Morand Fachot, European Broadcasting Union Communications Service
Over 400 news professionals
and executives representing the world's major news organizations,
safety experts, and media specialists gathered in Vilamoura,
Portugal, for the third edition of the News Xchange conference
With media coverage
of the Middle East--in particular of the conflict in Iraq and
of events in Israel and the occupied territories--high on the
agenda of every news organization, Arab media and the safety
of media workers in zones of conflicts were two of the main
topics discussed at the conference.
Participants in places
as far apart as Doha, Beirut, Amman, Washington, London, or
Paris, took part in the debates of the two-day conference via
more than forty satellite link-ups provided by the Eurovision
The focus on Arab
media was highlighted by the screening, on the eve of the conference,
of Control Room, a film on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera
TV channel by Jehane Noujaim.
News Xchange 2004 opened with "The Year in Pictures,"
a short video report produced by APTN. The film was followed
by a keynote speech by HM King Abdallah of Jordan addressing
delegates on a live satellite link-up from Amman. Introducing
the guest, CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan noted that
an "increasingly powerful force" had emerged in the
Middle East in the form of "an aggressive and influential
Arabic language news media, TV networks such as Al Jazeera and
Al Arabiya," which, he argued, "are revolutionising
the way Arabs get their news."
King Abdallah started by stressing the importance he attached
to liberalizing the media in Jordan. "We are enacting laws
to restructure state media organizations and disengage the government
from direct control. Laws have been drafted to liberalize the
sector and to open the public airwaves to private TV and radio
stations, and we abolished the Ministry of Information,"
In his speech and
in answering questions from session chair Emad El Din Adeeb
and delegates, the king outlined a number of points around which
the session's debate was to develop.
The sovereign paid
tribute to the impact of Arab broadcast media: "The phenomenon
of the Arab media over the past several years has been a tremendously
positive one," he said. He stressed how "dispassionate,
knowledgeable reporting, fairness and credibility" were
essential on the part of Arab media "if regional reform
and peace are to succeed." He also emphasized the need
for responsible journalists to "deprive extremists of platforms
King Abdallah paid tribute to journalists and other media workers
who died to tell the story. "Let me join you in paying
tribute to a special group of your peers--the reporters and
cameramen and translators and others who have been killed doing
often fail to recognize the diversity of Arab media owing to
a lack of knowledge of both the Arab world and language, several
"I feel very
uncomfortable when I hear somebody saying, 'the Western media'
because I don't know what we are talking about. If we are talking
about the printed media you have the Sun on one side and The
Guardian and The Independent; it's quite a diversity
of views and treatments of information that we are receiving
and the same thing applies in the Middle East. And the same
thing applies in every individual station, you have different
views, different elements, different ways of treatment and you
have different programmes," said Hosam El-Sokkari, head
of the BBC World Service's Arabic (radio) Service.
S. Abdallah Schleifer,
director, Adham Centre for TV Journalism, Cairo, recalled how
deeply Arab television journalism had changed in recent times:
"Fourteen years ago there was no such things as Arab TV
journalism, it did not exist
There was an honourable
tradition in print journalism which goes back to the 19th century,
but not of television journalism," he said. "There
were news bulletins," he added. "A cameraman would
go out and cover a minister opening a factory, or perhaps a
president receiving a guest or a cabinet meeting with people
sipping coffee and that was the beginning and the end of television
journalism. There were no reporters, the reader would simply
take wire copy from the state news organization which may be
did or may be did not coincide with the pictures we were seeing."
Schleifer went on to describe the change introduced with the
arrival of CNN International in the Middle East in 1991, which
provided coverage of the Gulf War at the time and marked the
introduction of satellite television in the region.
The launch of the Doha-based Al Jazeera, following the 1998
collapse of BBC Arabic television, a joint venture with Orbit,
a Saudi-owned company, marked a watershed for Arab media. BBC
Arabic television folded after two years following disputes
with Orbit over editorial content, its journalists later forming
Al Jazeera's core editorial staff. Al Jazeera has since come
to embody pan-Arab TV channels in the Western world and has
been followed by a number of such channels.
However, Al Jazeera's
relations with many Arab governments have not been easy over
the years. It is still banned in Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, to name but a few. King Abdallah
himself acknowledged this in his opening remarks: "We've
had our good days and bad days with them (Al Jazeera). We do
close them down when they get to the point of being incorrect
with their information, when they are inflammatory in creating
hatred and distrust
but that doesn't last for very long
because we do believe in the freedom of the press," he
Pan-Arab TV channels
have come under a lot of criticism in Western countries for
allegedly offering platforms to extremists, airing tapes of
Usama bin Laden or executions of hostages-claims rejected by
several broadcasters, not least by Ahmed Al-Sheikh, from Al
Jazeera. Asked by session chair Emad El Din Adeeb if he felt
"directly or indirectly part in creating the image or the
myth of Usama bin Laden," he replied that the question
should look at "the first time when the world was divided
into camps of evil and good ... creating an equation of two
parties. Usama bin Laden has become an essential part of that
equation and as such his views have to be covered but in a news
context, and this is how we deal with it." Al-Sheikh noted
that this was the way US networks dealt with the issue too:
Fox News and ABC News, for instance, recently showed five minutes
of a fourteen minute tape of a masked al-Qaeda man threatening
the USA with destruction.
