The debate surrounding the news media coverage of the Arab Spring forced itself into the agenda of the annual News Xchange conference that brought together representatives of the industry from around the world in Barcelona.
In a 40-minute discussion titled “Arab Spring: Perspectives on Editorial Policy,” media representatives and delegates of concerned international bodies addressed how news organizations covered the Arab Spring.
The discussion, moderated by Talal al Hajj, New York bureau chief of Al Arabiya, focused on the conflict in Syria where the world saw, through the media, an uprising that aimed to dethrone regime ruler Bashar al-Assad.
Answering a question about whether or not human rights and people's aspirations for freedom are more important than professional journalistic practices, Faisal J. Abbas, editor in chief of Al Arabiya English said: "The line between being a journalist and an activist is becoming a bit more blurred; journalists are not activists and they shouldn't be".
The most effective way for you to send a message across is to have a professional journalist get both sides of the story," Abbas added.
“If you look at the tragic events occurring in Syria today, I would say, if someone is really doing their job, it’s the media. The media has done a fantastic job in reporting what’s happening,” said Antonio Guterres, U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees. “What we need, in my opinion, is an international community that is able to act with the same efficiency as the media was able to report on what’s going on in the ground,” Guterres added.
According to the panelists, the media covered the uprisings in detail, but there is more to revolutions than the initial events, “the process of democratization is not something we cover in depth as we do the events. You kind of miss the process,” said Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 news.
Sandy Macintyre, vice-president and director of news of the Associated Press, clarified the role of journalists in the complex tapestry of the Arab uprisings. “We have a responsibility to be viewers and analysts, but certainly, beyond commentary we shouldn’t be putting cheap tagging on it anymore,” Macintyre said.
Macintyre continued to say that covering Syria is especially difficult since a journalist’s access is limited, “one of the very tough things to do in Syria is to report at least consistently from the government’s side and that is actually been in many ways the first causality of this war.”
Speaking of the future of the Middle East and the difficulties ahead, Faisal J. Abbas, editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English and one the panelists of the discussion, said Al Arabiya has lost more journalists on the ground than any other Arab outlet.
“Most recently, we had to withdraw one of our correspondents who was embedded with the opposition because we did not agree to call it the way they do,” Abbas said.
“For them, we were not pro-opposition enough. So I agree perfectly, the safety of our journalists and human capital is above and beyond anything else,” he added.
Faisal J. Abbas also mentioned that when a newsroom gets criticism coming from both sides (as in from the regime and the opposition); this means it is doing the job right.
A live survey conducted among the audience found that 30 percent are guilty of having reported a one-sided story related to the Syrian conflict, either in support of the regime or of the opposition. Another survey showed that 63 percent of the audience chose not to cross the lines and remain faithful to the standards of journalism against the temptation of supporting people’s aspiration for freedom.
“It is much as being able to freely conduct journalism is actually in support of human rights because one of the basic human rights is the right of expression,” said Macintyre.
“Just by doing your job as a journalist, professionally, that is the biggest support you can give to any human rights activities or people’s aspirations for freedom,” Abbas added.
The interactive symposium also tackled issues concerning censorship and the safety of correspondents, particularly how different media organizations weighed the airing of a story against the safety of a crew or correspondent in Syria.