Arab Broadcasters Raise the Bar

Last week I traveled to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to participate in the second Arab Broadcast Forum (ABF).

The forum is a remarkable gathering of broadcast journalists from across the Arab world and reporters and representatives from media outlets covering the Middle East. (The network that broadcasts my weekly program "Viewpoint" in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi TV, is one of the principal sponsors of the ABF.)

I had attended last year’s meeting and was gratified by the level of thoughtful discussion that occurred at the two-day conference, as my colleagues engaged in a critical self-examination of their craft and the state of the Arab broadcast media in general. Even more gratifying was the fact that the proceedings were produced and carried live on the participating major Arab television networks, giving Arab viewers an opportunity to listen in on the discussion.

A principal focus of last year’s forum was how the Arab media covered the U.S.: was the treatment fair? Did coverage promote understanding or perpetrate negative stereotypes? And what needed to be done to get the story right?

This year’s ABF focused on a number of issues. There was a discussion of the accuracy and objectivity of the Arab media’s coverage of the wars of 2006 in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. There was an examination of whether or not Arab media was meeting the needs of youth: what values were being presented, and were the networks losing out to alternative media, such as the internet bloggers?

Then came two fascinating discussions on whether ownership of various media outlets and the competition for advertising revenues was shaping coverage, and whether or not the Arab media was free enough to report on stories that mattered. Were they promoting democratic values by giving adequate opportunities for divergent views to be heard?

Finally, there were two separate sessions on "Darfur: The Forgotten Conflict." The questions asked here focused on whether or not the media was accurately reporting on this crisis, and giving adequate coverage to the enormity of the human tragedy that is unfolding in that troubled area of Sudan.

To help shape some of this discussion, my organization (the Arab American Institute), working with the Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition, conducted a poll of Arabs and Muslims in six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Malaysia). The poll, carried out by Zogby International, produced findings that shattered the myth that Arabs and Muslims are indifferent to the suffering of the people in Darfur.

What the poll revealed was that strong majorities in the four Arab countries found fault with the Arab media’s coverage of Darfur. Additionally, more than 80 percent of the respondents in the four Arab countries surveyed expressed the view that the Arab media should devote more time to the issue.

The poll revealed that majorities in five of the six nations expressed concern about the ongoing crisis. And in all six nations, significant majorities believe their country should do more to help in Darfur, including 94 percent in Morocco, and 91 percent in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

When asked about who was responsible for the current crisis, Arab and Muslim respondents acknowledged the complexity of the conflict, with majorities in four of the six nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey) holding both the government of Sudan and Sudanese rebel groups equally responsible. Particularly significant, therefore, were the policy options available to the international community which received the most support. Options focused on non-violent approaches to ending the violence, responding to humanitarian needs, and bringing the two sides together, specifically: peace negotiations with government and rebel groups and a fund for humanitarian relief – received overwhelming support. United Nations peacekeepers comprised of non-Western and mostly Muslim forces also received significant support. Options which manage, rather than resolve, the conflict, however – particularly economic sanctions, divestment, and no-fly zones – received comparatively less support and, in some cases, were outright rejected.

Arab and Muslim respondents expressed a strong sense of solidarity with and feelings of responsibility towards the Muslim population of Darfur, with strong majorities (over 80 percent in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey) saying that since the Sudanese in Darfur are Muslim, other Muslim nations should intervene to stop the violence and help negotiate a settlement.

I left Abu Dhabi uplifted by the discussions at the ABF. The forum had once again tackled tough questions and provided an opportunity for Arab journalists to engage in lively debate with each other and representatives of CNN, Fox, BBC, and other western outlets covering the region.

It was impressive. On more than one occasion during the two-day meetings I wished that the U.S. networks had been present to cover the proceedings (not just to join in the debate). Such coverage would have shattered many preconceptions that exist in the West about the quality and commitment to excellence my colleagues bring to their profession. I also wished that the U.S. networks would engage in the same type of public self-criticism, asking themselves the same tough questions. In light of their shameful performance in the lead-up to the Iraq war, such self-examination is sorely needed.