Modern history


It took some time before the potentialities of this new technology for propaganda were appreciated and utilized. As with so much else in the modernization of the region, this began with the incursion of revolutionary France and the spread of French revolutionary ideas. The first newspapers published in the Middle East were written in French and issued by French government agencies. In the 1790s the printing press which the French had established in their embassy in Istanbul began to produce bulletins, communiques, and other official French statements. In 1795 the French ambassador began the publication of a regular bulletin, of six to eight octavo pages, distributed to French nationals throughout the Levant. In 1796 the bulletin became a newspaper—the Gazette Française de Constantinople, the first newspaper in the history of the Middle East. It ran from four to six pages and appeared at irregular intervals of about a month. In 1798, when the French expedition landed in Egypt, the press was sequestered by the Ottoman authorities. It was later returned, but the French did not resume publication of the Gazette.

When General Bonaparte went to Egypt he took with him, in addition to his weapons and equipment of war, two printing presses, one privately owned, the other official. The occupying administration published a French official journal, appearing every five days. They may also have published a short-lived Arabic newspaper, though this is uncertain. What is certain is that the French authorities from time to time issued printed announcements in Arabic, which were posted and circulated. This was a profoundly significant innovation and had a considerable impact.

The first issue of the first real Arabic periodical was published in Egypt by order of Muammad 'Alī Pasha on November 20, 1828. It was for some time the only newspaper, and for long the most important, in Egypt.

In this as in much else, the sultan in Istanbul took up the challenge of the pasha in Cairo. In 1832 the Ottoman government published the first issue of the official Moniteur Ottoman, in French. This was followed in the same year by a second journal, in Turkish. Both journals, like their Egyptian predecessor, initially consisted of official announcements, official appointments, judicial reports, and descriptions of the ruler's activities on state occasions. A leading article in an early issue explained that this newspaper was a continuation of the old tradition of the imperial historiographer, an official appointed by the sultan to keep a day-by-day written record of events. The newspaper, it explained, had the same function—to make known the true nature of events and the real meaning of the acts and commands of the government so as to prevent misunderstanding and to forestall uninformed criticism. This aptly summarizes the purposes and functions of many newspapers in the region to the present day.

The first independent, that is, nongovernmental, newspaper in the region was started by a Frenchman called Charles Tricon in Izmir in 1824. It continued for many years, sometimes changing its name and its ownership. Its open and forthright comments on public affairs sometimes brought hostile reaction from foreign powers. The nineteenth-century Ottoman historian Lûtfi, in volume 3 of his Tarih, describes an attempt by the Russian ambassador in Istanbul to persuade the Ottoman authorities to suppress the paper. He quotes the ambassador as saying, "In France and England journalists can express themselves freely, even against their own kings; so that on several occasions, in former times, wars broke out between France and England because of these journalists. Praise be to God, the Ottoman realms were protected from such things, until a little while ago that man [the founder and editor of the paper] turned up in Izmir and began to publish his paper. It would be well to stop him."

Despite such interventions, the paper continued to appear. At first, nonofficial newspapers were written in foreign languages by foreign journalists for foreign readers. They were followed by publications in Greek, Armenian and Judeo-Spanish, for the religious minority communities. The first nonofficial paper in Turkish was founded in 1840 by an Englishman called William Churchill. After one or two inconclusive efforts, a major Arabic newspaper was started in Istanbul by Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, a Lebanese Christian convert to Islam, in 1860, with strong support from the Ottoman government. This paper, Al-Jawā'ib, circulated all over the Arab world and was probably the most influential Arabic newspaper of the nineteenth century. Some other Arabic newspapers were published at the time both abroad, in Marseilles and Paris, and, more important, in Beirut. These were started by missionaries, first Protestant, then Catholic. Both were backed by their missions and churches and engaged in bitter propaganda warfare among themselves. Probably the most influential was the Jesuit-sponsored paper Al-Bashīr, published in Beirut from September 1870. The growth of an independent and active Arabic press soon began to cause serious concern to the authorities, who responded in two ways: by imposing restrictions on printing and publication, and by sponsoring counterpropaganda of their own.

The relative freedom of expression brought to Egypt by the British occupation encouraged the emergence of a lively and diverse press, created not only by Egyptians but also by journalists from Syria, Lebanon and other regions. By the present day vast numbers of newspapers and magazines of every kind are published all over the Arab world, as well as in many foreign countries where there are Arabic-speaking populations. Some of these latter circulate widely in Arab countries and have become powerful forces in molding opinion.

The first printing press in Iran was established in Tabriz in about 1817; the second fairly soon after in Tehran. Newspapers began to appear from about 1848, first in the capital and then in other cities. The first daily newspaper began in 1898; the first satirical journal in 1900. By the end of the century, newspapers in the Persian language were appearing in Istanbul, England, France, India, Egypt and even the United States.

The newspaper required an entirely new element—the journalist. At his most ambitious, he may appear to combine the functions of the poet, the historian, and the state secretary. Like the poet, and unlike the state secretary, he may—at least in a free society—conduct propaganda against, as well as in favor of, the ruler. The development of the media in the twentieth century enormously increased the scale and scope of his activities and correspondingly increased the opportunities for fabrication and distortion. This aspect of journalism was noted as far back as 1690, by a Moroccan ambassador in Spain. In his report he speaks of the press as a "writing mill" and notes that the newsletters, popular in Europe at the time, were "full of sensational lies."

The profession of journalism, which began in Europe and spread from there to every part of the world, is now firmly ensconced in most of the Middle East and exhibits the whole familiar range of journalist types, form the venal scribbler peddling lies and threats in the service of wealth or power to the fearless fighter for truth and freedom.

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