Investing in the Future [Archives:2006/959/Reportage]

June 29 2006
The Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Bernard Rudolf Bot in a group photo with participants.
The Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Bernard Rudolf Bot in a group photo with participants.
Free Voice and CDFJ presenting the program.
Free Voice and CDFJ presenting the program.
Mrs. Agnes van Ardenne, Minister of Development Cooperation with Arab participants.
Mrs. Agnes van Ardenne, Minister of Development Cooperation with Arab participants.
By: Nadia Al-Sakkaf
The latest Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) gave a dramatic picture of the lack of development in the field of democracy and civil society participation in the Arab World. In most Arab countries, freedom of expression, press and association are curtailed by restrictive laws and social and political taboos. Access to information for media and citizens is often very restricted.

The challenge of developing a knowledge society in the Arab countries is of paramount importance. Mass media plays an essential role in the distribution of knowledge and information. The obstacles to the development of free and independent media are mentioned in the Arab Human Development Reports. The three major deficits of the Arab media are access, content and reception. Development is hindered by political restrictions. There is also an acute deficit of freedom and good governance. Most Arab countries lack an independent judiciary. Besides that civil society organisations and the media continue to suffer from restrictions.

Investing in the future:

The report 'Investing in the Future' was published by the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) in Jordan to investigate the training needs of media in the Arab world. It provides an analysis of the issues faced by media professionals in six Arab countries including Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. The selected countries represent different Arab regions and were selected for their role as emerging democracies in the Arab world.

The analysis of the training needs is based on a survey, which consisted of in-depth interviews with media professionals and other key informants in the six countries, as well as a questionnaire distributed among scores of media professionals. The survey was carried out by partner institutions in the six countries.

The report attempts to present a general description of the media in the six selected countries in terms of political, cultural and social context, and to describe to what extent the media enjoy freedom and independence. A more detailed analysis of press laws, education facilities and training needs is conducted on the basis of the survey and the in-depth interviews.

The researchers conclude that the professional qualifications of Arab media professionals should be improved, as well as their legal awareness. They propose a plan to train media professionals, to be carried out over a period of five years. The plan aims at building a community of highly qualified media professionals who can in turn train their colleagues, fight for press freedom and bring about change in their society. The plan is designed for the six targeted countries, but could be implemented in other countries facing similar difficulties as well.

The research team consisted of senior lawyer Negad El Borai, Chairperson of the Group for Democratic Development, and the researchers Sameh Fawzi, Mohamed Hussein Al Sayed, Marwa Salah and Dr. Ali El Sawy, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University. They were assisted by Usama Saraya, Editor-in-Chief of Egypt's leading newspaper Al-Ahram; Dr. Hassan Hamdi, Dean of the Faculty of Information at 6th October University; Dr. Huwaida Mustafa, Professor of Information at Cairo University; and Nedal Mansour, Director of CDFJ Jordan.

State of the Arab media

In order to explain the state of Arab media, the researchers first describe the political, social, economic and cultural environment of the six countries under investigation. It is argued that generally, Arab states have started to intervene widely in the economy and in society in the 1960s and 1970s. The states became responsible for cultural production as well, thus controlling social consciousness. The era witnessed extreme limitation or outright abolition of the activities of political parties, professional syndicates and other civil organizations, nationalization of the media and oppression of the freedom of expression. Power remained firmly in the hands of ruling families, or, in the case of Lebanon, the ruling religious sects. These developments are then described in more detail for each of the six countries.

The Survey

In order to investigate the training needs of Arab media, the research team developed a questionnaire for media professionals, as well as guidelines for in-depth interviews with key figures. The questionnaire included 35 questions on professional and legal education, knowledge of foreign languages, press freedom, and preferred training topics and methods.

