Experts and media personnel discuss obstacles and challenges faced by the media in north African a meeting organized by CIHRS

In International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies CIHRS organized on 13 and 14 January 2007 in Cairo a meeting entitled “Toward New Mass Communication: Obstacles and Challenges facing the Media in North Africa”. A number of editors-in-chief of newspapers, columnists, journalists and media officers from 16 newspapers, 6 TV and broadcast states, academics, representatives of international organizations, as well as a number of jurists and human rights activists from six North African Arab countries, namely: Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania. This meeting is one of a series of regional consultative meetings held at the level of the African Continent throughout 2006 in cooperation with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the World Media Forum, the BBC, and the African Media Development Initiative. Such meetings aim at forging common grounds for understanding the situation of the media sector in Africa, providing a panel for debate and consultation among media actors in Africa and for international partners concerned with the media. The ultimate purpose is to identify short and long term priority issues and the fields that mostly require support in order to reach a powerful and independent media sector.

The Media Between State Control and Private Ownership

The first session of the meeting focused on “Media between State Control and Private Ownership”. Mr. Abdel Latif Chahboune, Professor at Abdel Malek Al Saadi University in Morocco was the moderator of this session, and speakers were Mr. Abdullah Khalil, expert in international law of human rights, Mr. Anouar Al Hawwari, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Wafd Egyptian opposition newspaper, and Ms. Naziha Roujeiba, Vice President of the National Observatory of Freedom of the Press, Publication and Creativity in Tunisia.

Participants emphasized that legislation pertaining to the press in North African countries have not undergone any serious modifications; ruling regimes in those countries are still clutching their firm grip over different mass media, despite the relative openness witnessed in some countries, albeit with some discrepancies. In this context, freedoms of opinion and expression are still restricted and are in dire need of a new legislative framework. As a matter of fact, state-owned newspapers are under government control at all levels, beginning with the appointment of editors-in-chief without any clear-criteria, up to the monopoly of newspaper distribution, licensing the publication of independent newspapers.

For instance, Egyptian laws restricted the publication of newspapers to public juridical persons (body corporate) and set as a condition for this publication through private juridical persons –except parties, trade unions and federations- that they take the form of cooperatives. Thus, the law deprived private associations and foundations from publishing newspapers, unless they were in the form of cooperatives. The right of corporations to publish newspapers was limited to their being joint-stock companies, hence excluding all other forms of companies. Furthermore, individuals were totally deprived of the right to publish newspapers, and huge financial constraints were imposed on this process which rendered it practically the private domain of businessmen. The Supreme Council of the Press plays the role of censorship over the press, hence manipulating the granting or blocking of licenses to publish newspapers. Moreover, not only are Egyptian publications produced abroad are also subject to censorship, but the law also treats such publications like foreign newspapers, thus entitling authorities to seize them.

Participants called for circumventing the powers of the legislative in the Arab region, since it is entitled to intervene and impose restrictions on public rights and freedoms. They drew attention to the fact that most restrictive laws are imported from Eastern Europe prior to their shift to democratization.

The debate also dealt with restraints on Internet, this service that created a hypothetical space for practicing freedom of opinion and expression. Participants broached the situation of the media in Tunisia, which is manipulated by a single person, namely, the head of state, who managed to check freedom of expression through police practices.

They pointed out to the sustained weakness of Arab parliaments, their failure to withstand government pressures, and their readiness to impose further restrictions on mass media, particularly the press. A case in point they discussed was the penalties that rip off freedoms, the anti-terrorist acts and how they are employed to circumvent freedoms of opinion and expression. Interventions indicated the suffering of Tunisian journalists, which includes concoction of charges because of their opposing political attitudes. In this context, some participants requested the creation of an independent Arabic channel to discuss issues related to freedoms within the Arab World.

