BEIRUT: Only a few newspapers around the Arab world have been able to combine editorial independence and commercial success, concluded the participants of the second Arab Free Press Forum.
Members of the independent press from across the Arab world and several European countries gathered over the weekend in the Lebanese capital to discuss challenges facing the Arab media.
The forum concluded that the majority of the independent Arab press suffers from censorship and editorial repression while only a few manage to combine independence with profit.
Furthermore, participants raised serious concerns over the increase in legal and physical attacks on independent journalists and bloggers in the Arab world as a result of their work.
The two-day event was organized by the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the independent Lebanese daily An-Nahar with support of the Open Society Institute.
Prior to the opening of the event, conference participants attended the second Annual Gebran Tueni Award at the Biel International Exhibition Center in Beirut on Sunday morning in commemoration of the assassinated press freedom advocate and former publisher of An- Nahar newspaper, Gebran Tueni.
Founded by WAN in 2006, the award consists of a 10,000 euro stipend as well as leadership training. Each year, it’s presented to a publisher or editor who demonstrates a commitment to free press and who possesses high professional standards.
This year’s winner was Michel Hajji Georgiou, a senior political analyst at the independent French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon.
L’Orient-Le Jour is considered a major contributor to the political debate in Lebanon and is known for its reports on the Lebanese government, Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, and Hezbollah.
The press forum itself brought up a wide range of topics for discussion, including increased government clampdowns on independent media and restrictive press laws, the impact of bloggers on the Arab media landscape, and success stories of independent Arab newspapers.
“We have gathered to fight oppression and to defend and promote press freedom in the Arab press. Running an independent newspaper in the Arab world at the moment is like walking through a minefield, said Thomas Brunegard, vice president of WAN, in his opening remarks.
Several prominent attendees and speakers were reportedly banned from traveling from their home countries to attend the event, including participants from Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Qatar.
The first session discussed the legal environment surrounding the press and concluded that there has recently been a significant upsurge in legal and political restrictions on the independent Arab media.
Said Essoulami, director of the Center for Media Freedom (CMF Mena) in Morocco, highlighted the passing of several new laws in various Arab countries and the misuse of terrorist and emergency laws to hinder the work of independent journalists.
Rohan Jayasekera, associate editor of the Index on Censorship, emphasized that “a growth in professionalism has been witnessed in countries such as Morocco and Lebanon, but also raised serious worries over what he referred to as “a massive increase in journalists facing legal tussles.
Several publishers and journalists including Ahmed Benchemsi, publisher and editor-in-chief of TelQuel in Morocco, argued that while there is a new generation of journalists pushing for more independence in their home countries, widespread censorship and surveillance of the press are still in existence.
The conference dedicated one of its sessions to discussing the experiences of independent Arab newspapers that have managed to become profitable while maintaining a somewhat balanced editorial policy.
“You cannot be revolutionary, you have to be evolutionary, said Mohamed Alayyan, publisher of the independent Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to turn the tables,’ because it won’t get you anywhere and may get you into jail. It is important to adapt and you have to keep pushing the envelope slowly to get to your goal, to get to – if there is such a thing – absolute freedom of speech.
A number of Arab bloggers were also given the floor to discuss their role in the region’s media landscape.
“In closed societies that lack freedom of expression and association, bloggers take the space to report on politics and human rights, said Essoulami.
In Saudi Arabia, where the media is tightly controlled by the government, blogs offer a “fresh voice to the people, noted Ahmed Al-Omran, moderator of the popular web log “Saudi Jeans.
Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas told the audience that bloggers in Egypt expose human rights abuses such as torture and police brutality on their Internet portals.
This year, two Egyptian police officers were sentenced to prison terms for torturing a microbus driver; an incident they taped with a mobile phone and was leaked to bloggers who uploaded the clips on their web blogs.
Participants remained divided on the topic whether blogs are part of the press, an alternative to the traditional media, or a news medium in itself.
Several attendees argued that blogs “cannot replace regular media, while others claimed that people turn to blogs as a primary news outlet “when the media loses credibility.
One participant suggested that blogs should be viewed as a supplement to newspapers.
Towards pushing for press freedom in the Arab media, participants suggested a wide range of options such as seeking more help from international organizations and establishing a club for independent journalists in the Arab world.
Arab governments frequently promise media reform, “but the process of degradation and deterioration of media continues, argued Essoulami.
Hassan Kamel, the studies manager at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, argued that that “we have no option. We either work or give up.
On that note, Kamel added that more than 20 journalists and political activists were arrested in Syria on Monday.
Essoulami emphasized the importance of new media such as blogging as a platform for freedom of speech. In addition, Essoulami drew parallels between the difficulties facing freedom of association in some of the Arab countries and freedom of the press.
“How can we defend press freedom as a group when freedom of association is not recognized? asked Essoulami.
Several participants also stressed the need for better networking among journalists and editors as a tool for overcoming impediments.
Tarek Attia, from the Media Development Program in Egypt, suggested the implementation of an ombudsman, or an internal independent monitor, to oversee operations at newspapers.
The third Arab Free Press Forum is expected to be held in Beirut next fall.