WikiLeaks cables are a neo-con conspiracy.
By TODAY’S ZAMAN, DUBAI
- Negative image of Arabs tied to rising Islamophobia in the West
- Selective leaks being used to promote and affect events.
|The lingering perception problem with regard to Arabs in the Western media is very much connected to rising Islamophobia in Europe and in the US, experts at the 10th Arab Media Forum held in Dubai last week said.|
“Islam has become the new perceived enemy of the West after the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Philip Seib, professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, during a panel discussion at the forum, which attracted over 2,400 media professionals from 40 countries.
Seib stressed that more continual and balanced news coverage from the region was needed to overcome challenges of stereotyping of Arab citizens. “People want to know about the region, which was reflected when Al Jazeera's English news website registered a phenomenal increase in the number of hits after Egypt's revolution,” he added.
Abdullah Bozkurt, Today's Zaman Ankara bureau chief, also shared Seib's concerns in his speech and said the anti-Muslim platform in Europe has developed itself from being the agenda of fringe, far-right parties into a mainstream political debate.
“With the minaret ban in Switzerland and the Burqa ban in France, the anti-Muslim rhetoric became part of the law of the land. Islamophobia even became institutionalized with the gains of far-right parties in some European countries, and they are now set to become part of the coalitional governments. This is an alarming development,” he explained.
During the 10th Arab Media Forum there were also discussions on whether or not the recent protest movements that swept the countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa have changed the image of Arabs. It explored whether there were signs of change from references in the Western media of Arabs being “violent, betraying, backward-thinking and women's rights-snubbing” to that of people who have the same aspirations and expectations as everybody else.
According to a survey released during the forum, Western opinion leaders believed the Arab Spring will transform politics and society in the Middle East. The study, carried out by APCO Worldwide, an opinion research group, and completed early this month, polled 343 former and current diplomats and other opinion leaders in the United States and Europe.
Of those polled, 67 percent said they either significantly or somewhat changed their views of Arab societies as a result of events unfolding in the region. "This is the first study of its kind that has looked at how events in the Middle East are shaping the views of opinion leaders in the West," Mamoon Sbeih, APCO's Arab region managing director said.
The survey received a lukewarm reception from panelists, who said the results are quite optimistic and caught in the middle of political euphoria. Octavia Nasr, founder of US-based Bridges Media Consulting, said that the perception in the Western world changed because of the people of the Arab region and not due to the higher visibility of the Arab media in the international arena. She said that people in the West rarely watch Arab television channels or read newspapers and magazines from this region.
Jacques Charmelot, editor at Agence France-Presse, also said the perception of the Arab world in the West changes whenever there is a crisis in this region. “Now Israelis are the bad boys, not the Arabs,” he underlined. Farah Al Atassi, a Syrian-American who is the executive director of US-based American Arab Communication and Translation Center, said Arabs have earned their freedom on their own.
Bozkurt underlined that there are many challenges awaiting Arab citizens in the region in the aftermath of the region-wide uprisings. “When the communist regimes fell in Eastern and Central Europe, many people were jubilant and cheerful. Regimes had changed, but the problems continued. For example, the EU still blames Bulgaria and Romania for not battling wide-scale corruption in its reports and threatens to cut EU funds after the two-decade democratic experiment,” he said.
The Today's Zaman columnist further argued that nations must invest in education to overcome prejudices about Arab citizens. He said historical references in school textbooks that feed into stereotyping must be removed and “reconstructed images” under the political discourse of the Cold War must be removed from books. “We may also develop partnership or internship programs among our young journalists to expose them to other cultures,” he stated.
Social media versus traditional media
The forum also discussed whether social media is gaining on the traditional media in that the former was credited with leading mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others. The uprisings prompted a dramatic rise in use of Internet media. In Egypt, Google had a tenfold increase in news searches, while there was a 50 percent increase in video uploads to YouTube at the time of the Egypt uprising.
“The notion that there is a competition between traditional media and social media is inaccurate; but if it were true, you would be up against a website like Facebook that has over 500 million users,” said Faisal J. Abbas, a London-based journalist and blogger.
"The role of social media in the revolutions has been exaggerated," Sultan Al Qassemi, a journalist and Twitter user, said during a panel discussion. "It did play an important role. But social media facilitated -- it did not cause [the uprisings].The cause was corruption, graft, lack of human rights and oppression of young Arabs," he said.
