Panama Papers party-pooped by Arab media

People who don’t have access to the Internet in the Arab world or don’t watch the Arabic-language satellite television channels of Western broadcasters--the BBC, France 24 or Deutsche Welle--are not likely to know the full story of the Panama Papers.

Crucial details that concern Arabs have been selectively left out from news reports in many main mainstream print and broadcast media in Arab countries.

[M Tunisia TV]

[M Tunisia TV]

What these media outlets chose not to tell viewers and readers is the fact that a number of serving and former Arab leaders, politicians and businessmen are named in the Panama Papers. Chief among them are the king of Saudi Arabia, the President of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar’s former ruler and its ex-prime minister, ex-prime ministers of Jordan and Iraq, a close associate of the king of Morocco, relatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and the son of Egypt’s former President Hosny Mubarak.

The naming of these prominent figures makes the leak a politically sensitive news story, which means it could not be treated with impartiality by the majority of Arab media outlets; most are not upholders of impartiality anyway.

Whilst the Panama leak was the top news story around the globe for days after the publishing of the revelations, it was given little prominence and a selective, biased coverage noticeably on the two main pan-Arab satellite channels and their websites— Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

The coverage of the two Gulf-owned channels and other similar outlets, independent only in name, exposed their underlying bias.

Al Jazeera’s coverage of the tax haven leak was striking in its partiality. It belies its self-proclaimed reputation as a beacon of independent, impartial journalism among regional media outlets that disseminate mendacious official propaganda.

Al Jazeera, funded by Qatar, treated the story, for example in its main evening news bulletin on April 4, as though the leaked documents made no mention of the country’s former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The issue for Al Jazeera did not merit more than a three-minute report in which the leak was briefly explained. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close associates and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s cousins implicated in the Panama Papers were the highlight of the report.

This coverage, replicated on the channel’s website, Aljazeera.net, corresponds closely with Qatar’s Syria policy characterised by antagonism towards the Syrian regime and its Russian allies.

The channel has treated the story in a way that adds to existing perceptions that the journalism it offers is turning partisan.

This perception has become true even of its reputable English channel whose coverage of the leak has not been much different from its Arabic sister in terms of the selective omission of all the Gulf potentates named in the documents.

On April 2, Al Jazeera English treated the leak as a business story about “offshore dealings of world leaders, criminals and celebrities”. Its correspondent in Mexico City made reference to world leaders implicated in the papers from the Ukrainian and Argentinian presidents to the inner circle of the Russian president. There was not a fleeting mention of a single leader from the Middle East or North Africa.

In an opinion piece published on its website, Al Jazeera English delved into why some of the offshore dealings revealed in the documents are “perfectly legal”—the implication is the Gulf leaders, named in the documents and unmentioned in the channel’s coverage of the story, did nothing wrong.  Its conclusion was: 

Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm from which the documents have been leaked, has said it ‘does not foster or promote illegal acts’. And that’s the key: wealthy clients who may wish to hide money from their spouses, children and public scrutiny employ law firms to make sure they don’t fall foul of the law. While such offshore structures are legal they are increasingly seen as odious in the realm of public opinion.

Al-Jazeera’s main competition, the Saudi-owned broadcaster Al Arabiya and its website was little better--not surprisingly. Unlike Al-Jazeera, the channel tends not to trumpet itself as the model for free speech in the region.

The highlights of its Panama Papers coverage were various figures—all non-Arab--implicated in the leak from footballer Lionel Messi to the prime minister of Iceland. The leak was treated as a business story with no Gulf connection—certainly not King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his allies and the rulers of the neighbouring United Arab Emirates—home to Al Arabiya’s headquarters.

Similarly, selectivity in coverage characterized the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, perceived to be a propaganda platform for the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah organisation; hence its anti-Gulf stance.

Its coverage of the tax haven leak reflected this slant. Al Mayadeen made reference to the Saudi king and the former emir of Qatar among other world leaders and public figures named in the leak, eschewing any mention of the Syrian regime’s offshore dealings, as revealed in the Panama Papers.

The slanted coverage by Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and their sectarian rival Al Mayadeen reflects the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Iran-backed Syrian regime and Hezbollah. Their skewed coverage spans the whole range of sectarian regional conflicts and crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. The often divergent foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example on Egypt and Libya, are reflected in the coverage of their mouthpieces--Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.

Some Arabs turn to the Arabic-language television channels of the BBC, France 24 and Germany’s Deutsche Welle for relatively balanced and accurate reporting. The three international channels’ coverage of the tax haven leak stands in a stark contrast to that of the three pan-Arab satellite channels.

On its Facebook page, Deutsche Welle Arabia provided in detail the names of serving and former Arab leaders, public officials and close associates of Arab leaders implicated in the tax haven leak. It also examined why Gulf Arab leaders have offshore dealings considering the lack of taxes and any form of oversight in their countries.

The story elicited many Facebook comments that suspected an ulterior motive behind the publishing of the leaked documents, accusing the West and Israel of keeping up the pursuit of weakening Muslim countries.

Comments generally reflected sentiments of mistrust towards Arab leaders widely perceived to be corrupt. 

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 22.31.56.png

Social media commentators and independent news websites in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco provided a detailed coverage of the Panama Papers.

Websites like Egypt’s Mada Masr and Aswat Masriya delved into offshore dealings of Mubarak’s sons and various Egyptian companies and businessmen.

Comments on the articles posted on Facebook exposed a big cacophony of discordant views--the leak is a conspiracy hatched by the West and “Zionism” against Egypt, the Arabs or Russia; the Mubaraks are perceived as either honest businessmen or  deeply corrupt crony capitalists.