Invited speaker: Peace Journalism and the Middle East conflict

I samband med Sveriges Religiösa Fredsråds årsmöte i Sundbybergs Folkets Hus torsdagen den 12 april 2007 fick vi lyssna till Walid Al Saqaf, tidigare chefredaktör på Yemen Times som för närvarande genomgår utbildning vid Örebro Universitet i “Global Journalism”.

Här följer ett sammandrag av hans föreläsning och de svar han gav på frågor från publiken.

I come from Yemen, an Arab country south of Saudi Arabia. Maybe you know that Yemen was divided during the era of the Cold War. It was unified in 1990 following the collapse of the USSR and end of the Cold War.
My father founded Yemen Times in 1991 with a noble objective of promoting human rights, liberties, and civil society in the country. Today, the newspaper comes out twice a week and targets the elite of the society, which includes highly educated Yemenis, businessmen, government officials, and foreign diplomats and expatriates. I took responsibility in leading the newspaper on June 2, 1999 after my father died in a tragic traffic accident in Yemen's capital, Sana'a.
Currently however, I am enrolled in a two-year international master program in "Global Journalism" at Örebro University.

My question is: How can a journalist use his skills for the betterment of society?

In my current master programme, we have been introduced to a module on "Peace journalism", which I believe can be helpful in answering this question. Basically, this is a relatively new type of journalism which emphasizes on a journalist's humanity and obligation towards promoting peace instead of inciting conflict rather than being a passive observer and reporter.

Until now, media have often inflamed conflicts and wars. The ongoing Middle East crisis is a clear demonstration of this fact as media coverage on this issue have mostly been one-sided in the Middle East as well as globally.

Through peace journalism, a journalist needs to focus more on the humanitarian side of a conflict and explain the roots and factors behind it. Without explaining the historical background behind a conflict and without describing the implications for the future, a journalist cannot contribute to peace building. Furthermore, from a peace journalism point of view, both sides of the story need to be told and cover-ups and lies need to be exposed.

The Middle East conflict and crisis in its present state is at least 50 years old. While media had a significant role in shaping public opinion on this conflict, I must say that its contribution has been negative. In the Middle East, we can usually see the media blaming the other side and rarely see the conflict from the other's perspective.

When it comes to influencing Arab public opinion concerning the Middle East conflict, one of the most important media in this respect is Al-Jazeera. The channel, which was originally a BBC Arabic channel with cadres trained and tested by the BBC, has become a phenomenal indication of the impact of media in the region an the world.
The channel was the first pan-Arab network that was not censored before broadcasting news and reports. This triggered negative sentiments by Arab regimes, which are not used to hear public criticism of their policies on Arab TVs.

The name of Al-Jazeera became internationally well-known when it had exclusive reports from Afghanistan during the US-led war in 2001. It later became famous for broadcasting Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda tapes. Even though the channel had been criticized for allegedly serving as a platform for the terrorists, the reality is that the videos of bin Laden were highly sought after by major global media such as CNN and BBC.

Despite Al-Jazeera channel's great influence and arguably positive contribution in the region in broadening public participation and promoting freedom of speech in the Arab world, it fell short of giving a truly neutral and peace-oriented mechanism when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is yet a learning process, and with the emergence of rival media news networks in Arabic such as Al-Arabiya, there are signs of covering the Middle East on more neutral grounds and with more debates that cover controversial topics that were taboos in the not so distant past.

However, perhaps a positive development is the emergence of Al-Jazeera English, which seems committed to have a say in the global media scene. The channel's orientation is closer to peace journalism in my opinion because it could talk about roots of problems in the Middle East and elsewhere without fearing potential repercussions or pressures from certain financial or political groups.

Coming to the issue of media content, one needs to ask the critical question: Should we broadcast what people want or what people need?

It would be best if what people need is what they want. But in reality, more soap operate, reality shows, and programs such as professional wrestling, etc. have dominated the list of programs viewers want to have in many countries. However, there is increasingly a tendency to dedicate some air time for documentaries and programs that people actually need so as to take better decisions in their lives.

This however remains a challenge given that most media in the world are private owned companies seeking profit, which explains why viewership numbers is what drives their contents and not the quality of their production.

Can you say something about human rights in the Middle East region and in Yemen?

Human rights in the Middle East are largely disrespected and fall short of any international standards. Yemen in this regard is no exception. We have a rebellion in the north and an ongoing war which has caused massive devastation to tens of thousands of people. Yet the international community and the Yemeni authorities have not done enough to ease the situation. On almost all levels, human rights and democracy in the Middle East are suffering. It is hence not at all surprising to see violence, conflict, and wars continuing.

What about blogging and its effect?

Blogs have a minor effect in countries with very little computer literacy rate. Yemen being among them, one can see that the effect will be nominal. However, in the long-run blogs will indeed have a powerful influence as more people start using computers and access the internet. But it's a long way.

Are journalists honest?
Yes and no! Yes in the sense that there are some journalists who do their best to remain faithful to their profession and report neutrally and objectively. However, this is only a portion of journalists in the world, and even then, the honest journalism efforts are not always reflected in the end product because of the many filtering and altering mechanisms that shape the final article. This includes media corporate interests, advertisers, editors' bias, political motives, etc.

You compared the Arab media and for example the CNN (and its various channels,
international, national etc). Can you outline a bit more?

It is important to note that most Western mainstream media, particularly those focusing on local populations (such as CNN local), have a bias in reporting about the middle East. There are countless examples of the pro-Israeli coverage in many US media. It is more or less considered a reality on the ground and changing it would require breaking a set of conventions and taboos. It remains to be seen if this will ever happen in the near future.

Can you say something about your idea of the future of the Middle East region, and its development towards democracy?

With an ongoing war in Iraq, a stagnant conflict between Palestinians and Israel, and a long list of human rights and democracy deficiencies in the Middle East, it is only logical to see that peace is far away from being achieved. On the contrary, terrorism is on the rise, and intolerance, prejudice and other negative phenomena are increasingly visible.
The media and its coverage over the last years and decades should certainly share the blame.
But regardless of who has contributed to it, the consequences will be shared by all of us. Hence, it is my opinion that peace efforts that bring tolerance and understanding between
different faiths and races, including efforts to establish peace-promoting groups and activities need to be encouraged to create a safer and more peaceful world for the next generation.

Walid Al Saqaf

Walid Al Saqaf