OR318 – the March 18th Movement on the safety of bloggers

The March 18th Movement, which has recently been set up, was done so in memory of Omid Reza Mir Sayaf, who died in the Iranian Evin prison on that very date. It has the tagline ‘Let the first blogger to die in prison be the last’.  It was began by amid Tehrani. He (of Global Voices Online), Esra’a Al Shafei (of Middle East Youth) and Curt Hopkins (of the Committee to Protect Bloggers).

March18.org

They detail the vision of the March 18th Movement:

“First among the principals of the March 18 Movement is a belief in the inviolacy of life. Bloggers should not be killed, neither by execution nor neglect, for what they have written. Secondly, we believe in free speech as a human right, not a function of culture or politics, and believe it to be a necessity for building and maintaining functional societies. We believe bloggers and non-specialist practitioners of other social media should be accorded the respect and support that activists, opposition politicians and journalists get from both their own countries and from the world at large.”

They are also on @OR318 and a Facebook group.

It’s in its early stages yet but it deserves all the help, luck and attention it can get. The last sentence – that bloggers should get the same respect and support that professionals do – is demonstrative of how important these writers feel their roles, in their societies, are. Should non-professional journalists however, be treated in the same way as those who are deemed as professionals? When campaigning for press freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere, should we be promoting not only the rights of pan-Arabic television stations to broadcast any footage but also the right of a community blogger to write about local corruption?

Media and the World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2009 in Jordan

Yesterday saw the end of the World Economic Forum’s meeting on the Middle East, held on the banks of the dead sea in Jordan. A range of panel discussions took place, and you can find reports on ‘Sustainability in the Middle East, Middle East E-Living‘ and ‘Closing the food gap among them.

If you really want, you can also see photos from Flickr of the conference.

There was also a panel discussion on ‘Race for an Audience: Media in the Middle East‘, the (hour and a half long) video of which can be seen here (sorry, embedding didn’t work).

By the end of the forum, the participants challenged themselves in two areas, as the Dubai Chronicle reports:

Energy – increase conservation; develop alternative energies; and utilize smart grids.

Youth – with 65% of the Arab world’s population under the age of 25, the region must develop this bulge by “providing them with education and developing, retaining and attracting talent,” said Samir Brikho, Chief Executive Officer, Amec, United Kingdom, and Co-Chair of the meeting.

For a critical opinon of the World Economic Forum, see ‘Leftist Youth’ writing at 7iber.com, a Jordanian website for young citizen journalists.

Unfortunately, there was little talk of micro-payment projects or, beyond the above discussion which is well worth watching, much discussion of the role of the media in the Middle East. Obviously the World Economic Forum can be expected to have other things on it’s mind – petrodollars and the wider recession – but press freedom and a focus on developing the Middle East (where there is still widespread poverty) are issues worthy of greater, more expansive debate.

The Next Century Foundation and ‘internet black hole: can development journalism take place offline in the Middle East?

William Morris of ‘The Next Century Foundation‘, warned earlier today that parts of the Middle East were operating in an ‘internet black hole’, with inadequate online access for swaths of the region. This from Journalism.co.uk:

“In Iraq, for example, many landlines in the country have been down since the war,” he said, at Monday’s Voices Online Blogging Conference, organised by the Next Century Foundation (NCF).

“There are some seminal Iraqi bloggers, like Salam Pax. But the average Iraqi uses [the Internet on] a mobile phone. It is a vacuum for conventional Internet for the ordinary population.”

Morris said the difficulties of digital engagement in the Middle East were compounded by the fact that only 0.4 per cent of the web’s content is written in Arabic.”

The question this leads us to is whether there can be development journalism, and new media, in the Middle East without the Internet? Radio has not become as a significant force in the region as it has in Africa, and television remains dominated by state players or large, pan-Arabian players, namely Al-Jazeera or Al Arabiya. We’d be hard pressed in any modern context to describe newspapers as new media, and those in the Middle East rarely cover development journalism.

It’s easy to take for granted the existence of development journalism but the medium on which it is presented is worth noting. Seemingly, in the Middle East at least we come to expect development journalism to be online: given the degree of censorship over most national broadcast and print mediums, if journalists are also faced with the inability to publish online, might they be put off covering development issues at all?

