Challenges, Changes, and Explorations: Summary of a Workshop on New Media in the Arab World

As part of the Arab Media Series, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) hosted the Arab Media Development Symposium on October 31, 2007. The eleven-member panel of media professionals, industry leaders, and seasoned journalists addressed the past, present, and future of Arab media development through an introspective lens.

Following introductory remarks from CCAS Director Dr. Michael Hudson, the first panel delved into a critical assessment of the challenges Arab journalists face. The panel’s three speakers–Patrick Butler, vice president of programs at the International Center for Journalists; George Hishmeh, president of the Washington Association of Arab Journalists; and Rafiah El Talaei, an Omani journalist and former Edward R. Murrow Fellow–stressed the importance of resolving problems in order to raise the standards Arab journalists follow. Focusing on Arab journalists reporting in the United States, George Hishmeh saw Arab journalists in Washington, DC as a microcosm of Arab journalists based across the country. Hishmeh suggested that Arab journalists attend orientations on how to handle the substantial time differences, low salaries, and limited access to key government officials.

Among the conditions most burdensome to Arab journalists, Hishmeh and Butler indicated that access to key officials reflects larger issues in media coverage throughout the Arab world. “If Condoleeza Rice talked to an Arab journalist, it would be all over the front pages in the Arab world. Arab media will do a better job of exposing the US to the Arab world than the US is doing,” Hishmeh said.

Rafia El Talaei took this discussion a step further to include Arab journalists reporting in the Middle East. Citing political points of view, social environment, and professionalism as additional factors affecting the quality of media coverage in the Arab world, El Talaei argued that professionalism is jeopardized when Arab journalists are caught between the government and the people. “Journalists need to feel that they are loyal to something. Unfortunately, they (Arab journalists) don’t usually have loyalty to the readers or people, but rather, to their publishers or government.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and media activist, and Crocker Snow, Jr., director of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy, concentrated on initiating media development from within. “The checks and balances in journalism are very weak in the media world. We need our own self-regulating bodies,” Kuttab said. Without reporting essentials such as direct quotes and attribution, content can lack actuality – “that actuality is what gives it credibility,” Kuttab said. In addition to a hard-line approach to implementing the fundamentals of reporting, media in the Arab world must analyze other media and consider the big picture. “Media doesn’t change with just one thing. You have to have a holistic approach to changing culture,” Kuttab said.

Culture – of both the media and of its audience – was a theme that reverberated in the comments of several other panelists. Media today are rapidly responding to new technologies by creating online media and expanding access. “The internet is a great help and also a great headache,” George Hishmeh said. Online media and advancements in technology can potentially open the door to cultural dialogue. However, inconsistent journalistic standards and government censorship hinder the outreach and credibility of new media. This raises the question: “Does progress require a progressive political environment?” Christine Prince of International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) said. Bahrain, for example, restricts access to Google Earth since the site allows the public to view undocumented lands owned by the Royal Family of Bahrain.

Ms. Prince and Nadia Alami, the Internews regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, explored independent media as a crucial area of media development. International NGOs like Internews seek local partners in launching independent media programs. These relationships can be problematic when local partners become too political, Alami said.

Moustafa Mourad, President of One Global Economy Corporation, added that despite these obstacles, independent media has the potential to level the playing field and bring media to a larger audience. “The poor can make informed decision if they have the correct tools,” Mourad said.

Prince added that although it is less expensive for non-traditional media to get on the regional and global map than it is for traditional media, “I am beginning to see a trend in some parts of the world where developments in new media are working in reverse and leading to more traditional media.” One such form of traditional media that is surfacing amidst the whirl of new media is community radio. Several panelists agreed that introducing “new media” radio to the Arab region would provide its audience access to local coverage and global events.

Offering film as a promising field for media development, Leon Shahabian, vice president and treasurer of Layalina Productions, highlighted the achievements of its show “On the Road to America.” Like the cast – a group of Arab university students traveling to the US for the first time–the show is also coming to the US and will air on the Sundance Channel in May 2008.

The symposium concluded with Adel Iskander, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and Silvio Waisbord of George Washington University, rounding up the day’s discussions with a question that resounds in all aspects of media development: “Legitimizing Development: Dependency, Diplomacy or Cultural Imperialism?