the past. It must also be said that the Arab viewer is not fooled; he is even among those most aware of the political and strategic issues that concern the entire region. As a result, Arab audiences are impervious to content of a propagandist or tendentious nature (politically, culturally or ideologically speaking).
JM - How do you relate Qatar's foreign policy with the Al Jazeera television station?
KH - Al Jazeera is a pan-Arab channel intended to be independent in its editorial line from governmental intervention. Its Director General has affirmed to us with strong conviction, on several occasions, that the editorial staff of the channel and journalists have never received political directives or observe any interference by the Qatari government in the editorial work of its editorial teams. We have to recall that the backbone of journalists working at Al Jazeera was mostly trained at the BBC school in the 1980s, so the professional touch of journalists is palpable in the content that Al Jazeera broadcasts.
On the other hand, Al Jazeera's credo is to be "the voice of those who have no voice," which is why journalistic works in this channel tend to provoke many political systems in place in several Arab countries and beyond. Al Jazeera was the first pan-Arab channel in the region that dared to break taboos and introduced controversial discourse into the Arab media scene in a way that challenged the prevailing conformism at the time. This freedom of tone has come at a cost to the Qatari government, knowing that Al Jazeera channel was even almost bombed by the American Army during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. If Al Jazeera had been under the orders of the Qatari Foreign Ministry, we would have seen other treatments of the subjects that have caused a lot of diplomatic trouble for the country, including those that have caused the blockade of the country in 2017. That being said, any television channel defends a vision that is rarely far from that of the government that funds it. This is the case of France 24, Al Hurra, RT, CCTV, TRT –for instance, although these channels belong to different press and political/ideological systems.
Professor Kamal Hamidou, an analyst of media within the Arab context.
Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in France
JM - What do you think of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed published in «Charlie Hebdo», in France (2011 / 2012)? Considering this type of publications, in your opinion, what should be the reaction of Muslims living both within and outside Islamic countries?
KH - First, it must be clarified from the beginning that any terrorist act that affects the lives of innocent people is religiously speaking wrong, morally condemnable, and humanly unacceptable, and that no religion in the world tolerates such acts. Likewise, we must make it clear that Islam is innocent of individuals’ acts for which it cannot be held responsible, given that individuals might act out of ignorance or under the effect of manipulation.
That being said, and from a purely professional and ethical point of view, the publication by the «Charlie Hebdo» newspaper of provoking and obscene caricatures (for some of them) touching the prophet of a religion followed by almost two billion people in the world is a major mistake. The cartoons struck the sensitivity of millions of people around the world and aroused emotion of millions of Muslims in France. It is a reckless act which has cost dearly in human lives and which has contributed to fuel antagonisms and to destroy a harmony that a lot of goodwill in France and at the international level have taken years to install through many campaigns for tolerance and for the acceptance of others. This unconscious act also contributes toward widening the artificial rift between the Muslim World and France, just as it nurtures the illusion of a rift between French people that certain unhealthy minds call for and act in depth to make it real and visible. Taking on the religion of seven million people in France and defending this act in the name of an absolute freedom of speech, regarded as sacred more than the sacred itself, is an unacceptable paralogism. In this case, the excuse becomes worse than the initial act, which might theoretically be qualified as a crime with regard to French Law on Freedom of the Press of July 29, 1881. This is especially true since there are precedents in France where the lawmaker did not hesitate to propose legislations that prohibit free speech or where justice did not hesitate to sentence French people to imprisonment or fines because of their ideas. This was the case, for instance, with the proposed law to ban criticism of Zionism, although this ideology constitutes a dangerous racist and supremacist ideology. Freedom of speech must end where the rights of others begin, and the media as well as public authorities have to assume their duty of defending the rights of French citizens to practice their religion freely without discrimination and without stigma. This is the very purpose of secularism in France, which must not turn into an ideology or even into an intolerant secular religion that looks at other religions with jaundiced eyes.
In our opinion, the «Charlie Hebdo» affair denotes a flagrant lack of ethics and professionalism among certain media and journalists, who seek, through sensationalism, to increase sales revenue, without worrying about either the rights of others or social cohesion of French society. This goes in parallel with the dangerous verbal escalation we see nowadays by some politicians and journalists, which could open the door to a dangerous rift within French society. It is regrettable to see that, in this dangerous game, certain journalists and certain media do complete the endeavor of certain far-right politics or certain informal forces that seek to fight Islam as a religion in France for obscure reasons. As for the second part of the question, I think that Muslims in France and those of the world would gain more not to react promptly to these provocations which we expect to occur repeatedly in the future. They can turn to many political, legal and associative non-violent means to make their disapproval known, just as they can use the polls and peaceful demonstrations to make their voices heard.
JM - From the standpoint of Islam, how should a Muslim get along with the media of non-Islamic countries?
KH - Like any good Christian or any good Jew -to name only the believers of the three religions of the Book- a good Muslim is educated to observe a moral code and religious norms that tend to elevate him to the virtue. Nevertheless, more than a set of rules and norms, Islam itself is a way of life. This is why, in theory, a Muslim must submit any exogenous value that is incompatible with the mores and normative framework of the Muslim religion to the examination of his reason and his conscience. This is valid for news programs as well as for entertainment programs in the media. If this exercise is relatively easier for a Muslim living outside Western societies, it remains a daily challenge for the Muslims living in the West, torn between the need for information, the need to integrate into the host society and the need to observe the norms and values specific to their religion. A good Muslim should take the best of the non-Muslim media and leave out the bad values, the benchmark between the two being good vs. evil as a moral value common to all religions and as an innate value rooted in all human beings. However, in reality, things are more difficult and more complex, because of the effect of the enculturation and alienation; Western values coexist with Muslim values in Muslim individuals, not without, from time to time, provoking real moral dilemmas and issues of conscience inside them.
Media as builders of Peace among Civilizations
JM - In your opinion, how can the media (for instance, journalism and cinema) specifically contribute toward bringing Arabs and non-Arabs together?
KH - News or entertainment media may play an important role in bringing people together, if journalists, scriptwriters and producers get rid of their ethnocentrism and, consequently, of the stereotypes it generates in the way they describe the other. The media must be diffusers of positive contents that make them vectors of peace, tolerance and harmony, not tools of racism, division and rejection of the other, as is the case nowadays. The best strategy for bringing Arabs and Westerners closer together through journalism, cinema and satellite television channels is to make people known to each other, with a greater effort in a south-north cultural popularization of southern cultures. Western media, in this regard, must be more open and more tolerant to feature Arab culture, religion and traditions and to make scientific, artistic and technological achievements known to Western people, away from the harmful stereotypes they have conveyed in the past. It is only at the cost of this effort that the objectives of concord and cordial understanding can be reached.
(This interview was conducted, via e-mail, on October 26, 2020)
Photo granted by the interviewee, Professor Kamal Hamidou.
Published by Marinho Media Analysis / November 4, 2020.
A short version of this interview was also published in the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) Blog / United States of America / February 11, 2021