It’s Day Two of IFEX’s Strategy Conference and the first session delved into a heavy topic: the murder of journalists.
The session, “Stopping the Killers Before They Strike,” focused on CPJ’s fourth annual Impunity Index that listed 13 countries where journalists were killed and their murderers left to wander off.
Tragically, Iraq, the highest ranked in terms of unsolved murders (92), is in the Arab world.
According to the report called “Getting Away With Murder,” Russia and Mexico, “two of the world’s most murderous countries for the press, are heading in different directions in combating deadly anti-press violence,” but other countries in the last year weren’t so lucky, and impunity remained a major issue. It’s a must read.
Although Lebanon has, fortunately, not witnessed any more murders of its journalists since Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni were brutally blown up in their cars in 2005, their killers have also managed to escape prosecution.
The discussion moderated by CPJ’s Joel Simon zeroed in on how journalists’ murderers should be brought to justice and how countries that fail the impunity test should be shamed.
Speakers Owais Aslam Ali, Peter Bouckaert, Farnaz Fassihi and Andrés Morales agreed that quite often reporting incidents of death threats or harassment to the police or other security authorities was an exercise in futility since such agents would not come to the journalists’ rescue, or would, in fact, be among the tormentors. Journalists in Iran, for example, fear the different layers of security, Fassihi said.
I was particularly attracted to a second session — a seminar — entitled “Keeping the Faith: Ethical Journalism in a World of Conflict and Crisis.”
Having organized several international media ethics conferences in Beirut, and making sure that media ethics are hammered into every workshop I conduct or course I teach, it’s a subject that will continue to present challenges to practitioners across all platforms.
A speaker I once hosted at a conference said: “You can’t do ethics in 250th of a second,” the presumed time it takes to shoot a picture.
Naturally, photography speeds differ, but the idea was that shooting a provocative or gory photo, or dwelling on gut-wrenching footage may make the front pages and top the newscasts, but is there always value added to the story, or is it pure voyeurism?
A common thread woven by Georges Sadaka of Lebanon and co-speaker Khady Cisse of Senegal was that journalists in developing countries are woefully underpaid and easy marks for bribery or pressure from political or business-related (often one and the same) groups.
In Lebanon, Sadaka added, journalists are also beholden to politicians in a highly sectarian environment, which adds to the lethal mix.
Moreover, journalists exercise self-censorship to avoid retribution, or to appease benefactors and bosses. “Most Lebanese media belong to politicians, so journalists become propagandists,” Sadaka said.
While moderator Aidan White urged participants to pursue ethical standards and strive for a community of informed journalists, it’s important to provide those poor oppressed reporters with alternatives.
Bribes, gifts and junkets may be anathema, but if poorly paid journalists need to put food on the table, educate their children, and pay the rent, how does one persuade them not to follow their fat cat bosses’ example?
I’m often asked that question by well-intentioned journalists who would like to abide by codes of conduct but who find themselves in untenable situations.
Media transparency comes with a hefty price tag in countries not accustomed to accountability. Much work needs to be done to instill such values in journalists and, more importantly, their superiors.
Before leaving for the day, I checked in at the “Skills Exchange: Digital Security and Privacy” Marketplace to learn more about staying secure online. To say that it’s an endless quest would be understating matters.
Journalists, bloggers and activists must constantly look over their cyber shoulders and the “Security-in-a-box” kit I got was chock-full of helpful hints on staying safe and survival in the digital age.
Day One of the IFEX Strategy Conference was off to a good start despite some session delays. But the ambitious program meant there was a lot of ground to cover and I had a hard time selecting issues on which to focus, given the various interesting topoics.
That notwithstanding, I enjoyed catching up with old friends, making new ones, and finding out more first-hand from Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, and other, “revolutionaries” who’d participated in recent uprisings in their respective countries.
Unfortunately, opening session speaker Maryam Al-Khawaja of Bahrain was apparently barred from traveling, so her stand-in, Iraqi Khalid Ibrahim briefed participants on the situation in Bahrain, and in his own country, where the dust has yet to settle since the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Perhaps most telling about activists, journalists, bloggers and others attending this gathering is their dedication and commitment to the cause. It’s not just grandiose rhetoric, but a sincere belief that one should fight for one’s convictions. The message came across loud and clear in their presentations and comments.
