I’m spending the next two days at the second Al-Jazeera Forum, “Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility”. I’m speaking on a panel on “Media and Power” tomorrow morning, but will do my best to cover the rest of the conference, sharing my notes on people’s talks with you with a minimum of commentary. Needless to say, I don’t agree with everything being said at this forum, nor could I, as there’s already a pretty amazing spread of opinions – I’m doing my best to share what I’m hearing, complicated by the fact that the conference is in English and Arabic, switching moment to moment, and I’m getting a good bit of the discussion in translation, through headphones.
Wadah Khanfar, the Managing Director of Al Jazeera, is the third speaker to welcome guests to the forum this morning. After brief remarks from from news presenter Eman Ayad and Sheik Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, Jazeera’s chairman, Khanfar used his time to remind the audience that the issues of freedom and responsibility are anything but theoretical when applied to the media in the Middle East. 2005 is a year that’s seen a huge number of journalists killed in the line of duty, he reminds us, as well as restrictions (in the form of anti-terrorism legislation) that makes it extremely difficult for journalists to do their job. He directly addresses the abductors of Jill Carrol, arguing that it’s never ethically acceptable to target journalists… (This is also a not-so-subtle reference to the meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair where Bush allegedly suggested bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters.)
Khanfar sees journalists as trying to walk a middle path between limits set by their responsibilities and ethical limits, as well as by their freedoms to say what they see and they believe. It’s this freedom to speak freely that Khanfar sees as most critical – the power of journalism is a soft power, not created by prisons, courts and armies, but created by the ability to speak freely.
The first session, “The World Media: Building Bridges of Understanding or Creating Divisions?” is a panel of journalists and scholars from around the world, led by Al Jazeera’s US presenter, Riz Khan. It’s a useful introduction to the spread of views we’re likely to see at the conference over the next two days.
Abdul Bari Atwan, the chief editor of Al Quds, argues that there are media biases towards political globalization and American hegemony. He argues that western media has adopted “lies and misconceptions” about weapons of mass destruction and links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. These untruths have led to the death of a hundred thousand Iraqis and the injury of 400,000. It was the media’s responsibility to investigate these allegations about weapons of mass destruction more and in more depth. What good does it do for the New York Times to apologize after the fact that they didn’t investigate closely enough? It can’t bring back the people killed in the war.
Fahmy Howeidy, deputy chief editor of Al Ahram, argues that the media needs to separate itself from politics. The role of the media, he argues, is enlightening people, defending freedom, reporting the truth and increasing tolerance. There needs to be a disengagement between media and politics – we need to regain the “innocence” of the media.
Andres Izzara, the president of new Venezuelan television network, TeleSUR, addresses the topic of the session directly, saying that “bridging at the core of his work” – building bridges between different Latin American nations. Historically, to discover what’s going on in Latin America, you needed to go outside the region, to CNN or the AP. By having a Latin American network cover the region, it will change the way coverage happens in the region. There’s a decided parallel to Al Jazeera here, and Izzara wants to take advantage of Jazeera’s experience in bridging across the Arab world and help build bridges between the Middle East and Latin America.
Marc “Abu Aardvark” Lynch offers his perspective as an American university professor who speaks Arabic and covers the Arab media. After 9/11, he tells us, a lot of Americans are responding not to the arab media, but to what they’re being told about the arab media. The gap in worldview between the US and the Middle East is a massive one. Arguments about Israel, Palestine and Iraq are well developed ones in the arab world. But they sound like “code words” when reported in the US media. Listeners in the US hear inflamatory quotes that have been carefully cherrypicked. Most americans think of Al-Jazeera as “jihad tv”. Something that could be a bridge has not been.
As a professor, what Marc tries to do is give students direct access to what Arabs are actually saying. People don’t have to agree – we should have arguments – but we need to engage in the same arguments. He hopes that the lively debates that happen in the Arabic media can be translated so that English speakers can see how much disagreement really happens in the Arab world.
Mounir Shafik, an author and intellectual, makes the argument that there’s actually very little freedom in western media. “People writing in arab media express a large spectrum of opinions, which I can’t see in major channels in the west. Those channels won’t even allow people like me to appear on their screens.” Western media didn’t reflect the crimes Israelis were committing against Palestinians in a fair way. Western media focuses on the powerful in Davos over people actually building bridges at the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre.. “That’s why I believe media in our countries has more freedom than western media has.”
Shafir believes that Western media does not reflect the opinion of western citizens – lots of people have opinions not seen on tv, and have books that haven’t been published. The western media, he says, likes to hold itself up against the media in the former Soviet Union, which spoke with only one voice. The comparison shouldn’t be made with the Soviet Union, but with the developing world. In the meantime, the only voices that can be heard in the US media are the Democrat and Republican voices, no alternative voices.
Allister Sparks, the former editor of South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail
(now the Mail and Guardian) (see note at end of post), agrees that there are defects in the Western media, and sees the emergence of the Middle Eastern press as a counterbalancing force to that. Once Jazeera is broadcasting internationally in English, it’s likely to have a global vounterbalancing effect. But media, overall, is a positive force, not a divisive one. If not for the persistence of alternative media in South Africa and the international media, South Africa would never have changed and moved away from Apartheid.
Addressing Shafik’s contention that the Arab press is more free than the western press, a questioner from the floor draws a distinction between domestic and foreign issues – while the Arab press is very free about international issues, it’s forbidden to speak about domestic issues… in fact the open debate on international issues distracts from debate on domestic issues. In the US and UK, there’s far more freedom to speak on domestic issues and less to speak freely on international issues.
Another questioner argues that it’s a mistake to consider Arab media as a single block – Al-Jazeera is very different from state owned media. Similarly, it’s a mistake to put the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph in the UK in the same bucket.
Allister Sparks responds to a question with a sense of disappointment about some of the responses heard so far. He suggests that there’s a serious shortage of self-examination in Arab media. Did Middle Eastern media investigate corruption of Fateh closely before the election of Hamas? How much serious examination of human rights violations is happening in local media? Media was much less outward-looking in South Africa. While there’s a great debate here over inequities of American media, to what extent are local issues being discussed domestically? Mark Lynch agrees with this – while it’s important for Arab media to build bridges to the western world, it’s also critical for Arab media to develop a competency and focus on critical domestic issues.
Update: by email, Anton Harber tells me: ” The Mail & Guardian was not the Rand Daily Mail of Allister Sparks’ time. The RDM closed, a group of us started the Weekly Mail (now the M&G) as a very different newspaper. RDM was mainstream, soft liberal, while Weekly Mail was alternative and distinctly further to the left. We came from the RDM tradition, but we were of the generation of the 1980s, the post-Soweta uprising period – with a very different attitude to the liberation movement, sanctions, extra-legal activity – all of which we supported and the RDM did not.” My apologies.