October 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Oman: Islamic Issues: Journalism: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs: Oman RPCV Delinda C. Hanley says Al Jazeera World Forum Takes a Hard Look at Freedom of the Press

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Oman: The Peace Corps in Oman: October 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Oman: Islamic Issues: Journalism: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs: Oman RPCV Delinda C. Hanley says Al Jazeera World Forum Takes a Hard Look at Freedom of the Press

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Oman RPCV Delinda C. Hanley says Al Jazeera World Forum Takes a Hard Look at Freedom of the Press

Oman RPCV Delinda C. Hanley says   Al Jazeera World Forum Takes a Hard Look at Freedom of the Press

Oman RPCV Delinda C. Hanley says Al Jazeera World Forum Takes a Hard Look at Freedom of the Press

Al Jazeera World Forum Takes a Hard Look at Freedom of the Press
By Delinda C. Hanley

TOP: (L-r) Martin Bell, former broadcaster and politician; A. Badrakhan, Al Hayat, London; Mohamed Krechan, Al Jazeera; and Steven Tatham, British Royal Navy, discuss relations between media and governments. ABOVE: (L-r) Moderator Ahmad Sheikh, Al Jazeera; Eric Wishart, AFP; Bertrand Picquerie, World Association of Newspapers; Joseph Samaha, Assafir Daily, Lebanon; and Hamadi Qandil, Arab broadcast journalist, discuss ethics at the first session of the Al Jazeera World Forum (staff photos D. Hanley).

JOURNALISTS FROM around the world gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Doha, Qatar on July 13 and 14 for the first world forum hosted by Al Jazeera Channel. The Doha forum, on “Changing Media Perceptions: Professionalism and Cultural Diversity,” opened with a provocative discussion of the ethics involved in live telecasts of armed conflicts. This topic was vital for the network, which has been both criticized and lauded for transmitting pictures of human suffering and death from conflict areas. Attendees also examined the peculiar relationship between media and governments, particularly in regard to war coverage in Iraq.

Ironically, three weeks later, Iraq’s interim government ordered Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office closed for a month, charging that by showing images of hostages in Iraq, the TV network incites violence and hatred. Conference participants spent much of their time discussing this same issue, trying to delineate where freedom of information turns into incitement, and where omission becomes censorship. Unfortunately, there was no representative from Iraq’s interim government to hear the views offered by journalists from many nations.

Participants discussed their profession’s values and also the current trend to promote “infotainment” at the expense of “newsworthiness.” In each session of the two-day conference, speakers presented unusually brief remarks before turning the floor over to audience members for a lively debate. As a result, each journalist in the room became a real participant, and the sense of professional comradeship was enhanced.

Satellite television has put the small, oil- and gas-rich Gulf state of Qatar on the map. Described as the “CNN of the Arab world,” Al Jazeera’s popularity and candor has tested every unwritten boundary that controls, and sometimes stifles, freedom of the press.

Founded in 1996, Al Jazeera has been described as a revolutionary force in the Middle East. Its journalists hail from all over the Arab world, including Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon. Many of them got their start with the BBC’s Arabic service in London.

Al Jazeera was the first Arab news source to offer Middle East viewers an uncensored 24-hours news service, as well as live phone-in talk shows and interviews with opposition leaders, dissidents, and intellectuals.

Qatar’s emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has given Al Jazeera relatively free editorial reins compared to most news stations in the region. Al Jazeera thus has provided a welcome alternative to what the Middle East perceives is a U.S.-controlled flow of information, which often omits Arab public opinion.

Al Jazeera’s motto—“The opinion...and the other opinion”—has earned the channel credibility with Arab audiences as well as the irritation of Western governments. Its focus on the average Arab’s issues, as well as on freedom and democracy, has won a loyal audience of over 35 million viewers, and has worried Arab leaders.

Unlike CNN and other American networks, Al Jazeera covers in-depth news from around the world, with more than two-minute sound bites. The channel has provided a forum for U.S. and Israeli leaders, as well as supporters of Saddam Hussain and Osama bin Laden. Unlike their American counterparts, Al Jazeera viewers see Palestinians’ destroyed homes and shattered bodies, and the aftermath of bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his welcoming remarks to the conferencegoers, the chairman of Al Jazeera Channel, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, announced that the station would launch three new channels by the end of 2005. The network is developing both a documentary and children’s channel, as well as the keenly anticipated English-language international news channel. Federal broadcast regulators in Canada have agreed to permit Al Jazeera to broadcast there.

Al Jazeera already offers Al Jazeera.net, an Internet news service in Arabic and English, a Media Training and Development Center, and the Al Jazeera Center for Studies and Polling.

At the conference Al Jazeera released its new “Code of Ethics,” delineating the satellite channel’s professional beliefs and standards and noting its intent to distinguish between what is news and what is opinion and analysis. According to channel director Waddah Khanfar, one of the code’s articles notes the station’s goal to help individuals acquire knowledge and “strengthen the values of tolerance, democracy and respect for liberties and human rights.”

In the first panel session, moderator Ahmad Sheikh, Al Jazeera’s chief news editor, said that some viewers have complained that his station provides a forum for Israelis to express their views. He reiterated Al Jazeera’s goal to provide every viewpoint.

Joseph Samaha, editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s Assafir Daily, expressed concern that the world was becoming polarized, and that the gaps between South and North are widening. After 9/11, he noted, everyone is a good guy or a bad guy, and there is no room for discussion. One of the difficulties with providing live raw news material, he said, is that there is no time to judge, interpret or provide in-depth commentary.

