Media and Development Conference III:Do we belong to one planet?

Osama al-Sharif: “Arab media will have to chart their own way.”


“They are people just like us”, is a well-known phrase. Osama al-Sharif agrees but is hasty to add that we don’t live on the same planet. The veteran journalist from Jordan shares his views on media evolution, safeguarding good journalism and the possible relationship with the Western press.


“They are people just like us”, is a well-known phrase. Osama al-Sharif agrees but is hasty to add that we don’t live on the same planet. The veteran journalist from Jordan shares his views on media evolution, safeguarding good journalism and the possible relationship with the Western press. We all belong to a media culture that is continuously changing. I have been in this business for as long as I remember. I can still smell the ink of the old metal press in Jerusalem. I remember my father coming home with a black-andwhite television. It’s only 50 years ago that television made its first appearance. First as a form of light entertainment, later on as a serious source of news and information. Thirty years ago CNN was founded, the mother of the 24-hour news channels. And 15 years ago the world was introduced to, arguably the first multi-lingual online portal. The Internet age had begun in earnest and the world had become truly wired. Recently the explosive proliferation of satellite TV broke the government’s monopoly on information in our part of the world. The last 6 to 7 years blogs have been appearing – giving a boost to the concept of citizen journalism.


In between all these wonderful means of delivering pictures, sounds, data and words, journalism was going through a tumultuous evolution. In the universal struggle for good journalism, we are more united than ever. Cultural, political, religious and economic differences set aside, journalists across the globe are striving to fulfil the same goals. We want to be better practitioners of this profession. We want to be part of a professional culture that espouses freedom, transparency, and accountability, and strives to achieve it through objectivity, accuracy, independence and thoroughness.


But that’s in a perfect world. We should be learning from each other at this conference. The West being the traditional bedrock of democratic values, free press and personal liberties, seems the perfect source for knowledge. As journalists of the developing world and emerging economies attempt to push the bar a little higher, we still look at the West for inspiration and funding. It’s we who bring the questions to you. How can we learn from you so that some of us can lead and become mentors to a younger generation of Arab journalists? How can you help us to avoid falling into the traps of subjectivity, inaccuracy and the false dissemination of news? I ask those questions because I have doubts about the future of such a relationship.


 I am the first to admit that we need to learn and that we are struggling to save good journalism in a fast-changing environment. Hundreds of satellite channels, tens of thousands of bloggers and millions of mobile handsets have changed our media scene in the past decade beyond recognition. We are battling with ethical issues, suffering from ailments such as subjective and unfair coverage of issues, incursions on the private lives of citizens, government manipulation, intimidation of journalists and the concentration of media assets into few hands. We also have journalists who have succumbed to government pressures and betrayed the values of their profession.


 However, when we look for inspiration from your side, we are shocked to see that our likely role models are also guilty of different sins and are liable to be confronted with pitfalls. Especially the last eight years we have seen departures from those universal values. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pointed out major flaws in Western media coverage. We have seen few examples of objective, transparent and fair coverage. Mavericks who challenged the norm were an exception. The same goes for media coverage of the Palestinian issue, Islam and religious fundamentalism among others. We now realise that as much as we agree on basic journalistic values, we may differ on the best ways to implement them. At the end of the day, we will have to chart our own way and create our own path in our attempt to reach those goals. But that path may not lead to the same reality that you have in the West today. In fact it will certainly be different.


Your secular journey has gone hand in hand with democratic progress and the development of press freedom, almost interchangeably. We in the Arab world and to a large extent in the Muslim world, cannot blindly copy your experiment without colliding head-on with cultural and religious taboos. Let me mention two examples. First of all pornography is an accepted form of freedom of expression in your culture, in ours it can never be. The second example is the recent offence against our prophet and religious symbols, initiated by Danish media in the name of press freedom, which has enraged millions of Muslims. As someone educated in the West, I can appreciate the logic that drives publishers to satirise religion. But I also understand the deepseated revulsions that drove many in the Muslim world to protest against such offences. I cannot imagine a period in my own life-time in which our media could cross that red line and engage in lampooning religious symbols.


We are not free of bigotry ourselves, our media culture is suffering from numerous faults, some of them translate into our perception of our own and other people’s place in the globalised world. Mainstream media are losing influence to personalized media and interpersonal communication. As much as our world is wired today, we fail to understand each other. Meanwhile, the old problems continue to haunt us: Lack of training of young journalists; social and political pressures; absence of positive mentoring by veteran editors; and a consumer culture that embodies the worst of the capitalist system. Most of all, we miss encounters where we can exchange experiences and attempt to push the learning curve up for both sides. The question is this: How can we, journalists on both sides, neutralise our bigotries so that we can write a fair article or news report? How much have we managed to understand ourselves so we can teach others about what makes us different and similar at the same time? We have to seek ways to build a bridge that ensures a fair perception of each other, a fair understanding of each other’s value system and a fair appreciation of the differences that make us unique, so we can truly belong to one planet.


Osama al-Sharif is a veteran Jordan journalist with a long and fruitful career. For example, he co-founded the Arab publishing company in the nineties, a pioneer in pan-Arab magazines. For a long time he was editor-in-chief of Jordan’s oldest daily ad-Dustour, today he is a freelance writer.