Church and State in the Middle East

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Carl Foster.

Like many international travelers, the first thing I do when
I arrive in a foreign hotel room is switch on the TV and flick through the
channels for some English speaking news. More often than not, the only such channel
I find is CNN International, the global sibling of CNN, “the most trusted name
in news.”

Carl blog graphicCNNi is a bit like CNN, but with more feature programming,
something that is a nice change of pace from the usual rolling news. You would
expect to think that this feature programming is editorially independent,
right? Well, read on.

As reported
by Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, CNNi’s “Eye On” series, like “Eye On
Lebanon,” is typically produced “in association with” the respective government
of the country being featured. It takes some digging to find out exactly what
“in association with” means. For example, for the “Eye On Lebanon” piece the
“in association language” appears in greyed out text at the very bottom of the
webpage (see screen grab).

Outside of the Middle East, CNNi continues to trade on its
reputation. As reported in eurasianet, CNNi’s “Eye on Kazakhstan” ends with an
"in association" disclosure that merely shows two unnamed corporate
logos. Eurasianet reports that, “those logos are of agencies of the Kazakh
government, though the average viewer would have no way of knowing this. The
program also features an expert guest who, undisclosed to the viewer, is an
employee of the Kazakh government.”

The CNN website
its sponsorship policy
, and claims that “at no stage do the sponsors
have a say in which stories CNN covers, which people CNN interviews or how we
present our editorial content” and that, “the editorial content is commissioned
and produced solely by CNN editorial staff or external contractors approved by
CNN editorial.” While this policy may stand up in court, it doesn’t ring true
to the casual viewer. There may not be direct editorial control by sponsors,
but if a major global news organization is producing editorially balanced
features on countries such as Lebanon and Kazakhstan, I would imagine some reporting
such as:

“When you arrive first arrive in Kazakhstan be sure to
notice the NATO military transports shipping equipment out of Afghanistan,” or,
“no trip to Lebanon is complete without a visit to the mine-riddled,
Hezbollah-controlled southern border with Israel.”

A more worrying result of the blurred lines between church
and state is CNNi’s refusal to broadcast an hour long documentary on the Arab
Spring uprising in Bahrain. The documentary, titled "iRevolution: Online
Warriors of the Arab Spring” is a hard-hitting piece – you can see it here
on YouTube. But it appears it is too hard-hitting to show on CNNi, even
though it is perfectly suited to CNNi’s audience. Why? One could suggest that
since 2008 and the drop in advertising revenue in the US, CNN has become less
profitable, and so it looks to its lucrative international sibling to make up
the numbers. Indeed, why would a news organization want to unnecessarily upset
a sponsor, or potential sponsor, by broadcasting a documentary on one of the
biggest news stories of the year?

The financial challenges that media organizations currently
face are more than just a business issue; they are a challenge to freedom and
democracy in all parts of the world. For sure, social media represents the
future, and it has already played a significant role in democracy movements,
such as the Green revolution in Iran. But we need publications such as the New
York Times
, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Le Monde,
who can speak with the authority derived from 100 plus years of publishing.
Commercial pressures, no matter how acute, should not tarnish this authority
and reputation.

Before I entered the big wide world of work, I taught
English in Moscow. In one class I was discussing a news article with one of my
adult students. His first question was, “who published it?” I looked at him and
could see the suspicion of a man steeped in decades of Soviet totalitarian
repression. We’re a long way from the old Russian saying about the two main
Soviet newspapers, “In Pravda there is no news and in Izvestia there
is no truth,” but as news organizations succumb to commercial pressures
and blur the lines between church and state, we will all increasingly ask, “who
published it?”


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