"This is our
judgment and this is how we feel about the tapes of Usama bin
Laden, we feel that we have a moral responsibility of showing
to our audience what is happening in the so called camp of evil,
so we judge these tapes by this and accordingly we put what
we feel is newsworthy on air," he said.
As for footage of
executions "never before have we shown any beheading tape
we never showed these tapes, not a single frame. It's a policy,
it's a longstanding editorial policy of Al Jazeera not to show
these tapes," he stressed.
A point reiterated
by Nart Bouran, editor-in-chief, Abu Dhabi TV: "It's a
we decided it was not for us to act
as a mouthpiece for any of these organizations that are kidnapping
and killing hostages," he told delegates.
news director of the Lebanon-based pro-Hezbollah al-Manar channel,
also claimed his channel was working "under the calibre
of the standards of professionalism
You have to be smart
enough to respect your audience
. We don't need to make
a lot of propaganda to convince others of our cause," he
divide regarding the treatment of video material was highlighted
by the way NBC and Al Jazeera reported the recent shooting of
an insurgent by a US Marine in a mosque in Falluja. Delegates
were shown the reports - based on the same footage - as broadcast
by both NBC and Al Jazeera.
Asked why NBC had
not shown the actual shooting Bill Wheatley, vice president
NBC News, replied, "Generally speaking NBC doesn't show
specific acts of violence if too graphic
we think we properly
informed people in the case of that report about what had happened.
What we didn't do was show it in all its brutality and gruesomeness.
It is not a question of bias, but one of taste. Arab television
does not always show the most gruesome video material it obtains.
Each in its own way is making judgment about what's appropriate
Ahmed Al-Sheikh defended
Al Jazeera's decision to show the shooting. "We are like
NBC, we do not show gruesome scenes or pictures. But when we
looked at the shots, first of all the shot was a medium-wide
shot and was not showing the actual shooting in the head of
the man. It was a medium-wide shot and in this case our editorial
policy is that we can show these things," he explained.
Al Arabiya's position
was identical to that of Al Jazeera, according to Salah Negm
from the Dubai-based channel. "The NBC account of that
event was concealed in a four or five minute report that talked
about Falluja in general and very shyly about this event",
he said-an interpretation rejected by Bill Wheatley, who argued
that NBC had placed the shooting in context. "We made a
very strong effort to give complete editorial information to
the entire pool prior to the members using the pictures,"
The approach at the
US government-funded Alhurra channel was "closer to NBC,
not because we are based in Washington, but as a matter of taste,"
said Mouafac Harb, director of news at the channel. "What
is key here is to get the story out, not what kind of shots
we have used or not... Al Jazeera
just got the pictures
and showed them. And this is not helping the truth because sometimes
in our business shots can be deceiving," he added.
This quest for professionalism
on the part of Arab broadcast media was illustrated earlier
this year when Al Jazeera adopted a code of ethics which commits
the channel to "adhere to the journalistic values of honesty,
courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility, and diversity,
giving no priority to commercial or political considerations
Other channels are following in the same direction: "Everywhere
I travel now when I go and visit in Doha and go to visit in
Dubai, everybody is talking about striving for professionalism
and I think they are striving for it," said Abdallah Schleifer.
However, can professionalism
exist when many obstacles prevent proper reporting?
are banned from many countries, Al Jazeera in particular, which
has also been banned from Iraq for weeks. Furthermore, reporting
on certain issues, such as corruption and democratization, can
be very difficult.
Session chair Emad
El Din Adeeb asked his hosts the question, "If Al Jazeera
can talk about corruption in countries like Egypt or Jordan,
if Al Arabiya can talk about corruption in Sudan, can Al Jazeera
talk about corruption in Qatar? Can Al Arabiya talk about it
in Saudi Arabia? We are very good about being transparent in
other Arab countries, but not transparent about the sponsors
of our networks and we have to confess here that we are not
one hundred per cent free doing our jobs."
Mohamed Gohar, managing
director, Video CairoSat, Egypt, acknowledged the difficulties,
"we have to admit that we cannot discuss
problems like handling power or democracy or implementing the
sharia law and we are facing many difficulties discussing these
problems. Like our friend who criticised the minister of culture
in Egypt, and has now spent three years in prison. ... So these
are little problems that we suffer but we do have full democracy
in criticising Bush and Sharon!" he quipped.
Salah Negm, from
Al Arabiya argued that a distinction had to be made between
pan-Arab channels or satellite channels and local channels,
the former dealing "with issues of interest to twenty-two
countries, such as Palestine and democratisation in general,
but not going into specifics." This, he said, "was
the role of local television which are financed by these governments
and which should represent the diversity of that society, talking
about local corruption, democracy, elections, about raising
taxes, and actually being the fourth estate for supervising
all the functions of government."
Alhurra's Mouafac Harb rejected this interpretation: "We
say local channels in the Arab media that are controlled and
funded by the state, as if the pan-Arab satellite ones are free
and funded by Jefferson. They are all funded by the state somehow.