The Libyan Blogosphere and gender

Writing at Global Voices Online, Fozia Mohamed rounds up some comments from the Libyan blogosphere about gender in the country. One of those she highlights is Lone Higherlander, writing at ‘From the Rock‘:

“I’m all for sharing everything with family but it’s difficult enough to be a blogger so why bother to tell anyone? (personally I regret telling some people – who are not family about it but I was happily surprised that one of my brothers who stumbled on it by chance loved it and was so proud of me he actually wanted me to stop being anonymous). Use the blogosphere as a sandpit to hon in your writing skills ladies – and don’t tell anyone yet 😛

I don’t think that the Libyan males are against their sisters, mothers, wives etc. writing but more as social pressure and the 3ayb part – as in what cannot be seen then does not exist… or that the precious females maybe recognised and their ideas misintepreted and God forbid their reputation ruined because Libyan dudes would be trolling their website/blog .”

Blogs are important part of development journalism. When we refer to blogs in the developing world as allowing those dissenting from the government and majority to have a voice. But what it also allows, including a region that is still admittedly male-dominated, is female voices to be heard above and beyond the society they live in. Not that – such as the reaction of the brother above – we should always expect a negative reaction about women blogging from men in the Middle East.

Fozia concludes:

“Women in Libyan society are loved, respected and cared for as mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and wives. The state guarantees freedom and equality between men and women but it still runs across cultural norms and traditions and here I don’t mean religion. This post is not about feminism, it’s just observations about anomalies plaguing our society and a reflection on how to deal with them.”

Even if the post isn’t about feminism, it still gives an idea about how bloggers can discuss issues in a society where such discussions would often be taboo, or at least frowned upon. It’s now almost a cliche to refer to new media as ‘liberating’ silent majorities or minorities, but just as important are it’s ability to allow slower discussions about issues we often de-politicise, such as gender.

And such discussions are advancing the development of a society: not that they will necessarily lead to Western-like equality (a debatable concept itself), but they will perhaps lead to some change in gender relations in Libya. This isn’t a topic I know much about, nor feel that qualified to comment at length on – so have a read of Fozia’s post and the associated links.

Middle East Journalists on universal media ethics

In this post I’m exploring the findings of Shakuntala Rao and Seow Ting Lee in an article ‘Globalizing Media Ethics? An Assessment of Universal Ethics Among International Political Journalists’ (Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 2/3, 2005)

In this study, the authors interviewed international political journalists in the Middle East and Asia, so I’m obviously focusing on excerpts and Rao and Lee’s conclusions about the latter.

I’m generally repelled by any attempts to universalise ethics, including within journalism. From the article:

‘…our claim in this article is that one cannot simply presuppose the existence and acceptability of universal moral truths or of moral imperatives among all journalists across diverse cultures.’

Though we may call ourselves ‘journalists’, the word has a wide range of meanings across a different world. Is a North Korean propaganda writer for the state newspaper a journalist? Is a military radio show reporter for the IDF, themselves a member of the army, a journalist? Is someone writing a local community newsletter in Venezuela? Considering the debate over who is a journalist, how can we begin to consider a universal code for a profession we can’t universally define?

Ethical coverage of events overseas

I want to diverge slightly from the main focus of this post, to address a view expressed by one of the journalists interviewed:

‘We are expected to feel exceptional pain when one American dies. The journalists around the world are supposed to sit and cry about the Americans in the World Trade Centers. For Palestinians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Qataris, Egyptians, there is no one to cry and especially not any one in the American media.’

This relates to a eternal debate within journalism: whether those in the West give much greater attention and credence to death and suffering of Westerners than non-Westerners. Rather than writing about celebrity or less important news (the phrase itself being a value judgement), should be focusing on the plight of those across the world?

Arguably, perhaps. But the interviewee here is making an assumption about what he, and his colleagues are ‘expected to feel’. This is perhaps a dissenting opinion I’ll express, but I don’t expect journalists in the Middle East or Asia to feel that way about Americans. I would expect them to feel that way about their fellow citizens, just as I would expect Americans to. It comes down to a question of relevance. If development journalism is to promote a feeling of national belonging, or at least have a positive impact on a country, then I would perfectly expect them to focus on that nation. But does that mean we should not expect the same of Western media? Why should every media organisation not focus on those it sees as most relevant? It is, surely, only because of the global reach and power of Western media that this question of priorities is an issue: it is debatable, of course, whether this greater reach gives them a greater responsibilty.

A universal code of journalism ethics

If there were to be a universal code of ethics for journalism, an important question arises as to who could compile it. One interviewee:

‘…is it going to be American professors writing about Plato and Aristotle who will tell us what the universal principles are?’

Journalism in the Middle East, whatever the origin of the profession itself, will inevitably be different than that within the West. Two particular extracts from journalists in the region caught my eye.

S.Q.H (editor, Gulf News) ‘If the code includes “tell the truth” and if we are to tell the truth, we will put to death for following such a code. They will find something in the sharia laws to justify my hanging.’

