By Morand Fachot, European Broadcasting Union Communications Service
Over 400 news professionals and executives representing the world's major news organizations, safety experts, and media specialists gathered in Vilamoura, Portugal, for the third edition of the News Xchange conference in mid-November.
With media coverage of the Middle East--in particular of the conflict in Iraq and of events in Israel and the occupied territories--high on the agenda of every news organization, Arab media and the safety of media workers in zones of conflicts were two of the main topics discussed at the conference.
Participants in places as far apart as Doha, Beirut, Amman, Washington, London, or Paris, took part in the debates of the two-day conference via more than forty satellite link-ups provided by the Eurovision network.
The focus on Arab media was highlighted by the screening, on the eve of the conference, of Control Room, a film on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV channel by Jehane Noujaim.
News Xchange 2004 opened with "The Year in Pictures," a short video report produced by APTN. The film was followed by a keynote speech by HM King Abdallah of Jordan addressing delegates on a live satellite link-up from Amman. Introducing the guest, CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan noted that an "increasingly powerful force" had emerged in the Middle East in the form of "an aggressive and influential Arabic language news media, TV networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya," which, he argued, "are revolutionising the way Arabs get their news."
King Abdallah started by stressing the importance he attached to liberalizing the media in Jordan. "We are enacting laws to restructure state media organizations and disengage the government from direct control. Laws have been drafted to liberalize the sector and to open the public airwaves to private TV and radio stations, and we abolished the Ministry of Information," he said.
In his speech and in answering questions from session chair Emad El Din Adeeb and delegates, the king outlined a number of points around which the session's debate was to develop.
The sovereign paid tribute to the impact of Arab broadcast media: "The phenomenon of the Arab media over the past several years has been a tremendously positive one," he said. He stressed how "dispassionate, knowledgeable reporting, fairness and credibility" were essential on the part of Arab media "if regional reform and peace are to succeed." He also emphasized the need for responsible journalists to "deprive extremists of platforms and exposure."
King Abdallah paid tribute to journalists and other media workers who died to tell the story. "Let me join you in paying tribute to a special group of your peers--the reporters and cameramen and translators and others who have been killed doing their job."
Western observers often fail to recognize the diversity of Arab media owing to a lack of knowledge of both the Arab world and language, several speakers noted.
"I feel very uncomfortable when I hear somebody saying, 'the Western media' because I don't know what we are talking about. If we are talking about the printed media you have the Sun on one side and The Guardian and The Independent; it's quite a diversity of views and treatments of information that we are receiving and the same thing applies in the Middle East. And the same thing applies in every individual station, you have different views, different elements, different ways of treatment and you have different programmes," said Hosam El-Sokkari, head of the BBC World Service's Arabic (radio) Service.
S. Abdallah Schleifer, director, Adham Centre for TV Journalism, Cairo, recalled how deeply Arab television journalism had changed in recent times: "Fourteen years ago there was no such things as Arab TV journalism, it did not exist … There was an honourable tradition in print journalism which goes back to the 19th century, but not of television journalism," he said. "There were news bulletins," he added. "A cameraman would go out and cover a minister opening a factory, or perhaps a president receiving a guest or a cabinet meeting with people sipping coffee and that was the beginning and the end of television journalism. There were no reporters, the reader would simply take wire copy from the state news organization which may be did or may be did not coincide with the pictures we were seeing." Schleifer went on to describe the change introduced with the arrival of CNN International in the Middle East in 1991, which provided coverage of the Gulf War at the time and marked the introduction of satellite television in the region.
The launch of the Doha-based Al Jazeera, following the 1998 collapse of BBC Arabic television, a joint venture with Orbit, a Saudi-owned company, marked a watershed for Arab media. BBC Arabic television folded after two years following disputes with Orbit over editorial content, its journalists later forming Al Jazeera's core editorial staff. Al Jazeera has since come to embody pan-Arab TV channels in the Western world and has been followed by a number of such channels.
However, Al Jazeera's relations with many Arab governments have not been easy over the years. It is still banned in Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, to name but a few. King Abdallah himself acknowledged this in his opening remarks: "We've had our good days and bad days with them (Al Jazeera). We do close them down when they get to the point of being incorrect with their information, when they are inflammatory in creating hatred and distrust … but that doesn't last for very long because we do believe in the freedom of the press," he told delegates.
Pan-Arab TV channels have come under a lot of criticism in Western countries for allegedly offering platforms to extremists, airing tapes of Usama bin Laden or executions of hostages-claims rejected by several broadcasters, not least by Ahmed Al-Sheikh, from Al Jazeera. Asked by session chair Emad El Din Adeeb if he felt "directly or indirectly part in creating the image or the myth of Usama bin Laden," he replied that the question should look at "the first time when the world was divided into camps of evil and good ... creating an equation of two parties. Usama bin Laden has become an essential part of that equation and as such his views have to be covered but in a news context, and this is how we deal with it." Al-Sheikh noted that this was the way US networks dealt with the issue too: Fox News and ABC News, for instance, recently showed five minutes of a fourteen minute tape of a masked al-Qaeda man threatening the USA with destruction.