The opening session, which also featured speakers from Egypt and Tunisia was peppered with insights about how each dealt with the upheaval in her country.
Tunisian Naziha Rejiba’s eloquent references to old-world media and Arabic literary traditions were most poignant when she repeated the mantra that became the Tunisian revolt’s anthem from a compatriot’s poem: “Iza al shaabu youman arad al hayat, fa la budd an yastajeebul qadar” (loosely translated: if a people wants life, fate must comply).
Fast-forward to social media and how young Egyptians made optimum use of them in their quest for freedom — initially from the Interior Ministry’s abuses, and later from the regime of Hosni Mubarak, as recounted by Nora Younis.
While the session was animated and fun, unfortunately the moderator lacked in time management skills and there was no time for questions from the audience.
Another session, a seminar on “Emerging Online Threats to Journalists,” was quite instructive for novices, with moderator Danny O’Brien demonstrating how repressive regimes exercise censorship, surveillance and other forms of control.
He featured the Committee to Protect Journalists’ “10 Tools of Online Oppression,” a useful guide on how online crackdowns are conducted. He also suggested ways to circumvent controls.
Nora Younis chipped in for a repeat appearance recounting how she’d become a blogger in the early days of Egyptian online activism.
Authorities dismissed bloggers at first, thinking the Internet was insignificant, she said. They’ve since wised up and the current ruling military council uses social media to reach out to the people, but Younis said it was a veneer and that few people fell for it.
Speaker Serenade Woo shed light on China’s choke-hold on all Internet users and how Chinese journalists were acutely aware of what their red lines were.
Cutting off phone lines, online tracking of Internet users and outright threats to dissidents were par for the course, she said, which meant people learned to talk in code, or to use diversionary tactics.
But ever-present security operatives remained hell-bent on snooping on everyone and on barring citizens from references to Arab revolutions. The word “jasmine,” as in Jasmine Revolution, has become taboo.
A workshop on “Tactics for Online Advocacy” with Ramsey George was instructive with helpful hints on turning information into “info-activism,” notably through digital media.
George’s captivating videos, a hand-out guide on the topic, and discussion of advocacy movements, were quite engaging with participants sharing their own experiences, or recounting successful campaigns that had attracted their attention.
A final session of the day involved one-on-one interaction with different groups of advocates. I chose to continue discussing online advocacy and web tools with Ramsey George to learn more about his activities in Jordan.
In case you missed it: my post about the Arab Media Forum in Dubai earlier this month (just published on the Global Editors Network blog) http://www.globaleditorsnetwork.org/2011/arab-media-adapt-open-up-or-perish/ about the need for Arab media to modernize and open up.
Lebanon’s Marahat Foundation and Lebanese Member of Parliament Ghassan Moukheiber should be credited for trying to update the country’s incredibly archaic media laws, but there’s still much work to be done, and it’s an uphill climb in their efforts to ensure that press freedom is guaranteed.
On the books, the print media law dates back to 1962 and is totally incompatible with 21st Century realities.
There’s an effort underway to modernize the legislation but MPs hammering out details in the Communications and Media Committe are still trying to reconcile a draft law submitted by Maharat/Moukeiber with a below-par version put forth by another MP, Robert Ghanem, whose sole interest is updating penalties and fines.
Ghanem seems oblivious to the essence of what constitutes journalism today and the importance of a free press.
A third draft law presented by the Press Federation — an organization grouping publishers of newspapers who seem out of touch with what’s needed today — was sidelined by the parliamentary committee in question that is, at this writing, still debating clause 26 of the revamped 75-clause legislation.
The old law stands at 109 clauses and Ghanem’s version would have pushed it up to 130.
On the broadcast side, the law dates back to 1994, when the last serious amendment was introduced, only to be slightly tweaked in 1996. Needless to say, that also must be revamped to reflect changes we’ve seen on the media landscape.
For both print and broadcast media, the matter of ownership is also a big bone of contention and needs re-visiting because both laws deal with it rather unfairly.
But it’s not just an issue of modernization to keep up with digital media, convergence, and the impact of social media.
It’s also a question of giving journalists, bloggers and activists the latitude to express themselves without fear of retribution while providing guidance on good journalistic practice.
Last, but not least, there is a great need for a viable access to information law, which Lebanon does not have.