Tunisian blogger Zeid Al Heni, whose blog had been closed by the now ousted Bin Ali regime, said that half the Internet users in Tunisia are on Facebook, stressing the role played by social media during the Tunisian uprising in filling gaps that traditional media had left due to restrictions that were placed on it.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, cautioned, however, that most of the people on Twitter are secular and liberal activists. “Americans and the international community start to think that this is a secular revolution, and they were looking only at one small part of a much broader revolution." He described the Muslim Brotherhood as "the most powerful force" in Egypt -- something that might not be apparent from social media. "The majority of Egyptians are not on Facebook. And the vast majority of Egypt and Arabs more generally are not on Twitter,” he said.
The forum tackled the challenges faced by using citizen journalism to cover uprising in some countries when traditional journalists are banned or restricted. Nasr, also a former CNN journalist, said news networks' reliance on citizen journalists was risky but necessary when they are left with no other choice.
However, the danger of relying on citizen journalists was also highlighted in the forum, during which video footage was shown of errors made by the Reuters, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera networks where older footage was mistakenly aired, falsely claimed to have been filmed in Yemen and Syria, both of which currently face uprisings. Nabil Al Khatib, editor of the Al Arabiya news channel, said such events are used by regimes to discredit news channels, suggesting that some false news could be planted by governments looking to embarrass the channels and undermine their credibility.
The release of American diplomatic cables by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks was also raised in the Arab Media forum. Some panelists cheered because it shed light on certain events, while others cautioned about hidden agendas behind leaks.
"WikiLeaks has become a source of information in the Arab world because of a lack of transparency," Hasni Abidi, director of Switzerland-based Center for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World, said.
"We should ask ourselves why Arab officials speak so openly with US officials. Why shouldn't we be honest when addressing our people? Honesty does exist in discussion with Arab officials. This is a media revolution," he said.
Wayne Madsen, an investigative journalist from the US, described the leaks as a “neo-conservative conspiracy” aimed to disseminate false information. He said the media needed to be concerned about misinformation and false intelligence. “Data must not be based on conversations or gossip; therefore, vetting of news becomes a responsibility of the media,” he noted.
Le Monde Editor-in-Chief Sylvie Kauffmann said there was some value in the cables, but the information needed to be verified and put into context before it got published. “WikiLeaks was always perceived as a resource of information obtained from gossip and not valuable content. But by using the tool in the right manner, valuable data put in context by the media can reflect positively on the industry,” Kauffman said. Matthew Bostrom, APCO Online director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), said that data available from sources such as WikiLeaks must be verified, particularly when it is political in nature.
‘Egypt faces economic and security challenges'
In a keynote speech delivered at the 10th Arab Media Forum by Egypt's minister for culture and antiquities, Emad Abu Ghazi, the focus was on challenges faced by post-revolution Egypt. Abu Ghazi said that his country is facing two major challenges, namely security and the economy. He underlined that time is running out and people's patience is getting thinner every day. “Unfortunately, situations cannot be changed overnight after getting rid of several decades of despotism,” he said.
Stressing that the regional media industry had not witnessed the growth seen in other parts of the world, Abu Ghazi partly attributed this to "repressive laws" and government control of media channels. "Some governments had brought repressive laws and codes against the media," he said, adding, "With the totalitarian regimes, Arab countries have witnessed years where the media were under the control of censorship."
"During the past months in the region we have witnessed such historical events, which have highlighted the role of the media, especially new media. The street cannot be isolated from the media. There was an independent media that came forth through the Internet. It cannot be controlled by anyone," he explained. The Egyptian minister underlined that the new government has introduced various measures to ensure that people have other forums to highlight their demands, instead of taking to the streets each time. He revealed that more than 25 political parties have been formed so far as well as new trade unions and civil society organizations have been established.
Abu Ghazi said the government is determined to bring everyone responsible for corruption to justice. “Right now only investigations [against former President Hosni Mubarak] have been carried out; the trial has not started yet. A number of people will be tried following the investigation, but we have to start from the head,” he said.
When asked about recent turmoil in Egypt, Abu Ghazi said it was due to a lack of awareness. He said certain forces do not want the revolution to succeed. Thus they have been trying to destroy unity because coherent unity of the people is a guarantee of success. However, he expressed optimism that his countrymen will remain united and will not fall victim to such ploys.