“The exchange of information and policy,” and journalistic integrity and professional standards are critical, especially in places where information is a closely guarded commodity, said CAP Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy Rudy deLeon in his introductory remarks at a Middle East Progress event Thursday on the importance of developing an independent media focused on reporting rather than dissemination of one point of view or another, and empowering local media, bloggers, and citizen journalists to offer an alternative vantage point to traditional news sources. Panelists included Nabil Al Khatib, executive editor of Al Arabiya, and Howard Schneider, staff writer and former Jerusalem Bureau Chief at The Washington Post.
There are now more than “600 stations broadcasting over satellite” into Arab countries, but many of these stations do not have financially sustainable advertising revenue streams and have to rely on politically driven donors that impede journalistic independence, Al Khatib said. “There is a huge desire for information among the population of Arab countries” especially where there’s little access to it, he added. People need local news as well as regional and pan-Arab news because access to information about what is going on in their countries will create a more informed and engaged populace. “There is infrastructure, he said, “but the big issue is the quality of the content” and what effect it has on social and political issues.
People are better informed than they were 20 years ago, Al Khatib said, thanks to ubiquitous satellite dishes, the Internet, and news stations. But a majority of people still don’t have the type of information that can influence their daily lives. There are significant challenges for the opposition in accessing the kind of information that could be used to push back against the government. And it is hard to create a coherent argument that can withstand challenge if you don’t have the facts.
There is also a pervasive fear that a government might cancel your accreditation, shut down your office, or “shoot your reporters” for being biased or for covering the opposition’s viewpoint. This threat has led some Al Arabiya operations underground so that reporters won’t have to sacrifice their lives and livelihoods to deliver the news, he added.
There are “plenty of people who want to do these jobs…real honest journalism” at the risk of personal safety, Schneider said, but “training’s an issue” and we have to “broaden the skill set” so that these budding reporters can pose “critical questions to officials.”
Al Khatib explained that we need to “professionalize” citizen journalists and “empower independent bloggers” who have “grassroots access” so that they can present their information in a creative, clear, and professional way with legitimate verification that cannot be discredited. We also must empower the many satellite channels to improve their coverage and help develop a sustainable financial model. Otherwise, news will be corrupted by those who can afford to manipulate it. Organizations such as Internews are already “working on media development around the world” for high quality training, he added.
Al Arabiya, which launched in 2003, is based out of Dubai Media City in the United Arab Emirates, and is partly owned by the Saudi Middle East Broadcasting Center. “Al Arabiya is not linked politically to Saudi Arabia,” but much of its revenue comes from the Saudi market, which is the biggest in the region, Al Khatib explained. It is therefore important to have programming that recognizes the Saudi contributions as well as how conservative and religious Saudi society can be. Many news outlets don’t cover Saudi domestic issues because “it is safer not to cover…something controversial,” but you have a journalistic obligation to do it, he said. Saudis “need to know about their own country” and journalists must give equal air time to all sides of a story to acknowledge that things are not simply “black and white,” he said.
Al Arabiya has chosen to avoid populism and is therefore a regional anomaly, he continued. It is “convenient” for many to believe that an objective news station such as Al Arabiya is swayed by one government or another because the station does not follow the usual conventions of the region and doesn’t pick sides, instead presenting “different voices,” he explained. The “easiest way to become popular in the Arab world is to please the general public who has no chance” to be politically active, he said, but polarizing dichotomies inherently exist in opposition to journalistic integrity.
“Al Arabiya was established a few weeks before the war in Iraq” and was wrongly labeled as pro-American for not passionately supporting anti-American views, Al Khatib said. But as journalists, Al Arabiya has “no right to decide on behalf of all” Iraqis that there is one viewpoint that is the only viewpoint, Al Khatib added. Al Arabiya focuses on “civilians’ issues” because there are many viewpoints within civilian society. The station’s reporters were killed by Americans, Shiites, Sunnis, pro-government people—everyone involved in the war. “We paid the price for that…but for that price, we have no right to change,” he declared. “If no one’s happy with you, maybe you’re doing the right thing.”
Judging by the vast number of current Arabic-language media outlets, “we’re going to see more numbers of outlets” each day, Schneider said. Social media is “cheap, it’s out there” and it’s going to “rattle the government,” he added. Therefore they need professional training that can be funded by civil society organizations and similar institutions.
But civil society organizations in the Arab world don’t see the “flourishing of the freedom of the press as contributing to the development of the society,” Al Khatib lamented. We must encourage them to “stand up and defend” journalists and new media to realize the credible benefits that support will bring.