The Maharat/Moukeiber team have been busy working on that as well. But they, and we, must have Job’s patience to see it materialize, given differences between Lebanon’s various stakeholders and the wider regional uncertainties that tend to be reflected in the country.
Tunisian media need restructuring to play their intended role and to avoid any future setbacks in the country, opined Amal Alaraisi in today’s issue of the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/272159.
She said Tunisian media had begun to feel their way to freedom of expression in a bid to recover the trust of Tunisian citizens who had been deprived of free, transparent, and honest media for over two decades.
She quoted Tunisian Press Syndicate head Naji Baghouri as saying that fundamental change in the history of “press and pens accustomed to disseminate a singular voice and view require time.”
Independent Tunisian journalists, bloggers and activists had long suffered from the heavy hand of government, but somehow managed to get their message across, at great personal risk http://www.huffingtonpost.com/magda-abufadil/tunisian-medias-quantum-l_b_812536.html.
As someone who has visited, and reported from, pre-revolution Tunisia, I fully agree with the view that Tunisian media are at an historic moment to shift from a police state environment to a more open landscape, despite the rocky transition.
But journalists must be nurtured in how to cover news in an accurate, fair and balanced fashion — something to which they have been unaccustomed.
Good Friday morning. I found Robin Koerner’s piece “To Be or Not to Be: American Freedom, Exceptionalism and Identity” in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robin-koerner/to-be-or-not-to-be-americ_b_865143.html?view=print quite interesting, notably his statements that “most foreign articles that broach the topics of freedom and the USA mistakenly assume that American freedom is qualitatively the same thing as freedom elsewhere. They assume that whereas the USA may be more explicit about ideas of freedom, and may to some even symbolize individual liberty, American liberty is not philosophically different from liberty anywhere else.”
Another good read is Rahim Kanani’s blogpost “A New Narrative of Empathy for the West and the Arab World?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rahim-kanani/a-new-narrative-of-empath_b_867270.html that finds common ground between the West and the Arabs.
These two paragraphs are quite telling:
These tools of globalization have enabled the process of humanizing the other. People are recognizing they share ideals with people they do not know and have never met. For example, watching Egyptian Google executive and hero-protestor Wael Ghonim being interviewed on CNN about the revolution and pleading for Egypt’s freedom with raw emotion struck a chord in the hearts of many Westerners. These very distant but intimate snapshots, fed to us via live television, can open the gates to further dialogue about a host of issues between “us” and “them”.
Tolerance begins with understanding. Understanding begins with dialogue. Dialogue begins with engagement. And engagement begins with exposure. With the advent of the Internet and the global communications revolution, the distance between tolerance and exposure is decreasing faster than before. This intellectual and emotional experience, of ordinary people identifying with individuals halfway around the world, people with whom many of us believed we shared nothing in common, is an important milestone on the journey towards accepting and understanding one another.
We should build on that understanding, dialogue, engagement and exposure by insisting on media freedom and the free flow of information.
In case you missed it, here’s another perspective by Faisal J. Abbas on last week’s Arab Media Forum 2011 in Dubai http://www.huffingtonpost.com/faisal-abbas/at-the-arab-media-forum-a_1_b_866135.html.
It’s fascinating how more attention is being paid to young people bringing on the winds of change in the Arab world, primarily through social media. For those who fail to see that, or who choose to ignore the obvious, they do so at their own peril.
Governments may seek to restrict access to the Internet but there will always be ways of circumventing such measures. Fighting the tide is an exercise in futility. But it’s also important to train professional journalists, citizen journalists, activists, and tweeps of all stripes to abide by good practice guidelines and online ethics. It’s all the more relevant as we wade through this long season of Arab revolutions and reflect on media coverage of these unfolding events.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter @MagdaAbuFadil for interesting links to journalism-related matters, and some other issues on the side. Media freedom is a big part of my tweets and retweets.
Greetings to fellow participants. I look forward to reconnecting with those I know and meeting new colleagues in the quest for professional and free journalism.
Increasingly, we’ve grown to rely on the Internet to disseminate our news and views. Social media are a must and being online has become second nature to most. That’s why it’s important to realize that unfettered access to the Internet has become a human right.
There’s a ton of relevant information we’ll be sharing before, during and after the General Meeting. So start posting.
Safe travels to all those who are coming from far afield.