IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2006


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year


Press Freedom in a Complex Context

Aidan White

General Secretary
International Federation of Journalists

The Mediterranean, which has been the centrepiece of civilisation for centuries, has become the natural forum for a vigorous renewal of dialogue in recent years with two of the world’s most powerful regions – an expanding European Union and a resurgent Arab world – wrestling with the challenges of modernity and political change.

As Turkey and Croatia bid for European Union membership, with, who knows, Albania and Serbia to follow, and as Israelis and Palestinians continue their painfully slow and wary progress towards some recognisable and peaceful solution to an injustice, which is the cause of a burning resentment within the Middle East and yet barely understood by people in the west, the role of media in the region has become more important than ever.

There has never been a more critical time, whether it is in the service of peace or modernity or development, for building an information bridge between the north and south of the Mediterranean. Yet if we look closely at the experience of events in 2005, it suggests there is still a long way to go.

Information Caravan Pulls Into Tunis

By far the most significant media opportunity of the year was that offered by the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunis, 16th-18th November. For the past decade the United Nations has been holding summit meetings on major issues of global concern, including poverty, racism, globalisation, and the rights of women. The caravan finally pitched up in Tunisia just as the information revolution seemed to be coming to a peak.

In the Internet era telephones and televisions have become boutiques of information and the traditional world of the media has been blown apart by the process of technological convergence.

The uncertainties, and the optimism, of the information society meant that many invested great hopes in the summit as an opportunity to give the information society human form by ensuring that everyone, even the poor and isolated, has access to computers while guarantees could be put in place to end all forms of Internet censorship.

Regrettably, it is not so simple. While thousands of international delegates and activists from civil society argued for simple and inclusive policies inside the Summit tent, outside the atmosphere was very different. Tunisia is one the worlds worst offenders when it comes to violations of press freedom and the Summit, as many feared, was marred by the continuation of Internet censorship outside the conference zone. A hunger strike by human rights activists added to the bizarre atmosphere.

The meeting ended quietly. The United Nations caravan moved on, with summit fatigue settling in, and with no great breakthrough to speak of. For many in the world of the media it was a wasted opportunity made worse by the grotesque choice of venue and summed up by the local censorship of the representative of Switzerland when he spoke out against Tunisia’s denial of free speech to its citizens.

A Clash of Cultures

The summit highlighted divisions between the information culture north and south of the Mediterranean. In the north most journalists work in conditions where there is enough attachment to a notion freedom of expression that gives the media the right to decide freely what to say and how to say it. In many countries of the south, however, press freedom exists in twilight conditions where laws and intrusive governments keep information sources, particularly the television, under a tight rein.

The problems of understanding between north and south are exacerbated by European media stereotypes of the Arab world which seem to be greater and more dangerous than they have been for decades. The media fails to distinguish between fundamentalism and mainstream Islam and appear to regard engagement with religious communities as compromising progressive values rather than an opportunity for dialogue in order to win people over.

The emphasis on terrorism and fanaticism in the Arab world has been made worse by the war on terrorism launched by the United States after the 11th September attack on New York and Washington.

It is an obsession, fed by sensationalist and superficial reporting of conflict in the Middle East and nurtured by unscrupulous and racist politicians. It contributes to an increasingly fearful climate within previously stable metropolitan communities in Europe.

Today in countries with a history of tolerance like Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, a toxic cocktail of prejudice and ignorance about Arab culture is leading to a resurgence of extremist politics not seen for 50 years. It is a shift that is making waves around the Mediterranean.

Journalists’ Summit Outlines an Agenda for Change

This difficult climate provided the backdrop to a crucial meeting of Mediterranean journalists held in Almeria, Spain, 14th-17th April. Organised by the Almeria Press Association, the Federation of Spanish Press Associations (FAPE), and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 30 groups representing more than 65,000 journalists from 24 Mediterranean countries agreed a crucial manifesto that confirmed the role journalists from the Mediterranean have to play in building bridges of understanding.