Forum attendees toured Al Jazeera’s headquarters, a surprisingly small building to house such a large voice (staff photo D. Hanley).

AFP editor-in-chief Eric Wishart stated that it is every journalist’s ethical duty to show the truth and avoid being manipulated. “War isn’t pretty, but where do you draw the line?” he asked. “Do you broadcast an entire beheading? Where does news end and morbid curiosity begin?” He concluded by saying, “You can’t cover up events, and you can’t be a tool for propaganda.”

Bertrand Picquerie, from the World Association of Papers, advised Al Jazeera that it can’t be both mainstream and different. Calling the 8-year-old network a “baby,” he said in 20 years it will be more professional. Until then, he concluded, he couldn’t blame the network for what he termed “unbalanced” reporting. Picquerie’s remarks sparked a heated debate.

The conference’s second session examined the relationship between media and government, especially during times of domestic upheaval and war. Martin Bell, a former broadcaster and British politician, stated, “The most dangerous time to be alive is now.” The British government had “taken leave of their senses,” he said, and attempted to manipulate journalists, including the BBC, to promote a war agenda. In the end, said Bell, BBC and other media have proved that by telling the truth they can withstand government pressure.

According to A. Badrakhan, deputy editor in chief of London’s Al Hayat, Internet and satellite TV have hampered government censorship of the news. “Arab mainstream media suffered from government interference in the past,” he said, but “after 9/11, the West has the same problem.”

Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Krechan described Arab governments’ relations with the media as a “Tom and Jerry relationship,” inflicting constant irritation.

British Royal Navy Lt. Cm. Steven Tatham admitted that coalition forces in Iraq were slow to engage with the Arab media, preferring to select people “they knew” to relay information. In Tatham’s opinion, the media could provide the key to improving relations and prevent a clash of civilizations.

The third session, entitled “The 9/11 Factor–A New Watershed,” examined changes in U.S. media reporting of Arab and Muslim nations after the attacks on Washington, DC and New York. David Rhodes of the Fox News network said the United States increased its Mideast coverage, which, he argued, could only be a good thing.

In the opinion of Fahmi Huwaidi, however, after 9/11 the international media were given a role that is neither constructive nor honorable. According to the Egyptian thinker and author, the 2001 attacks gave the U.S. an excuse to launch an imperial project to control the region, which it now tends to call the “Greater Middle East.” The attacks also created an opportunity for the U.S., Russia, India, and Israel to brand all Islamist movements—in Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Palestine, respectively—as terrorists, he said, thus giving governments the chance to “eradicate those movements in the name of fighting terrorism.” Arab governments also felt free to label opposition movements as extremists that could be eliminated, he added.

Arabs have lost trust in Western media which “did not rise to people’s expectations,” Huwaidi said, and turned increasingly to Arab media.

Asked about media bias, Fox’s Rhodes replied that all media have their biases which they try to subdue everyday. American media, and Fox in particular, are bound to be criticized whatever they do, he said. One participant from India wondered whether Fox and other American local media ever review their position regarding the war on Iraq, now that many of its foundations, according to the American government, have collapsed.

The fourth session examined coverage of the Iraq war, and concluded that it has widened the gap between the Arab and Western worlds. Marjorie Miller of The Los Angeles Times maintained that media in the Western world can never be perceived as monolithic, and that a wise consumer or journalist is one who always turns to various news sources for information.

Sky’s Adrian Wells said that British broadcasters were more careful than their American peers when choosing their war vocabulary. British newscasters steered clear of terms like “liberators” or “our boys,” he explained. Yet many conferencegoers tended to equate British and American media, saying world media during the war was divided into, in the words of a Swiss journalist, “Anglo-Saxon on one side, Arab on the other, and European somewhere in the middle.”

The use of embedded journalists was discussed at length. Miller argued that the important question should not be about how good or bad the practice itself is, but rather about “how we use the material we get from those who are embedded.”

Every speaker agreed that embedded journalists should never be the only source of information, but rather one piece in the big mosaic of reporting.

BBC’s Adrian Van Klaveren raised the issue of the media’s relations with governments and with the military, saying the war created “a degree of disconnection” in those relations, and a lack of trust.

Al Jazeera correspondent Teyseer Allouni (participating in the session through a satellite connection from Madrid) described the high cost his channel has paid for its on-the-spot coverage. A Reporters Without Borders delegate called it a “scandal” that incidents like the bombings of the Palestine Hotel and Al Jazeera’s and Abu Dhabi’s offices in Baghdad, and the killings of journalists at the hands of Israeli occupation forces are ignored. According to Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, at least 48 media workers have been killed so far in the current Iraq war.

Finally, journalists called for a unified effort to exert pressure on the military, particularly the U.S. military, to respect and protect journalists in hot spots. They suggested the media join efforts to make sure future war coverage is never as biased or as dangerous to journalists as the Iraq war was and still is.

The conference’s fifth session considered “Media and Cultural Diversity—Exploring Common Ground.” Participants agreed that by promoting diversity, certain political powers, particularly American, would no longer be able to impose one side of the story. French activist Jean-Marie Benjamin bluntly accused the U.S. of using media to impose its political and cultural system on the world.

Senior Al Jazeera news anchor Jamil Azar said he feared the media may have become tools for cultural war and intolerance, rather than for reconciliation.

The event concluded with a discussion of Al Jazeera as a political project. One journalist from India thought it possible that “Al Jazeera may succeed where Nasser failed” in creating a sort of strong pan-Arab unity.

Al Jazeera’s director general Waddah Khanfar extended an invitation to continue the debates next year, at another exciting world forum.

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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Story Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

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