World Press Freedom Day a huge success at ZU

Just wanted to acknowledge that the celebration of World Press Freedom Day at my university went off quite well. The student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists deserves the lion’s share of the credit as well as our three Emirati speakers who all stressed the need for more press freedom and better journalism in the UAE.

One of my students put together an incredible Storify that summarized the whole day. Here’s the link.

By | May 16th, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

World Press Freedom Day

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, marked by the United Nations to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom.” The UN will be hosting a conference in Tunisia and students at my university have organized their own celebration. They’re pretty excited about it — evidenced by the size of the banner above.

Our student chapter of the UAE Society of Professional Journalists organized the event under the tutelage of my fantastic colleague Dr. David Bulla. We’ll have three Emirati speakers on campus who will speak about issues surrounding press freedom: Mishaal al Gergawi, a public affairs commentator; Noura al Kaabi, a member of the Federal National Council and CEO of TwoFour54, an Arab media incubator; and Mohammad al Hammadi, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Arabia. Activities include a Debate Club debate, poetry readings, soapbox speeches and T-shirt and food giveaways. It’s shaped up to be a pretty great event, and I’m quite proud of the students who have made it happen.

To follow along with the activities, check out the Twitter hashtag #ZU_WPFD.

While I’m discussing press freedom, allow me to reference my last column in Gulf News. I suggested that the Abu Dhabi Media Authority’s content guidelines would make an excellent foundation for a new press law in the United Arab Emirates. These guidelines, while making sure to respect local culture and sensibilities, provide plenty of space to practice good journalism. My conclusion:

In this respect, one part of the media zone’s guidelines is stunning and notably absent in the UAE’s current and draft media laws. The guidelines make clear the editorial justification that allows the media to disseminate the news even if it “has the potential to cause harm.”

Editorial justifications, according to the MZA code, include “the exposure of crime, corruption, antisocial behaviour, injustice or serious impropriety, protecting public health or safety, exposing lies, hypocrisy or materially misleading claims made by individuals or organisations, disclosing incompetence, and negligence or dereliction of duty that affects the public.”

The guidelines essentially authorise news outlets to practice the type of healthy watchdog journalism commonplace in many nations. A UAE news organisation operating under a media law based on this code would feel empowered to investigate wrongdoing and public malfeasance without worry of any retribution. Even if the police, prosecutors or an offended party took issue with a report and took the journalist to court, a judge would have to weigh the reporting against the stated legal protections regarding the exposure of wrongdoing. Such a law would drastically improve the ability of journalists to practise good journalism in the UAE.

As Arab countries struggle with the new realities of a post-Arab Spring world, many will be taking a look at their media laws — all of which reflect an outdated mass media era. Indeed, Qatar recently announced that their government would soon issue a revision of its media law. The UAE should lead the way in this effort. In a country that excels at firsts, a revised media law based on these culturally sensitive content guidelines would provide an excellent example for the Arab world to follow.

Will be interesting to see if we see any movement on this issue — from the UAE, Qatar or any other countries in the Middle East.

By | May 2nd, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Addressing corruption in Middle East journalism, PR fields

My recent column in Gulf News discusses the issue of bribing journalists for coverage in the UAE and Arab world.

PR professionals will offer cash or gifts in exchange for favorable articles or broadcast reports. I’ve also heard that advertising salespeople will sell editorial coverage as part of a package to clients — a clear violation of independence for newsrooms. Most observers say these practices are rampant in the region.

Here’s the last bit of my column:

In order for codes of ethics to work, organisations need to enforce them. Last month, a US newspaper fired its photographer because he electronically altered a picture to make it look better. His actions violated the US journalistic code of ethics that states clearly that journalists should “never distort the content of news photos”.

By punishing those violating rules of ethics, organisations help create a culture that respects high standards of behaviour.

I’ve never seen a report of a journalist in the UAE being fired for an ethical violation. (A representative from a local daily at the event said that the newspaper had indeed quietly fired two business reporters for ethical violations. I remarked that such actions should probably be more public).

