Thoughts from the Arab Press Freedom Forum
- Eighteen Arab Media Managers to be selected for a six-week fellowship in the United States
- MENA MEDIA TV Production Fund: Small Grants Available to Arab TV Companies to Produce Local Content
- MENA MEDIA Emerging Leaders Fellowship: Twelve mid-career Arab media professionals to win a three-month fellowship in the United States
- Grants available to Arab TV companies to produce local content
Attending the annual Arab Press Freedom Forum held last month in Tunis provided me with the opportunity to discuss the progress made and challenges ahead in media reform with colleagues from the region and from the international media development community The debates were vigorous and the opinions diverse, but I came away with a few key points:
• State Broadcasting – Can it Adopt a Public Service Ethos: A key question being asked is what future – if any – should the state media have in the reshaping states of the Middle East? There is clear risk that the concept of independent public service broadcasting is not much more deeply seated with the new regimes than with the old. Historical precedent in other regions shows that new governments led by reformers are not that much more attuned to the need to de-politicize state broadcasters and create in them a public service mission. Now that they have won elections, do the new governments in the Middle East expect a sycophantic state media – or worse, one that lies and incites -- just as their predecessors did? It will take a tremendous amount of political will and vigilant pressure from reform forces to ensure this does not happen. They will have to fight for regulatory revisions and create public pressure to turn State TV into a neutral, probing media that puts its significant resources and infrastructure to work in the public interest. So much change in mindset, management and professional skills will be needed that it is reasonable to question whether it is worthwhile in countries where public revenues are limited. However, the alternatives of privatization, down-sizing or closure are far from simple. Yet until the power of politicized state media outlets—including their ability to draw both government and commercial advertising – is mitigated, they will continue to distort the market and undermine reform.
• Digital Media – The Playing Field is Being Leveled: It took the repressive governments of the region a few years to catch on to the power of digital media, but that “freedom gap” has clearly closed. Internet-based information sources were outside the regulatory grasp of media laws, and technology-ignorant bureaucrats and their bosses were isolated from what was happening online. Web portals and internet radio grew while senior state media editors distained even email, let alone converged newsrooms. No longer. A chilling documentary on the uprising in Bahrain shows how the regime undertook a Facebook witch hunt, posting photographs of protests with faces from the crowds circled, asking “friends” to identify the participants. There were plenty who “liked” to do just that, and arrests followed. Elsewhere, forum participants said, not only has website blocking become more sophisticated but social media also is being used to sow discontent with activists and fuel sectarianism, and new media laws are expanding to include internet regulation.
• Al-Jazeera and domestic news: The game-changing role of Al Jazeera in the Middle East (and globally) has made the satellite television channel a target of sometimes surprisingly sharp Arab-world criticism, too. At the Forum, the most consistent challenge leveled was that it had paid significantly less attention to the protests against the Sunni regime in Shia-majority Bahrain. Soft-peddling coverage of majority-Sunni Qatar, where the monarchy funds and hosts the station, is a long-standing accusation against the station. The role of Al Jazeera as an observer or instigator of revolution – and whether it should have been either – was also subject to debate. What was clear, however, is that Al Jazeera was the primary channel where the region’s people turned to find out what was happening in their own countries. This underscores the near total lack of widely accessible and credible domestically focused news platforms at the national level, not to mention the even more dire situation in the regions outside the main cities.
• Media Freedom has Advanced: Finally, a more optimistic note: despite the many cautionary indicators that free expression and media freedom are by no means safely established in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, it was worth marveling for a moment at the fact that the Forum was being held in Tunis. The four prior annual conferences had been in the relative freedom of Beirut -- at times with visiting Tunisian security keeping watch, regulars recalled. What a difference a year makes. The 100 or so journalists, editors, media entrepreneurs and media freedom advocates gathered in Tunis could not only openly lament the shortcoming of news gathering and dissemination in the region, but also plot a future far less constrained by risks and nearly impossible obstacles. Of course, much remains to be done to give citizens the diverse and credible information sources they need., But reformers can take hope that the potential for actually making that happen is so much greater now as the old regimes fold and the new governments-in-the-making know the risks of being unaccountable.