The Almeria Declaration was stout in its defence of free journalism against all forms of pressure and censorship and denounced the conditions in some Mediterranean countries where journalists suffer attacks, censorship, tortures and other forms of intimidation.

The journalists called for action over the safety of journalists, fresh initiatives to promote the rights of women in journalism, and urged journalists and the media to exercise caution in the language and coverage of issues related to migration and ethnic minorities.

They also expressed concern over media concentration and its impact on free expression and pluralism and made a strong statement in favour of professional independence for journalists and protection of their social conditions.

Dialogue on the Road to Barcelona

Three meetings supported by the European Union Euro-Med programme during the second half of 2005 focused continually on the contradictions and challenges of working in a region where notions of independent journalism and versions of freedom of expression vary from culture to culture and country to country.

Arising out of the 10th year of the Barcelona Process, as the Year of the Mediterranean, the series of meetings in Jordan, Marseille and Barcelona gave journalists, media experts and policymakers an opportunity for reflection on achievements of the European Union’s efforts to create dialogue and working relations between the media and journalists in the countries of the Southern Mediterranean and the European Union.

Selected international journalists took part in meetings which had the task of defining policy affecting the media in the next phase of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Not an easy task, given the increasing tension which overwhelmed the media in an intemperate global debate in the early part of 2006 over a series of cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. 

In fact, while the first meeting of journalists was getting underway at the Dead Sea, Jordan, 26th-28th September, the cartoons crisis was about to explode in Denmark where it was to become a matter of national controversy for almost three months before making international headlines and sparking a painful confrontation between western values and Muslim conventions.

This fracture highlights a division within journalism on both shores of the Mediterranean which figured throughout the discussion both in Jordan and the subsequent meetings in Marseille, on 17th-18th October, and Barcelona, on 25th-26th November.

Journalists at these meetings continually touched on the degree to which each society has the right to set limits to what is tolerable in what can be published and reported. Cultural sensitivity means that journalists, occasionally, must exercise restraint and leave unsaid things that might cause unnecessary trouble and tension.

This is freedom of expression moderated by commonsense. All of these meetings were framed around the notion of respect for the nature of different cultures and an understanding that without dialogue and professional exchange between journalists the complex differences in approach to news selection and media content, which are strikingly different in the region, will not be properly understood.

What is important, however, is that the debate takes place between professionals without the interference of politicians and governments intent on manipulation and massage of the media to suit their own interests. The issues are important, but they must be debated, discussed and decided by journalists and media professionals themselves.

In this respect the outcomes of these meetings, which looked at media co-operation, training issues, relations with authorities, the need for professionalism and social conditions, were a success and continued with the adoption of a structure for continuing dialogue which will see a new set of media initiatives to be adopted in the context of the European neighbourhood policy which replace the multilateral basis of the Barcelona process.

In Jordan key international journalists and analysts from around the Mediterranean discussed the complex role of the media in different societies and priorities for further action were forwarded into the further meetings in Marseille and Barcelona. The results, which as expected focused on training and assistance issues, gender rights and the critical issue of racism and xenophobia formed the basis of a package which was delivered to the November Barcelona summit meeting of governments as policy issues for further consideration.

Bridging the Gulf in Understanding

Besides providing a welcome opportunity for discussion between a comprehensive gathering of EU and Mediterranean journalists, the meetings did move along an agenda calling for better understanding and continued cooperation between international journalists in the north and south.

The meetings could not have come at a more critical time. Issues such as press freedom, the struggle for gender rights, tackling xenophobia and the importance of professionalism in the media are as important as building a political dialogue.

Importantly, the meetings helped identify a core group of journalists and experts to help build a structured, sustainable system of information exchange and dialogue aiming to improve levels of understanding and to eliminate the hostility, suspicion and ignorance which characterises much of the media coverage of Mediterranean affairs.

If 2005 revealed anything it showed that the gulf in understanding between communities is as wide as ever and that the challenge to the media is to break the templates of prejudice that continue to distort relations. An early return to the simple values of informed reporting, in context, by people of goodwill is long overdue.