"This is our judgment and this is how we feel about the tapes of Usama bin Laden, we feel that we have a moral responsibility of showing to our audience what is happening in the so called camp of evil, so we judge these tapes by this and accordingly we put what we feel is newsworthy on air," he said.
As for footage of executions "never before have we shown any beheading tape… we never showed these tapes, not a single frame. It's a policy, it's a longstanding editorial policy of Al Jazeera not to show these tapes," he stressed.
A point reiterated by Nart Bouran, editor-in-chief, Abu Dhabi TV: "It's a consistent policy… we decided it was not for us to act as a mouthpiece for any of these organizations that are kidnapping and killing hostages," he told delegates.
Ibrahim Mousawi, news director of the Lebanon-based pro-Hezbollah al-Manar channel, also claimed his channel was working "under the calibre of the standards of professionalism… You have to be smart enough to respect your audience… . We don't need to make a lot of propaganda to convince others of our cause," he said.
The Arab-Western divide regarding the treatment of video material was highlighted by the way NBC and Al Jazeera reported the recent shooting of an insurgent by a US Marine in a mosque in Falluja. Delegates were shown the reports - based on the same footage - as broadcast by both NBC and Al Jazeera.
Asked why NBC had not shown the actual shooting Bill Wheatley, vice president NBC News, replied, "Generally speaking NBC doesn't show specific acts of violence if too graphic…we think we properly informed people in the case of that report about what had happened. What we didn't do was show it in all its brutality and gruesomeness. It is not a question of bias, but one of taste. Arab television does not always show the most gruesome video material it obtains. Each in its own way is making judgment about what's appropriate to show."
Ahmed Al-Sheikh defended Al Jazeera's decision to show the shooting. "We are like NBC, we do not show gruesome scenes or pictures. But when we looked at the shots, first of all the shot was a medium-wide shot and was not showing the actual shooting in the head of the man. It was a medium-wide shot and in this case our editorial policy is that we can show these things," he explained.
Al Arabiya's position was identical to that of Al Jazeera, according to Salah Negm from the Dubai-based channel. "The NBC account of that event was concealed in a four or five minute report that talked about Falluja in general and very shyly about this event", he said-an interpretation rejected by Bill Wheatley, who argued that NBC had placed the shooting in context. "We made a very strong effort to give complete editorial information to the entire pool prior to the members using the pictures," he said.
The approach at the US government-funded Alhurra channel was "closer to NBC, not because we are based in Washington, but as a matter of taste," said Mouafac Harb, director of news at the channel. "What is key here is to get the story out, not what kind of shots we have used or not... Al Jazeera… just got the pictures and showed them. And this is not helping the truth because sometimes in our business shots can be deceiving," he added.
This quest for professionalism on the part of Arab broadcast media was illustrated earlier this year when Al Jazeera adopted a code of ethics which commits the channel to "adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility, and diversity, giving no priority to commercial or political considerations over professionalism."
Other channels are following in the same direction: "Everywhere I travel now when I go and visit in Doha and go to visit in Dubai, everybody is talking about striving for professionalism and I think they are striving for it," said Abdallah Schleifer.
However, can professionalism exist when many obstacles prevent proper reporting?
Certain channels are banned from many countries, Al Jazeera in particular, which has also been banned from Iraq for weeks. Furthermore, reporting on certain issues, such as corruption and democratization, can be very difficult.
Session chair Emad El Din Adeeb asked his hosts the question, "If Al Jazeera can talk about corruption in countries like Egypt or Jordan, if Al Arabiya can talk about corruption in Sudan, can Al Jazeera talk about corruption in Qatar? Can Al Arabiya talk about it in Saudi Arabia? We are very good about being transparent in other Arab countries, but not transparent about the sponsors of our networks and we have to confess here that we are not one hundred per cent free doing our jobs."
Mohamed Gohar, managing director, Video CairoSat, Egypt, acknowledged the difficulties, "we have to admit that we cannot discuss … our little problems like handling power or democracy or implementing the sharia law and we are facing many difficulties discussing these problems. Like our friend who criticised the minister of culture in Egypt, and has now spent three years in prison. ... So these are little problems that we suffer but we do have full democracy in criticising Bush and Sharon!" he quipped.
Salah Negm, from Al Arabiya argued that a distinction had to be made between pan-Arab channels or satellite channels and local channels, the former dealing "with issues of interest to twenty-two countries, such as Palestine and democratisation in general, but not going into specifics." This, he said, "was the role of local television which are financed by these governments and which should represent the diversity of that society, talking about local corruption, democracy, elections, about raising taxes, and actually being the fourth estate for supervising all the functions of government."
