How much control does the government have over the press? Are recent sanctions imposed on journalists keeping the people from knowing the truth?
It is not only in Middle Eastern dictatorships that these questions must be asked.
In March 2011, the Arab Spring first came to Syria, but even those in Syria were not aware of the extent of the opposition. The coverage coming from the Middle East was remote and uninformed, as the government had begun to refuse access to foreign journalists.
The first rumours of protests started to appear on television, before the government banned Al-Jazeera and other free press from televising any dissent.
In Damascus, Syrians were convinced that the country would remain peaceful. I was surprised the first time I saw evidence of protests in rural Syria, on a day when I was shopping in Damascus.
The shopkeeper, a young Syrian man, pointed to the television and said: “not here, not in Syria. We are happy with our lives here.”
Most people in Damascus still hold this view, despite the reports we see in the West of violent crackdowns carried out by security forces in towns outside the capital. If this violence were widely recognised and acknowledged by the press, perhaps the attitude in Damascus would be different.
I was still in Syria when the protests broke out, one of the few foreign students still studying in Damascus. This enabled me to experience the political situation first-hand.
I attended the first pro-government demonstration in Damascus, in which thousands of Syrians had gathered to profess their support for ‘Bashar,’ or President Assad.
I was therefore in a position to compare news coverage in the West to that of the Damascus’s government news agency, Sham, and the stark differences between this coverage and reality. The press reported as fact the government’s claim that the protests had been started by either a) Israel or b) foreign terrorists intent on driving a rift between the Syrian people and their government.
The relationship between politicians and journalists in much of the Middle East is one of control. If the government cannot control every story published and every move made by journalists under its jurisdiction, it is, according to its own criteria, doing something wrong.
I had previously come to a similar conclusion in Egypt, where I investigated the differences in election coverage between the popular newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm and the government-run Al-Ahram, the ruling National Democratic Party’s mouthpiece. Needless to say, I discovered stark differences. The government newspaper even went so far as to refuse to acknowledge the opposition.
The shocking fact is this: it is not just in the Middle East (where politicians have their own media outlets in order to maintain complete control) that fear of politicians controlling journalists must be acknowledged.
In Britain, where press claims to be free, there has also, in recent months, been a surge in press oppression. This country has witnessed the passing of new libel laws which make it increasingly difficult to gather information, and which even, in some cases, criminalise dissent.
Sitting in the Durham Union above crowd of cheering (and booing) students when Nick Clegg visited, I shared an alcove with a cameraman from The BBC in order to get my shots of the visiting celebrity.
Clegg visited Durham the day before the election to reach out to students in one last effort to gain the student vote. He agreed to an interview with our editors, wishing to be well-represented by the student press.
Little did he know that David Miliband, the charismatic Labour MP, had that very morning visited the same place and made an impression on students that lingered far longer than Clegg’s speech.
Palatinate fairly represented this discrepancy, and it was the Labour representative who won the local election, though whether our coverage of the Miliband and Clegg visits had an impact on that result is impossible to tell.
Durham University have, in the past, accused Palatinate of being too controversial, of unfairly attacking the university’s decisions and exposing too much of the truth. However, if the facts are all present, it is not only the newspaper’s lot but also its duty to report thoroughly on any breaches of student confidence. And, equally, it is the university’s duty to allow the press to carry out its role as reporter of truthful news that can be substantiated.
So do politicians control the press, or does the press control politics? Will the press be able to hold its own against an increasing fear of censure in many governments worldwide?
The answer to the question of control depends entirely on where you are, and the degree of freedom to which the press is allowed to operate. This year will prove a difficult one for journalists worldwide, with politicians from Durham to Syria operating in a system of reactionary fear.
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