They stressed that statistics on the publication and distribution of newspapers in Egypt have become a secret that no one can unravel, and indicated that so long as government hegemony over newspapers, especially in Libya and Tunisia persists, the press will continue to work without a social supporter. No Arab nation can take up the cause of the protection of freedom of the press, as a result of the state of social aversion of newspapers owned by and under the control of ruling regimes.

Interventions of participants focused on Arab regimes&#146 resistance to any core modification of authoritarian laws, especially those pertaining to the freedom of the press. They called for a pose with the press, which alleges to be the defender and advocate of freedom and reform, while they hail the Tunisian regime, publish articles advertising for government policies and projecting them as achievements toward freedom and respect of human right in Tunisia. They also requested the abolition of the prison punishment in press-related cases, and the prohibition of confiscation of newspapers, stressing the importance of facing the hurdles of the journalists&#146 lack of necessary experience, and the creation of funds to provide new media outlets.

Interventions also called for the participation of civil society in drafting laws, the elimination of punishments from laws related to the media, discontinuation of administrative and judiciary inaction, cancel the condition related to capital which sets bounds on the publication of newspapers, in such a way that any individual would be entitled to publish or own a newspaper of mass medium.

Interventions also highlighted the importance of making newspaper sources of funding and budgets known to the public to promote principles of transparency and integrity. They also requested the abolition of collective punishments imposed on newspapers, promotion of objective criteria for the media, black-listing journalists who are bribed by Arab regimes and releasing prisoners of conscience.

Denominators of Independent Audio-Visual Mass Media

The second session dealt with the denominators of independent audio-visual media. Dr. Safwat Al Alem, Professor of mass communication, Cairo University was the moderator, and speakers were Mr. Amr Khafagi, Director of Dream Satellite Channel, Mr. Radwan Bou Jimaa, professor of mass communication, Algierian University, Dr. Rasha Alam from the Mass Communication Department of the American University in Cairo. Mr. Mohamed Khatem, in charge of preparing and presenting “Tahqiq (Inquiry)” Program at the Moroccan TV took over the rebuttal.

A research paper co-prepared by Dr. Rasha Allam and Dr. Hussein Amin, Professor of Mass Comm, AUC, dealt with the reform of media broadcast and diffusion in Egypt. The paper criticized the Egyptian government monopoly of the Radio and TV Union, pointing out that this concentration of ownership led to abuse of political power through the state. Faced with this huge momentum of private satellite channels, which are available to all viewers and audience thanks to technological boom in communication, official media were faced with the challenge of withstanding this commercial transmission, which quickly emerged and developed without any legal regulation on its performance or content.

In this context, the paper presented a number of points to summarize the major shortcomings of the administrative structure of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union as follows:

– Egyptian transmission channels are under full government command and control
– Efforts to create a judiciary body to ensure freedom of the media failed
– Responsibilities within the domain of Egyptian mass media lack clarity and objective information is not offered to the public
– There is no diversification in the media sector.

The paper suggested a model for reforming ownership in the Radio and TV Union, by turning them into independent public service institutions in their organizational structure, programs and sources of funding. The paper also suggested the creation of an independent representative board to represent the public and monitor the performance of the TV sector, as well as the establishment of an independent supervisory body autonomous from state authority , is accountable to parliament, and guarantee that no political pressures is put to bear when members of this board are selected. Funding should be public and should come from revenues of advertisements, sponsorship rights and licensing dues.

The paper mentioned that there are various forms of regulation of the media and several models of ownership of mass media that should be all applicable in order to shift the state-owned media sector in Egypt into an independent media system, whose primary and main purpose would be to serve public interests in the broadest scope.

Dr. Radwan Bou Jimaa presented a paper that raised several questions related to audio-visual communication, why the ruling authority is still monopolizing this sector in Algeria and how this monopoly represents an outstanding obstacle to the shift from sham democracy to real democratic practice in Algeria.