Saleh El-Saybehmi (political columnist, Khaleej Times) ‘A discussion of media ethics is useless here [Middle East] where very bit of news is tightly controlled. The mere discussion of ethics implies the existence of some degree of freedom to make choices. We don’t have that.”

As I mentioned earlier, we can’t expect journalists around the world to have a uniform underlying moral code given the differences in the societies they work in. Even if development journalism is participatory, there is no reason why truth telling would be possible or even desirable in every society. Rao and Lee conclude:

‘Although the journalists valued truth telling as a basic ethical principle, they were willing to weight truth against competing principles.’

Holding together a community or even a nation could be a greater priority than truth telling or neutrality – as could a religion:

Monish Rajah: ‘The Western notion of objectivity really does not work here [in the Middle East]. When it comes to religious issues, which are sometimes synonymous with regional issues, there is a tacit understanding that the Islamic perspective is the one that the readers want to hear. This does not mean that a different religious perspective is not to be tolerated but rather one’s own perspective needs to be emphasied.’

Such a perspective would rarely be expressed in the West, but in developing countries does not seem out of place.

It seems strange to refer to the work of the media industry in the Middle East as ‘development journalism’, but considering its role within its ever-changing societies, there is no doubt that it can fit into this category, if we want it to. But even we call it, we cannot expect some underlying uniformity to a profession that is now changing faster than ever. Indeed, the sheer category of ‘development journalism’ arguably has a tendency to label non-Western journalism as having certain characteristics.

So, if Middle East journalism doesn’t pertain to a Western code of media ethics, but nor does it fit neatly into development journalism, what is it? Is it even necessary to label it?

Michael Wolfe on new media and Islam: the wrong focus

Writing on CNN, Michael Wolfe has an article entitled ‘New media, new Muslim voices

Wolfe discusses the opportunities the American Muslim community now have to discuss, react, and if necessary refute news stories concerning them or their religion.

An extract:

“Now, perhaps in the nick of time, the Web offers Muslims the chance to blog in their own words, tweet their reactions to a breaking news story or further progress in their own communities by exchanging ideas through online forums.”

Wolfe continues:

“But conversations aren’t one-sided; they involve at least two parties. What does this mean? It means that the opportunity Muslims now have is shared with their neighbors. When a Muslim goes online to blog about why she wears a headscarf, a Christian or Jewish woman who is interested in the topic can ask her questions directly.”

What’s new with this?

I’ve got a couple of problems with Wolfe’s article. Firstly, what he is discussing is the same for every community with Internet access. I don’t see why Muslims need to be treated as a special case, about whom an extensive point needs to be made. Just like millions worldwide, they can blog, surf, email and everything inbetween.

I fail to see how, ‘in the nick of time’, the web suddenly allows Muslims to use the same tools as everyone else – as if they haven’t already. In the same way that, across America and the West, Muslims and non-Muslims will be having, and have been having, conversations for decades. These may be as colleagues, as friends, as neighbours and as partners. The Internet has an unparalled impact on our lives, but perhaps not in this part.

The wrong region

Wolfe’s analysis does have resonance, but not in America. The rise in Internet usuage in the Middle East is expodential. Despite firewalls, cenesorship, and often the difficulty of simply getting online, there is a wave of bloggers, activits, citizen journalists and everyday individuals doing just what Wolfe describes – sometimes in English, more often in Arabic or Farsi.

Wolfe:

“Sometimes it is geography that separates us, or sometimes we are too shy or embarrassed to ask questions or speak out when face-to-face. The Web makes all of this much easier and unleashes unparalleled potential for humans to communicate directly with the rest of the world.”

By allowing more two-way communication between the ‘east and west’ (for want of a better phrase), between those living in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the English-speaking world, the web is ‘making this easier’. But on a much greater, arguably more significant scale than that which Wolfe describes.

New ‘Tawasul’ network to be launched for young Syrian journalists

From the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Knight International Journalism Fellowships:

“Zaina Erhaim, a 24-year-old reporter for the Syria News Web site, has received a laptop as a prize for suggesting the name of a new online network for young Syrian journalists.

The winning name: Tawasul, an Arabic word that loosely translates as “staying in touch.Journalists who join the network will be encouraged to contribute to a Web site that hosts radio, print and television stories, as well as caricatures and short, animated films. The network also will offer professional training, seminars and workshops.”

There’s no date on the article so I don’t know when it was launched, but projects like these, however small their launch to start with, all have the potential to add to the rich and growing network of young, innovative of journalists in the Middle East. With any luck, these devolved networks will be more inclined to cover aspects of development in the region than top-down, pan-Arab satellite networks.