Alhurra's Mouafac Harb rejected this interpretation: "We say local channels in the Arab media that are controlled and funded by the state, as if the pan-Arab satellite ones are free and funded by Jefferson. They are all funded by the state somehow. It's a myth that the pan-Arab satellite channels are free and independent, and you know more than I do and if anybody can challenge me and point to one satellite channel in the Arab world that is not linked to an Arab regime money-wise, or an intelligence apparatus, or the son of a king or the nephew of a prince."
Challenged by Emad El Din Adeeb on the funding of his own channel, Harb explained that it was publicly funded by taxpayers and was "not a mouthpiece of an administration" given that the US was not under one-party rule.
A more disturbing approach was highlighted by Mohammed Gohar. Answering a question as to why Arab channels had been reluctant to air footage of the tragedy in Darfour, Sudan, he replied, "If in Darfour, a Muslim kills non-Muslims, then it doesn't really interest the Arabic media, but if it's vice versa it will be a hit for them and they will take it." The confession showed a number of Arab broadcast media still have some way to go to be fully professional.
Media with a Mission?
This quest for professionalism on the part of Arab media is further held back by their tendency of seeing themselves as invested with a mission, a need to mobilize forces against occupation or corruption, a trend rejected by the BBC's Hosam El-Sokkari. Although funded by a grant-in-aid of the British government, the BBC is not under "any pressure to be friendly towards British policies or the policies of any country friendly to the British government," he stressed. As regards mobilizing forces, "I think there is a third way," he said. "In the BBC we don't see ourselves as a medium with a political message. We are a platform for debate. Since we started our phone-in, we discussed issues like corruption and democracy but at the same time we offered as much diversity as possible for people to discuss these issues. We don't see that our job is to mobilize forces or mobilize the streets against governments."
In these troubled times media professionals have suffered an ever growing number of casualties. News Xchange has now become a major forum to discuss safety issues and the International News Safety Institute (INSI) held its annual general meeting on the eve of News Xchange for the second year in a row.
Chris Cramer, managing director CNN International and honorary president of INSI told delegates, "The death toll is three times higher than that of international humanitarian workers.... This has been arguably the most terrible year for our profession--after I sat here and told you last year it had been the most terrible year."
Reporting extensively from zones of conflicts, such as Iraq or the occupied territories, Arab media have suffered very significant casualties, an issue highlighted by Chuck Lustig, from ABC news, who paid tribute to "the employees of Arab networks who are doing the dirty work in Iraq. For that we all owe them a great deal of gratitude because as it gets more and more dangerous for Westerners to go out in Iraq, it is your employees who are covering what is going on in the country today. And for that we owe you a great deal of thanks."
The safety session looked at the danger faced by Arab journalists in Iraq, underlined by the killing of a large number of Arab media professionals by both sides as well as by the treatment inflicted on three Reuters and an NBC Arab staff members arrested in Falluja and later abused and humiliated in various ways by US forces for several days. David Schlesinger, global managing editor for Reuters, regretted that no proper investigation on the circumstances was ever carried out by the Pentagon.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon was thoroughly investigating every case of violence against journalists and noted that a war zone was always dangerous, but that the vast majority of journalists killed had not been embedded with US forces. A number of participants rejected this approach as indicating the Pentagon's willingness to manage the news agenda through the embed system.
A chilling reminder that some groups of insurgents were determined to cow the media into submission was the warning posted on the al-Qal'a web site: "We are swearing allegiance to God that we will reach all the media and news agencies that are not at least neutral in reporting news. We swear to God that we will hunt all the workers in these news agencies one after another and we will slaughter them like sheep if they stand beside the Americans and not broadcast the truth about the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. Their fate will be the same as Al Arabiya, who used to call the Mujahideen as terrorists."
Seven people were killed and several wounded on 30 October when a car bomb went off outside Al Arabiya offices in Baghdad.
The session also looked at a lesser known, but nevertheless very significant "collateral damage" of the media coverage of the war and the traumatic impact, on media staff in newsrooms and archives who view footage of a gruesome nature, such as beheadings and the executions of hostages, as part of their jobs.
Mark Brayne, of the Dart Centre Europe, outlined a number of measures to be taken by broadcasting organizations to help their staff cope with this relatively new issue.
The large number and quality of contributors from Arab media organizations and the impetus given to the session by Emad El Din Adeeb ensured a remarkably frank and fruitful exchange of views and opinions, which should contribute to a better understanding of the many challenges and opportunities facing Arab media.
Given the success of the session on the diversity of Arab media and of that on safety issues, News Xchange will undoubtedly be revisiting these topics in future editions.
News Xchange, a not-for-profit conference underwritten by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), has the backing of the fifty-eight members of the EBU's Eurovision News Exchange and of the twenty-nine members of European News Exchange (ENEX), the cooperative of commercial broadcasters. It is also supported by the major international broadcast news agencies and networks.
Web sites / Links
News Xchange: http://www.Newsxchange.org
Dart Centre Europe: http://www.dartcenter.org/europe/