To conduct the survey, the research team cooperated with partner organizations in the respective countries, including the Al Bahrain Center for Human Rights Studies in Bahrain; the Information Center for Human Rights in Yemen; the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue in Lebanon; the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists in Jordan and the United Group Attorneys-at-Law, Legal and Economic Advisors in Egypt. In Morocco it was not possible to work with a partner institution due to communication problems and time pressure. Instead, the Jordanian researcher Bassam Bedarin went to Casablanca to conduct the survey.

In total, 504 media professionals completed the questionnaire and in-depth interviews were conducted with six to ten people in each country. Of the respondents of the questionnaire, 32% were women. The number of respondents per country was proportionate to the size of the respective media communities.

Survey results

The answers to the questionnaire and the in-depth interviews generally show a lack of legal awareness among journalists, and a need for advanced professional training. The Arab countries cope with lack of press freedom, lack of journalistic professionalism, and lack of adequate training facilities.

The media landscape

In Lebanon, the media landscape is characterized by lack of professional institutions, absence of innovation, absence of accountability by journalists, lack of specialization and depth, and abuse of the media by politicians. Education of media professionals is not directed at actually practicing the profession. A positive feature is that many journalists command a second language, which allows them to keep up with international developments in their profession.

In Morocco, media production is not free. Moroccan journalists tend to employ an outmoded and traditional narrative technique, but there are and there are no initiatives to improve professional development of the press.

In Bahrain, the government controls broadcasting and imposes strict censorship on privately owned printed media. However, some independent newspapers have been established recently, and a group of independent journalists are trying to set up a unified press entity. In addition, the Bahraini University has hired external academics and altered the curriculum of media studies to comply with international standards. Still, these reforms have not resulted in real changes in professionalism.

Egyptian legislation contains many obstacles to the freedom of expression and access to information. In addition, lack of financial means hinders effective performance of journalists. Educational facilities are falling behind in terms of the skills and qualifications demanded by today's market. An increasing number of media departments cannot connect with the media because of limited employment opportunities.

In Jordan, despite the establishment of an independent Board of Directors to regulate radio and television broadcasting, the government still controls broadcasting media. A Press Syndicate was established in 1953, but its effect on the media is very limited. Many journalists are not members. Weekly journals have enjoyed relative freedom in discussing democracy from 1989 until 1998, but in 1997 the government enacted a temporary printing code that led to the closure of thirteen weekly newspapers. Extreme penalties for journalists were also imposed. There is an urgent need for practical training, training in ethics, and help with absorbing technological developments.

The Yemeni press suffers from a lack of clarity in the statutes that govern its role in society. It enjoys a limited degree of freedom, best illustrated by the establishment of a new Ministry of Human Rights. However, journalists criticize the publications law issued in 1990, most of all because of its banning many publications and its penal provisions. In fact, many observers think that media freedom in Yemen is in retreat. Yemen still depends on foreign media experts as teachers. Students tend not to choose media studies because of the field's limited employment opportunities. In addition, education does prepare for the demands of the media job market.

Press rights and legal awareness

Lebanese law demands obtaining advance permission to publish. Printed media in Lebanon are subject to two kinds of censorship: one in advance of publication and one following publication. The penal code prevents journalists from investigations to uncover the truth. Graduates of press faculties and institutes are ignorant of the code of conduct and of their rights and duties and journalists do not see the need for change. Only the French organization Reporters without Borders provides legal support.

In Egypt, the Supreme Press Council, which is influenced by government, takes care of all press affairs. The right to publish newspapers is limited to political parties and members of the judiciary. However, over the past three years, the government did give permission to establish independent newspapers. Human rights organizations play a big role in defending the freedom of the press and monitoring rights violations. Some NGOs occasionally offer short training courses on the legal protection of journalists. Egyptian journalists have more access to legal support than their colleagues in other Arab countries, but the support is not well organized.

In Morocco, democratic and legal movements as well as the Press Syndicate continue to demand the review of all press legislation in conformity with constitutional commitments related to human rights and international human rights conventions. This pressure led to an amendment of the press law in 2002. Moroccan intellectuals accept a lack of commitment to a central code of conduct among journalists in exchange for freedom of publishing. Raising legal awareness is considered a problem because of the quality of training available.

