The Founder of JEMSTONE, Mr. Tudor Lomas Talks to Yemen Times “It is a lot more solid ground to build an independent media role, than government control and government funding.” [Archives:1999/50/Law & Diplomacy]

December 13 1999

JEMSTONE Institute is one of the most important institutes standing for journalism in the Euro-Mid region. In the beginning it was funded by the European Union. It is now funded by the Dutch government. It plays a pivotal role in building links and contacts between media in this part of the world and Europe. It was established in 1995. It was based in Holland for 18 years, but for the past three years it has been based in Jordan.
Mr. Tudor Lomas, the Director and founder of Jemstone, was a BBC journalist for many years.
Mr. Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi, Yemen Times, met with Mr. Lomas in a seminar organized by Jemstone about independent media in Jordan and filed the following interview.
Q: How did the idea of establishing the Jemstone Institute come about?
A: What I would like to say first is that I was personally deeply upset when I was informed about the tragic death of my friend Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf. I had a dreadful shocking time when I heard the news. I have always regarded him as a beacon for journalism in the Arab world and I do not know who will be able to follow in his footsteps and fill his shoes because he was a very important figure.
The Jemstone Institute came about through the European Union Project and through that the decision of Europe to build closer links between people in Europe and people in the Middle East and North Africa. The whole series of projects was something called the Mid Campus to link universities and to link towns and cities. The idea was to build links between the media. Over the years, we ran workshops, seminars and courses. We got to know the senior editors, editors, journalists of the media, and built up a track record and from that, when the European Union Funding disappeared, we felt that we should keep going. We created contacts with thousands of journalists and media managers whom we know and who work with us. They did not want us to pack up and go and do something else. They wanted us to keep maintaining links between them and trying to run events for them. I do not know what the future holds. We have short-term funding at the moment. We hope that there may be some following ones. We hope to come to Yemen and do something similar to this workshop in Jordan. We hope it will be funded by the Dutch government which seems to be interested in Yemen. We were involved in this with the World Bank. We are doing a project for them in March in Cairo which I think is the Mediterranean Development Forum. We are bringing interested media together to that forum to discuss developments in the Middle East and North Africa. This is the best way to improve the life and conditions for people in this part of the world, and the media has an important part to play.
Q: What is the importance of the media in this particular era of globalization?
A: I think it is an end in itself. I think that if you have a good media providing honest, accurate information, then you will have a more developed and educated society as a direct result. People know what is going on. It is like having a lower infant mortality. So, I think that free media expressing things honestly and openly is just a good thing for its own sake, but I also think that it has a very important part to play in economic development. It checks things that are going wrong, it finds corruption, it raises important issues and discusses various sides of them. Social discussion, or public discussion in newspapers, televisions and radios stations is also very important. People come to know different better ideas. So, when a difficult decision has to be taken by the government people understand why. Without that, the people are victims of these decisions without being involved in them. So, that is the part of the problem. A free media, working effectively, is really part of the democratic system. It is informing the people to have votes to choose the government when it works properly.
Q: How can we establish an independent media, particularly in the Arab World?
A: I have always regarded Yemen Times as a very good example of this because you have lots of adverts, you have income. For example, some newspapers are dependent on the government, others on sponsors, some on a political party while yet others depend on income from advertisers. So, the advertisers put adverts in the paper because people read the paper and people read the paper because it is interesting and if it is not interesting, you do not have the adverts. So, you are under pressure from the advertisers to include interesting ideas. People want to read a good paper and once you do that, the advertisers see that you are read, they put the adverts there. It is like a virtuous circle and I think that is a very useful step forward. We have heard of attempts by the Arab Daily to move in a similar direction. The Arab Daily is an English language paper based in Jordan and we hope it will be a regional paper. We have been very privileged to have one of the senior editors from Jazerra present which has a similar strategy. They were established with the help of a large loan, to work and become commercially independent as a business that works. It is said that now, 40% of their costs are covered out of income, and the business plan means that after five years, they should be making money on that basis. Now that gives you independence, but there are risks. You work with business, you operate with business, it has its demands as well. But I think it is a lot more solid ground to build an independent media role, than government control and government funding.
Q: Do you think that establishing independent media like newspapers is enough, or do we need something else?
A: You put your finger on an extremely important area. In a country like Jordan, which has 93% literacy, newspapers can have quite an impact. On the other hand, newspapers cost money, and there are a lot of people in Jordan who are very poor. So, what the illiterate people need is to watch and listen to radio and television.
In a country like Yemen this is even more true. People are not able to read the newspapers. However, all have access to radio and TV. They can watch Al-Jazerra, but really what they want is local information that reveals their concerns in life. I think this is a very good example in Africa where community radio based around small communities developed and built up and became a very valuable part of life in villages and towns in Africa. We are very disappointed that the Arab world seems to be well behind Africa in this regard. There is very little community radio in the Arab world. I think it will be a wonderful move forward when communities can broadcast what is going on, keeping people informed about crises, about markets taking place, sales and local problems and disasters and needs for assistance. All the kinds of things that help to hold a community together would work brilliantly through community radio and perhaps in time you can have local or regional TV working in a very similar way because the cost of the equipment involved now in producing TV is coming down so quickly. It is quite realistic even in poor countries to set up local and regional TV stations.
Q: Any last comment?
A: I would just like to say that I think that the workshop has been, from my point of view, interesting, worthwhile and successful. Again we have been able to bring together people from different countries in the Arab world and several countries outside. Just look at the pleasure on their faces. They are chatting with one another and discussing issues that they care about. We provided a forum where important issues about the media can be discussed, and people can think about things often for the first time, checking with people who have already experienced it. I just feel that we have been very lucky to be able to do it and I look forward to being able to do such a thing in Yemen as well. I have never been to Yemen and I really hope that I will find this privilege to be able to come to Yemen.