It's a myth that the pan-Arab satellite channels are free and
independent, and you know more than I do and if anybody can
challenge me and point to one satellite channel in the Arab
world that is not linked to an Arab regime money-wise, or an
intelligence apparatus, or the son of a king or the nephew of
Challenged by Emad El Din Adeeb on the funding of his own channel,
Harb explained that it was publicly funded by taxpayers and
was "not a mouthpiece of an administration" given
that the US was not under one-party rule.
A more disturbing
approach was highlighted by Mohammed Gohar. Answering a question
as to why Arab channels had been reluctant to air footage of
the tragedy in Darfour, Sudan, he replied, "If in Darfour,
a Muslim kills non-Muslims, then it doesn't really interest
the Arabic media, but if it's vice versa it will be a hit for
them and they will take it." The confession showed a number
of Arab broadcast media still have some way to go to be fully
Media with a Mission?
This quest for professionalism
on the part of Arab media is further held back by their tendency
of seeing themselves as invested with a mission, a need to mobilize
forces against occupation or corruption, a trend rejected by
the BBC's Hosam El-Sokkari. Although funded by a grant-in-aid
of the British government, the BBC is not under "any pressure
to be friendly towards British policies or the policies of any
country friendly to the British government," he stressed.
As regards mobilizing forces, "I think there is a third
way," he said. "In the BBC we don't see ourselves
as a medium with a political message. We are a platform for
debate. Since we started our phone-in, we discussed issues like
corruption and democracy but at the same time we offered as
much diversity as possible for people to discuss these issues.
We don't see that our job is to mobilize forces or mobilize
the streets against governments."
In these troubled
times media professionals have suffered an ever growing number
of casualties. News Xchange has now become a major forum to
discuss safety issues and the International News Safety Institute
(INSI) held its annual general meeting on the eve of News Xchange
for the second year in a row.
Chris Cramer, managing
director CNN International and honorary president of INSI told
delegates, "The death toll is three times higher than that
of international humanitarian workers.... This has been arguably
the most terrible year for our profession--after I sat here
and told you last year it had been the most terrible year."
from zones of conflicts, such as Iraq or the occupied territories,
Arab media have suffered very significant casualties, an issue
highlighted by Chuck Lustig, from ABC news, who paid tribute
to "the employees of Arab networks who are doing the dirty
work in Iraq. For that we all owe them a great deal of gratitude
because as it gets more and more dangerous for Westerners to
go out in Iraq, it is your employees who are covering what is
going on in the country today. And for that we owe you a great
deal of thanks."
The safety session looked at the danger faced by Arab journalists
in Iraq, underlined by the killing of a large number of Arab
media professionals by both sides as well as by the treatment
inflicted on three Reuters and an NBC Arab staff members arrested
in Falluja and later abused and humiliated in various ways by
US forces for several days. David Schlesinger, global managing
editor for Reuters, regretted that no proper investigation on
the circumstances was ever carried out by the Pentagon.
US Deputy Assistant
Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) Bryan Whitman said the
Pentagon was thoroughly investigating every case of violence
against journalists and noted that a war zone was always dangerous,
but that the vast majority of journalists killed had not been
embedded with US forces. A number of participants rejected this
approach as indicating the Pentagon's willingness to manage
the news agenda through the embed system.
A chilling reminder
that some groups of insurgents were determined to cow the media
into submission was the warning posted on the al-Qal'a web site:
"We are swearing allegiance to God that we will reach all
the media and news agencies that are not at least neutral in
reporting news. We swear to God that we will hunt all the workers
in these news agencies one after another and we will slaughter
them like sheep if they stand beside the Americans and not broadcast
the truth about the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. Their
fate will be the same as Al Arabiya, who used to call the Mujahideen
Seven people were
killed and several wounded on 30 October when a car bomb went
off outside Al Arabiya offices in Baghdad.
The session also
looked at a lesser known, but nevertheless very significant
"collateral damage" of the media coverage of the war
and the traumatic impact, on media staff in newsrooms and archives
who view footage of a gruesome nature, such as beheadings and
the executions of hostages, as part of their jobs.
Mark Brayne, of the
Dart Centre Europe, outlined a number of measures to be taken
by broadcasting organizations to help their staff cope with
this relatively new issue.
The large number
and quality of contributors from Arab media organizations and
the impetus given to the session by Emad El Din Adeeb ensured
a remarkably frank and fruitful exchange of views and opinions,
which should contribute to a better understanding of the many
challenges and opportunities facing Arab media.
Given the success
of the session on the diversity of Arab media and of that on
safety issues, News Xchange will undoubtedly be revisiting these
topics in future editions.
a not-for-profit conference underwritten by the European Broadcasting
Union (EBU), has the backing of the fifty-eight members of the
EBU's Eurovision News Exchange and of the twenty-nine members
of European News Exchange (ENEX), the cooperative of commercial
broadcasters. It is also supported by the major international
broadcast news agencies and networks.
Web sites / Links
News Xchange: http://www.Newsxchange.org
Dart Centre Europe: http://www.dartcenter.org/europe/