The press and prints law in Yemen is widely criticized because it hinders the existence of multi-media and restricts freedom of expression. Journalists can lose their job for breaching the code of conduct of their profession, but these crimes are not clearly defined. To publish a newspaper, a large sum of capital has to be deposited, which restricts the right to freedom of publication. Journalists can be forbidden to practice their profession and printed material can be banned if they do not abide by the law. Journalists are also subject to criminal and penal law provisions. In educational institutions, the law is not taught in a critical way. There are occasional efforts by the press syndicate and some human rights NGOs to raise legal awareness and to defend journalists. The syndicate also provides journalists with lawyers to defend them.

In Jordan, experts believe that the main obstacle hindering press freedom is the referring of journalists to the State Security Court. Other experts say the main obstacle is journalists who are not registered with the Press Syndicate publishing articles harming the public interest. Since 2002, the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists has conducted training for a group of lawyers. These lawyers have formed a group to provide legal services for journalists. Local and international human rights organizations are increasingly involved in protecting journalists. However, Jordanian journalists still need additional protection.

Journalists in Bahrain lack legal awareness which could protect them from being summoned by the public prosecution office. Furthermore, journalists' associations and the press syndicate do not raise legal awareness. The University of Bahrain does teach legal and ethical codes, but the program is not related to practical reality. There are no organized efforts to defend journalists.

Training facilities and needs

The majority of journalists who participated in the survey state that they need training, most of all to raise their professional skills. These include specialized and investigative journalism, use of information technology, management and legal awareness. Journalists also wish to improve their knowledge of foreign languages, especially English. The main obstacles to further training are lack of resources and lack of qualified trainers.

Journalists generally prefer practical training methods such as discussions, rather than lectures. They express a need for training manuals to facilitate further training, but these would have to be subsidized since financial resources are scarce. They also indicate that a financial incentive would encourage them to attend training courses. Trainers should be highly qualified, able to convey their knowledge in an accessible way, and have broad experience in the media.

The Solution:

Experts, donors and representatives from media and civil societies from the six mentioned countries met twice so far in order to formulate a training strategy and action plan. In Amman November 2005 there was an extensive workshop which was attended by more than 46 activists to discuss and formulate the background and proposal of the Investing in the Future programme. Between the 7th and 8th of this month at the Hague, there was a donor conference which aimed at bringing together policy makers in the field of media support in the Middle East and North Africa. The results of the report “Investing in the Future, Strategy for Training Journalists and Protection of Journalists in the Arab World” was presented. Arab media NGO's and Free Voice presented a 2-year program of activities, called “Strategy for Arab Journalists' Capacity Building”, based on this report.

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to support the Training of Trainers element of the 2 year program. The Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Bernard Rudolf Bot had had met with the participants on the 8th of June to confirm the ministry's support and Mrs. Agnes van Ardenne, Minister of Development Cooperation, had a sideline detailed meeting with the Arab participants to the conference.

The Strategy:

To strengthen grassroots media NGO's in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen; to defend press freedom and to raise professional standards and legal awareness among journalists. Those are the main objectives of the “Strategy for Arab journalists' capacity building”. A strategy, which is not donor-driven but genuinely guided by the concerns of the Arab actors in the media field.

The first steps in this strategy consist of a 2-year comprehensive training programme. Between 900 and 1000 media professionals and 24 legal experts will receive mid-career training, a debate will be set up about excellence in journalism through workshops and publications and the capacity of local organizations to defend press freedom will be raised. The trained journalists will reach an audience of millions in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen who watch or listen to their television and radio programmes or read their newspapers.

The programme will be facilitated by the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) in Jordan in cooperation with other Arab media NGO's and by Free Voice in the Netherlands. International and Arab academics and experts will be involved to guarantee the high standards of the programme.