Aljazeera Forum: Who defines professional ethics?

Abdul Badrakhan, the deputy editor of Al Hayat, suggests that the current controversy over cartoons in a Danish newspaper is a good way to frame the issues of “Journalism at the Crossroads: Who Defines Professional Ethics?” For the average Dane, the freedom to express oneself is sacred. In the case of these cartoons (which portrayed the Prophet wearing a turban made of a bomb with a lit fuse), they’re hurtful and offensive to Muslims. How can we consider an issue like this using the same yardstick?

Martin Bell, a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and now an ambassador for UNICEF, frames his remarks in terms of war and peace. Observing that there are more journalists dead in Iraq in three years than in the entirity of the Vietnam War, he says, “Wars are increasingly difficult to report, and increasingly difficult to survive.” Bell is especially concerned that war reporters are under great pressure to tell stories with a certain agenda – he’s most respectful of reporters who, despite being embedded with a military unit, manage to give reports that show perspectives other than the perspective of the people the reporter is travelling with. People need to know more about the realities of the world – otherwise, it’s too easy for nations to go to war. The Western and Arab media aren’t rivals in this – we’re in this together trying to provide a more accurate portrait of the world.

Abdul Waha Al Effendi from the Center for Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster has an interesting observation on media and capitalism. In the pre-capitalist period, he says, you had only one customer – the ruler, or a rich funder. As a result, your media – whether it’s poetry or painting – tends to glorify that ruler. In modern capitalism, it’s possible to build media that appeals to the masses for its funding. It gives media a little bit of power independent from the rulers, reflecting what the public wants. But this opens another danger – sensationalism and reinforcement of popular prejudice.

Alain Gresh, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, talks about the difficulties of reporting across cultural barriers. “How do you talk about Saudi Arabia? How do you speak about it without being so schematic that it’s not helpful?” In reporting on women’s rights, it’s valid to say that there’s segration and major difficulties for women in Saudi Arabia, but this fails to show that there’s a struggle for women’s rights, implying that there’s a single, unified opinion. What’s really important is to show that there are debates taking place, and that there are a variety of opinions. But there are huge problems of language – if you’re going to interview people in English or French in Saudi Arabia, who are you going to speak to? Government officials – who are going to say what the government thinks – and liberal intellectuals, because they speak English. Is this a fair picture of conversations in a country like Saudi Arabia, or just a convenient one?

Aref Hijjawi of Bir Zeit University isn’t shy about criticising the shortcomings of Arab mediaL “Before we criticize the Daily Telegraph, we need to look at our own daily press – it glorifies our rulers in a way that’s sickening.” He argues that Arab media portrays the people as “weak and suffering” and rulers as “the father than cannot provide for their children”. The arab media, he believes, is “like the wife who kisses the hand of the husband when he brings home bread for the children.”

Hijjawi wants to see Arab media hold politicians and the state accountable for their failings. He points out that, until recently, sub-Saharan Africa led the world in illiteracy – the Middle East has just taken the crown. If media in the Middle East were doing its work properly, there would be close consideration of these sorts of failures.

Deborah Tunnes, the Chief Editor of ITV News in the UK, tells the story of reporting around the Jean Charles de Menezes case – the Brazilian electrician mistakenly shot in a UK tube during the manhunt for the four attempted tube bombers. The police reported that the man had fled, and that he was wearing a bulky jacket on a hot day, suggesting he might have been concealing a bomb. The British press, getting this news from the police, fed this information to the public. Only when ITV got hold of an official police report were they able to accurately report what had happened. But this put ITV in conflict with Britain’s most senior peace officer, and led one ITV journalist to be arrested – that journalist is still facing possible prosecution. This is, perhaps, a useful reminder that journalism at its best – whether in the Middle East or in the UK – can put journalists in conflict with figures in power.

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