Public conference examines role of media in Arab societies
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Arab and Western journalists, academics and experts gathered at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi today addressing the Role of the media in Arab societies.The conference, organized by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the College of Communication and Media Sciences of Zayed University aimed at exploring the reciprocal relationship between societal changes and the media.
In his key note address, Dr. Johannes Beermann, Media Minister of the German Federal State of Saxony, elaborated on the universal duties of journalists worldwide, no matter which cultural background they work in: to provide information that allows people to understand current events in politics, economy and culture and enable them to orient themselves.
“Various media represent differing opinions which allow the public to form its own opinion independently,” Dr. Beermann said.
In the first panel “Western and Arab News Media: a comparative approach” the consensus among the pianists which included Dr. Jan Keulen from the Center for Media Freedom in Doha, Dr. Abbas Sadig and Dr. Rainer Hermann from the German daily newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was clear: the ethics of journalism are the same, but the conditions in which they work in are different.
“There is no Arab or Western journalism,” Dr. Keulen said. “There is only good and bad journalism.”
During the discussions on the recent coverage of developments in the Arab world, Michael Peel from the Financial Times explained just how difficult it was to get access to reliable information, particularly where governments stop journalists travelling to countries or try to control their movements while they are there.
He added “And relying on the social media as an information source is not possible as you need to be able to verify the source as authentic and reliable.”
Bill Spindle, Middle East Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswire agreed.
“There are many false leads by people who use social media,” he said. “Hence, there is still a strong need for professional journalists to be on the ground and report directly from the hotspots.”
One focus of the discussions were the role of the new media like Twitter or Facebook that have been frequently as the driving force behind the Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. However, Dalia Mogahed, the lead researcher at Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, a participant at the conference, pointed out that only 17 percent of demonstrators in Egypt had access to the Internet, putting into question the actual influence of social media.
Blake Hounshell, Managing Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, that while many consumers in the Middle East have turned to social media to gather news because they do not trust the traditional media in the region, the influence of news channels like Al Jazeera is still unchallenged.
In their panel on “Ethics and Responsibility of the Media” Dr. Ildikó Kaposi from the American University of Kuwait, Khalid Al Haribi, Managing Director at Tawasul in Oman and Dr. Hassan Al Subaihi, Professor of Mass Communication at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, discussed the question if worldwide shared guideline for securing the freedom of press should be established. Dr. Kaposi said that while the political and historical context of a country is important, universal principles for all can still be upheld such as preserving lives and the norm of truthfulness.”
Dr. Al Subaihi subscribed to a more locally limited approach. He said “Media ethics in general are related to the ownership of the respective media outlet. About 80% of the media is owned by the government. If the owners of the media organizations have ethics, than the media has ethics”. Khalid Al Haribi pointed out that there are three questions to be answered before developing a code of ethics: Who defines a code of ethics? Who enforces the code of ethics? Who guarantees it?
The day culminated in the evening with a prominently casted panel featuring Mishaal Al Gergawi, Columnist at the Gulf News, Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, Caroline Faraj, editor with CNN Arabic, as well as Najib Bencherif, senior editor with Al Arabiya.
Much of the discussion centered on the question of objectivity and truth finding as the main duty of good journalism. Shadi Hamid made his case for the right of journalists to support the case of the conflicting party they consider “right.” “If journalists cover a cause they believe in, why do they have to be objective and fair?” And he continued: “We have to re-think what it means to be objective. There is no objectivity as we all have our backgrounds and reasons. It is more about truth.”
Caroline Faraj strongly disagreed and stressed that a journalist has to always look at and report on any event and issue from all sides and angles. “A journalist has to be neutral.” However, as a blogger, she added, “you can write whatever you want.”
“It is a duty of journalists to show the people situations where we have problems. Journalists have to tackle horny issues!” emphasized Mishaal Al Gergawi. As government restrictions in many countries do not allow the traditional media to openly address problematic issues, people turn to the social networks to express their opinion, he explained. “The role of the Social Media is in the Arab world more important than in North America.”
“The problem is the lack of freedom and self-censorship”, so Najib Bencherif. He explained that not all but many Arab journalists lack the training of critical reporting and the knowledge to ask the right questions. To change that it requires a change in journalists’ and people’s minds and mentalities, he continued.
The co-organizers of the event were thrilled with its success.
“We’ve gathered an impressive array of speakers and engaged in a great discussion about the role of the media here in this region,” Marilyn Roberts, the Dean of Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences, said. “The importance of strong, ethical news coverage can not be understated.”
“Events like these are the ones that encourage a dialogue between the cultures.” Thomas Birringer, Regional Representative to the Gulf-States of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung stated. “One of our activities here in the region is to train young Emirati journalists. It is important for them to understand the dynamics between the media and society to carry out their duties as journalists responsibly.”
Abu Dhabi, June 15, 2011