As Arab journalists gathered to honor their own at an annual awards ceremony in Dubai Tuesday, experts at the eight annual Arab Media Forum called for greater regulation of satellite television, broader acceptance of criticism by governments and recognition of the role of new media in the practice of journalism.
Journalists and experts agreed that Arab media are facing financial and technological challenges as several of them heralded the end of print media, but also said that the newspaper industry in the region has fared better than that in the West and is ripe for mergers and acquisitions.
“New technologies abolished all the barriers,” said Mazen Hayek, marketing director for MBC Group (parent company of Al Arabiya), in a discussion on global economic developments and the media industry.
Experts agreed that figuring out how to adapt media commodities to the needs of local and interregional markets is one of the challenges of the knowledge economy, as is figuring out how to make money out of new media.
“One of the biggest challenges in this region for new media is the mindset of providers and financiers, who will provide financing for real estate but not TV channels,” said Hayek.
And the transition to the internet and electronic press takes investment and expertise, noted Firas Adra, Editor-in-Chief of Dp-news.com in Syria, adding that given the low level of internet penetration and weak infrastructure in the Arab world there is a movement to enable news browsing on mobile phones.
Meanwhile although the time is “ripe” for industry consolidation a lack of transparency has hampered these efforts, according to Azzam al-Dakhil head of regional media giant and the only publicly listed media firm Saudi Research and Marketing Group.
Unregulated fatwa channels
With an expanding newspaper industry and more than 500 satellite channels available in the Arab world, the Arab media also poses significant regulation challenges.
The 80 religious satellite channels in the region, for example, generated intense debate over the legitimacy of unregulated fatwa programs, shows devoted to providing religious rulings and guidance.
Experts urged greater regulation of religious channels that offer instant fatwas and often promote an extreme interpretation of Islam, senior television executives said at Monday’s workshop ‘From Terrestrial Fatwa to Satellite Fatwa’, arguing that text-a-fatwa and call-in programs offer a distorted version of Islam.
“The proliferation of such satellite channels comes from the increased demand from viewers for authentic counselling,” said Ahmed al-Haddad, director of UAE’s Fatwa Administration. “These channels also make it convenient for them to receive such advice from their homes, instead of seeking it personally from a mufti.”
But he criticized the unqualified religious guides who issue fatwas and the lack of religious education in school that compels people to seek guidance on fatwa channels, urging greater regulation of such channels.
Responsibility and positivity
“We need a media that produces smart content while relying on foundations of our heritage,” said Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League, at the inauguration of the two-day conference Monday.
He criticised the lack of positive stories in the region’s media, singling out negative coverage of Dubai, and urged the Arab media to focus on the “positive” stories that increase unity and educate citizens.
"Just two days ago, I was at a meeting with Arab foreign ministers where we discussed the recent Israeli settlement expansion in Jerusalem. In the room next door, transport ministers were discussing a rail link between Arab states, which was not reported," he said, urging journalists to focus on cooperation between Arab states.
But as Hayek noted during a panel on economic developments and prospective for the future, “media cannot play role of government, parliament and judiciary.”
The best of the best
More than 2000 journalists attended the two-day forum “Arab Media: Weathering a Period of Change and Crisis” at Dubai’s famed Atlantis hotel, according to the Dubai Press Club, which hosted the event.
“In my country you get awards, prizes, here you get thrown in jail,” said prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh Tuesday, applauding the progress of the Arab media even as he criticized the lack of teamwork among journalists.
Sixty experts from across the Arab world picked the winners of the eight annual Arab Journalism Award from more than 3000 entries from 19 Arab countries.
“The expansion of the judging committee and its multinational composition were meant to ensure the highest standards of objectivity and transparency in the selection process,” the Dubai Press Club said in a statement.
Zakarya al-Attal was awarded the Investigative Journalism prize for his story “Campaign: Together for the Protection of the Young from Drugs, a Life Free from Addiction and Imprisonment” published in the UAE magazine Kul al Usra.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai presented Talal Salman, Editor-in-Chief and founder of Asafir newspaper, the award for Media Personality of the Year in recognition of a career spanning half a century, from Lebanon to Kuwait.
Media Personality of the Year: Talal Salman, Editor-in-Chief and founder of Asafir newspaper
Columnist: Samir Attallah
Investigative Journalism: Zakarya al-Attal of the UAE magazine Kul al-Usra for “Campaign: Together for the Protection of the Young from Drugs, a Life Free from Addiction and Imprisonment”
Best Press Interview: Ahmed Ali of Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper for his interview with Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria
Health Journalism: Saeed Mohammed of the Bahraini daily al-Wasat for “Aids Threatens the Youth in the Arab World”
Cultural Journalism: Mohammed Shair of Akhbar al Yaum – Akhbar al Adab for “Dervish..the Impact of the Poet"
Business Journalism: Dr. Mohammed Abdul Shafi’ Eissa of the Saudi magazine al-Majalla for “The Global Financial Crisis 2008”
Political Journalism: Muin al-Biyari of the UAE daily al-Khaleej for “A Visit to the Darfour Refugees Puts the Spotlight on their Lives”
Environmental Journalism: Hiba Abdul Hamid and Walaa Nabil of Egypt’s al-Masry al-Yaom daily for their story “Health Sector Employees Smuggle Dangerous Medical Wastes to Factories Manufacturing Dishes and Yogurt Packs.”
IT Journalism: Abu al Hajjaj Mohammed Bashir, Egyptian magazine Lughat al Asr for “Mechanical Treatment of Arabic: Present Efforts and the Challenges of Future.
Sports Journalism: Marzouq Al Ajami of the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Nahar for “A Crisis that Gripped Kuwait for Nearly two Years.”
Cartoons: Abdul Naser Al Ja’fari of the Jordanian daily al-Arab al-Yaum
Press Photography: Ala Al Deen Taufiq Badrana of the European Photo Agency for a picture that appeared in the Palestinian paper al-Hayat al-Jadida
Children’s journalism: Lina Kilani of the Saudi magazine Basim for “Fauz the Giraffe”