MEPRA has publicly reprimanded one of its members for an ethics lapse — an important step towards helping to create a culture that respects proper professional standards.

The second solution is to promote personal integrity. The concept of integrity is universal — my Emirati ethics students tell me the Arabic word is nazahah. In any culture, the word means doing the right thing regardless of others or even if acting in such a manner carries a personal cost.

Personal integrity is important because research shows that group norms can be a powerful influencer of behaviour. Often-times, people ‘go along’ with unethical behaviour because they see others doing the same. But if one person stands up and objects, then others may find the courage to voice their own concerns.

Perhaps the culture would change if more practitioners — both in public relations and journalism — would simply voice their uneasiness with the status quo.

Attempting to change an ingrained culture may appear to be too daunting a task to tackle.

However, with enforcement of ethics codes and a commitment to personal integrity, the journalism and public relations professions in the UAE can work together to raise their level of professional standards.

Every solution starts with an admission that there’s a problem.

By | March 24th, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Cherish value of public dialogue

Last few paragraphs of my recent Gulf News column which addresses freedom of speech in the Arab world:

Public dialogues in the Arab world are vital during this time of change. Many important issues require discussion.

The upheaval seen in many Middle East countries can be linked to the feeling from some citizens that they couldn’t speak freely about important topics such as the relationship of the government to the governed, the role of women in society, or the deteriorating economy and crippling lack of jobs.

In order for societies to thrive, we must work to cherish public dialogue and help to encourage ideal speech conditions.

Governments should not take actions that could cause speakers to avoid engaging in public dialogue. Arresting people for the things they’ve said or written invariably has a dampening effect on public speech. Yes, some limits are required. But, restrictions should focus on speech that calls for violence — which, of course, has nothing to do with healthy dialogue.

Discussions must also remain civil. Many animated discussions are taking place on Twitter, an environment that appears to meet many of Habermas’ requirements for ideal speech. However, one complaint among the local Twitter community is that people who disagree with other viewpoints often accuse them of being “traitors.” Death threats have also been lobbed. These types of responses create an ‘external coercion’ that impedes healthy public dialogue.

Blasphemy laws also have an unintended effect of stifling public discussion. Take, for instance, the recent case of Hamza Kashgari, the Saudi journalist (currently under arrest and facing the death penalty) who tweeted words offensive to many Muslims. The Grand Mufti of Egypt recently commented on the case by saying: “We don’t kill our sons, we talk to them.” His words offer powerful support for the benefit of public dialogue — even in matters concerning religion.

Despite these impediments, technological advances appear to be helping create more healthy public dialogues. Vibrant discussions on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are raising issues in the public sphere that once would have gone unspoken beyond private settings. Engaging in dialogue can be a learning process and social media is providing a good platform for this education.

Hopefully, the Middle East will continue to move toward more acceptance of public dialogue. After all, today’s public discussion could alleviate tomorrow’s public unrest.

I delivered this column as part of a talk at last week’s BOLDtalks event in Dubai. Will post the video later.

By | February 29th, 2012|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Social media changes UAE landscape

The last few paragraphs of my column in Gulf News today on the latest press freedom rankings which saw the UAE decline because of Internet filtering and other factors:

One overriding message from the Arab Spring is that technology has provided a powerful tool for the free flow of information. Old approaches towards regulation and control are still effective, but Facebook, Twitter and YouTube increasingly allow for messages to circumvent restrictions.

Indeed, some of the conversations once reserved for the blocked Al Hewar website are now taking place in plain view amid the UAE’s vibrant Twitter community.

Aided by new technology, the trend towards more communication and less ability to control appears to be inevitable. But, how governments choose to respond to this new reality is still up for debate.

Perhaps next year’s press freedom rankings will help us answer the question.

This column meshes nicely with my other published pieces on press freedom and freedom of expression in the UAE. Click on the links to read “Civl courts should handle defamation” and “UAE journalists need more legal protections.”

By | February 10th, 2012|Uncategorized|1 Comment