The paper strove also to contemplate a widely marketed erroneous idea, namely, that the Algerian press is the most free within the Arab world and raised several other questions on this alleged freedom of the press in Algeria and whether one could speak of a professional media service under the unilateral audio-visual media coverage? Is it possible to exercise political, social, cultural and trade union freedoms the control of a single voice and image, within a society where the illiteracy rates are above 40% of the population?

The paper mentioned that it was noticeable today that official propaganda is manipulating TV news coverage. Democratic opposition voices are silenced and activities of independent associations that do not adopt the regime&#146s standpoint are boycotted. This is evident regarding the activities of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights in light of persistent attempts by the ruling regime to advance its image as the sponsor of political reform while closing down all activities in the face of political parties and associations opposing the official line, and refusing to register and authorize new parties, associations and trade unions. The paper stressed that the current situation does not convey a real political will for change, political reform and democratic rotation of power.

In his intervention, Mr. Amr Khafagi, Director of Dream satellite channel shed light on a number of problems that independent initiatives for satellite transmission are putting up with. He indicated that private initiatives in the audio-visual domain in North Africa are quite limited, and those initiatives, if any, were not the outcome of a real political interaction within society. He also added that launching private channels was quite arbitrary and that there is a deliberate legislative ambiguity regarding the criteria regulating licensing transmission channels in Egypt. He also added that the limitation of private channels in the sphere of corporations placed those channels within the hands of bodies having nothing to do with communication, hence pointing out to the role of the Investment Authority within the Free Zone in Egypt.

He emphasized that private initiatives in Egypt find themselves in a situation of uneven competition with Gulf satellite channels, the former suffering from shortage of funding, while the enormous funding capabilities of Gulf channels allows them to reap off the best qualified personnel.

He also asserted that channels keen to maintain their autonomy is perceived as opposition channels. Thus, officials refrain from participating in their programs, and advertisers do not supply them with advertisements. The end result is meager pays for the personnel of those channels.

The Relationship between Civil Society and the Media

The third working session dealt with the relationship between civil society and the media, with Mr. Sami Nasr, Member of the National Council for Freedoms in Tunisia and Editor-in-Chief of “Kalima” (Word) acting as moderator. Speakers during this session were Mr. Negad Al Borai, Attorney at law, cassation (Egypt), Mr. Moataz Al Foujiri, CIHRS program officer, and Ihab Al Zalaqi, Assistant editor-in-chief of “Al Doustour” (Constitution) independent newspaper (Egypt). Both Mr. Mustafa Al Zenaydi, editor in Al Bayan Newspaper (Morocco) and member of the Moroccan Journalists&#146 Syndicate and Mr. Khaled Al Sirgani, journalist in Al-Ahram daily (Egypt) gave their remarks.

Participants called for further concern to be given to the training of journalists on journalistic skills and to the role of civil society in raising issues pertaining to reforming mass media and eliminating obstacles facing the substitute media (the Internet), represented in the proliferation of Blogs. They also called for the development of quantitative and qualitative programs by civil society institutions to assess the role of the media in elections and in the dissemination of human rights culture.

They asserted that civil society cannot fulfill its role except when the media is free and capable of relaying its message in full transparency. Discussions warned against the deteriorating level of training provided to journalists, and the declining knowledge they possess about the legal culture and legislation directly bearing on their work. Some newspapers do not respect the professional criteria of journalism. Participants drew the attention to the fact that civil society organizations are capable of projecting creative models to newspapers, including the ideal form necessary to reform the situation of journalism.

They added that the substitute media, represented in news sites, e-newspapers, and Blogs on Internet was able to impose itself lately and is having an influence that sometimes surpasses that of conventional mass media.

