By Karima Rhanem | Morocco TIMES 12/21/2005 | 4:27 pm
Rabat---Freedom of the media and freedom of expression are key elements to promote democracy, underlined US and Arab panelists in a meeting organized in Rabat, Dec.19-20, by the American Moroccan Institute on US-Arab Relations Through the Media.
Participants in the conference which gather journalists from the Arab world and the United States highlighted the importance of media as an engine for democracy and a key source of information aiming at raising the public opinion's awareness and asked the authorities to look into certain issues.
The New York Times reporter Michael Slackman said that to be able to enjoy democracy one needs a freedom of expression and a freedom of the press which allows the journalist to provide correct and credible information to his readers. He stressed that the media is more powerful than militias.
He emphasized the important role media can play in creating public debate, referring to several leading US papers which revealed key information about US secret prisons in Europe, and Bush spying on Americans after 9/11.
“This information may not change big things but it created a national debate, and it made the president explain his acts and decisions publicly, and that's the real journalism,” Slackman argued.
He acknowledged, however, the negative role the US media can have when it misleads public opinion by publishing unverified information.
As to the language used by the western media, Slackman said that the journalist should be very careful when dealing with the terminology of terrorism. Citing the example of Hezbollah, he questioned whether one should call it a terrorist organization as President Bush named it, or see it as a resistance movement as the people of Lebanon and others in the Arab world view it.
“I believe the reasons why we do have a lack of understanding between the United States and the Arab World is that we do tend to generalize. In this respect, we need to educate people and review previous educational text books by providing people accurate information and honest historical facts,” Slackman explained.
In the same vain, Al-Jazeera correspondent in Washington Mohamed Alami said that the freedom of press does not make democracy but it is part of it.
He said that freedom of the media is a product of democracy, stating that the latter constitutes a fundamental principle to which the US gives a great importance.
Echoing Slackman, Alami said that a journalist should be very careful when covering events related to terrorism.
“The worst a journalist can do is to overgeneralize or follow the demands of the public,” he explained.
Other panelists discussed mass-mediated terrorism and the Arab and American image in the media after 9/11. They stressed the need to open a new and serious dialogue between the US and the Arab world to overcome stereotype each has of the other.
Raghida Dergham, a NY-based senior diplomatic correspondent for the Arabic language newspaper, Al-Hayat, said that the Arab-Muslim causes—as well as the aspirations of future generations—are being undermined by terrorist atrocities.
“Condemnation is no longer enough, especially if qualified by pointing to bad American policies. The situation has deteriorated to such a degree that pre-emptive action by Arab-Muslim grassroots is now essential—otherwise, all will be tarred with the brush of terrorism forever. Such action involves taking a decisive decision to ostracize all terrorist jihadists, notwithstanding their sometimes just complaints against unfair American policies and oppressive Arab regimes,” she argued.
She said that Americans must work to learn about the impact of their foreign policy. “They can no longer afford to remain indifferent,” she added.
Dergham stressed that “the US should engage Arabs and Muslims as committed partners in the war against terrorism, which would require adjusting the foreign policy, adopting a new approach to the silent majority, reforming relationships with governments of that region, adopting a more respectful tone toward Arabs and Muslims, and standing up to extremists with “one standard and equal resolve, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews.”
As for Arabs and Muslims, Dergham said, they must stop exporting blame, making America a convenient culprit for their problems when it is just as much internal.
“A major source of frustration for Arabs and Muslims is that they do not understand America's unconditional support of Israel and believe that America gave Israel the right to do whatever it wishes, including the demolition of Palestinian homes,” she said.
Alfred Hackensberger, Sky News correspondent said that “there is a certain fear of the Arab world in the west, and it seems that nobody wants to understand why there is this miscommunication between the two blocks.
“From my experience as a journalist, I see that regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for example, there is a tendency in the western media to focus on the sufferings of the Israelis alone. So it is a one-sided view of the event. There is a big lack of information on the Arab world, but at the same time a big lack of interest in what's going on there,” Hackensberger explained.
Christopher Dickey, Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek Magazine, reinforced Hackensberger's comment by stating that “what Americans want to know about the rest of the world is to forget about it.”
He referred to America's isolation and ignorance about the rest of the world, particularly the Arab World.
“America is a nation of immigration and people go there to build their future. So they disconnect with their worlds and focus only on their lives in the US. Americans don't know your history and they simply don't care.”
“After 9/11 Americans started to look for clues to understand what's going on in the world and eventually asked the fundamental question: why do they hate us?” he added.
He stressed that with the war in Iraq, America has again isolated itself, which will be difficult to overcome.
Jane Arraf, CNN's Senior Baghdad Correspondent said that after 9/11, there was a politicizing of messages which defamed the reality of events. She stressed that a real communication is needed to bridge the gap between the US and the Arab World and to inform the US grassroots about what's really going on in the world.
Panelists agreed that sustained efforts should be made to preserve dialogue between the US and the Arab world, and that could be done, among other things, through the promotion of democracy and the encouragement of the freedom of the media and the freedom of expression.