Protection of Syndicates and Codes of Honor

The fourth session discussed the protection provided by syndicates and the codes of conduct. The moderator of this session was Mr. Racheed Khashana, Editor-in-Chief of Al Mawqif (Standpoint) Tunisian newspaper, and speakers were Mr. Karem Yahia, journalist in Al-Ahram Daily, and Mr. Salah Issa, Editor-in-Chief of Cairo independent newspaper. Mr. Kahled Michbal, Director of Al Chimal (North) Moroccan Newspaper, Mr. Faisal Metawi, Editor-in-Chief of Al Watan (Homeland) Algerian newspaper, and Gamal Fahmy, member of the board of the Journalist Syndicate in Egypt.

Discussions focused on the role of the Journalist Syndicate in Egypt and elucidated the severe handicap in newspaper dealing with problems of journalists, whereas bureaucratic restrictions are set against the enrolment of journalists in the Syndicate membership. Independent journalists not affiliated with any journalistic institution are not given the opportunity to join the Syndicate. Other issues were also discussed such as the deteriorating financial situation of the journalistic community. Participants affirmed that journalists should have a unified contract in order to deal with the huge discrepancy between the salaries of journalists working in government-controlled institutions and those outside these institutions.

Participants agreed unanimously on the importance of creating a mechanism for the implementation of the journalist code of honor. Journalist syndicates should set up committees composed of the former two syndicates, senior journalists, and professors of mass communication whose role would be to receive, examine and assess complaints made against journalists. The committees would then report to the Syndicate, which would in turn take the necessary measures against the journalist who contravenes the code of honor.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The concluding session of the meeting was moderated by Mr. Ahmed Bin Al Wadiaa, Editor-in-Chief of “Al Siraj” (The Lantern) independent Mauritanian newspaper, Mr. Essam El Din Hassan, researcher at CIHRS, and Mr. Moataz Al Fujiri, CIHRS Program Officer. This session was devoted to wrapping up the debates in the form of conclusions and suggestions. Participants stressed that the situation of the media in the Arab World reveals that this part of the world is still resisting waves of democratization, which means that the reform of the media system would not be possible except through the adoption of comprehensive reform programs in Arab countries.

The concluding recommendations emphasized that restrictions imposed on the right of individuals to publish newspapers should be lifted, and that only the notification clause should be maintained. They also stressed that financial restrictions listed in press legislation as a condition to obtain authorization for newspapers should be cancelled, government control over printing houses and newspaper distribution should end, and newspapers issued with foreign authorization should not be given the same rights as local newspapers.

Recommendations called for pluralism in TV and satellite transmission, while providing a good competitive atmosphere to prevent the polarization of qualified personnel in specific channels, and seeking serious solutions to problems of funding and training of personnel within those channels.

Recommendations stressed also that various forms of government chasing of Bloggers should come to an end, as they are exercising their right to freely express their opinion through Internet.

Participants emphasized the importance of reconsidering media-related legislation and of checking their terminology so that they would not be misinterpreted, and prevent provisions incriminating banning information to journalists and sanctioning free and transparent circulation of information in North African countries. Restrictions on freedom of journalism should be lifted and the umbrella of syndicate protection should be extended to encompass all personnel in journalism, especially private and independent newspapers. The situation of journalists should be improved through new contracts while calling upon professional associations to promote journalistic codes of honor and drafting a code of conduct for the media at the level of Arab countries. Training programs should be devised to train journalists and boost their professionalism in such a way as to ensure their accumulation of knowledge.

Recommendations called for the promotion of the role of civil society institutions in monitoring and evaluating the performance of mass media during elections, and ensuring their full neutrality while developing quantitative and qualitative programs on monitoring mass media. A code of conduct including criteria for an impartial coverage of the elections should be drafted, and the role of the media in disseminating principles of democracy and promoting respect of human right should be evaluated. Furthermore restrictions on the creation of civil society institutions, parties, and trade unions should be lifted while guaranteeing their right to publish newspapers and launch TV channels. Journalists should have regular tours to be familiarized with successful experiences in ending state control over mass communication institutions, especially the BBC experience and other similar experiences in South African countries. Arabic journalistic institutions should draft bylaws including clear standards of work.

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