Musing Media Freedom in Egypt

You’re going to Egypt for a conference on media freedom? That sounds like a joke, laughed colleagues of mine in Israel who steadfastly believe that media freedom in the Arab-speaking countries of the Middle East is nothing but a fallacy.

But here I am, Monday morning February 15, in the Egyptian seaside city of Alexandria sitting at a conference sponsored by the UN’s Alliance of Civilizations, the International Center for Journalists and the Anna Lindh Foundation. Me, the only journalist from Israel, sitting in a conference room at the city’s famous library with 45 journalists from around the world, including countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, Jordan, the US, Ireland and Italy.

Islam and the West

The keynote address this morning is from Jonathan Wright, former Cairo Bureau Chief from Reuters, who is talking about popular stereotypes in the Arab world about the West and the West about the Arab world.

“What do we know about Islam in the West?” asks Wright in his opening before he goes on to analyze how the Europe and the US presents the Arab world. Looking at everything from word choices to accessibility, Wright skillfully highlights the impossibilities of reporting across cultures and the limited views of Islam in the West.

But in this blog, I ask: What do we know about Islam in Israel? How is the Arab world covered in our media? And what are our perceptions and popular misconceptions? As an Israeli for the last 15 years I know that my own perceptions of Islamic society and the Arab world is very limited and highly controlled by politics. Part of the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict, traditional media in Israel knows that harmony or good news is not sexy enough to sell papers but vilifying the Arab world garners much more interest.

On a day to day level in Israel, we hear very little from our 1.5 million Arab speakers, unless there is some sort of negative connotation and we hear even less about Islam or even acknowledged that religions existence in Israeli society. When its Ramadan, for instance, we are barely aware of it but Christmas or Valentine’s Day and everyone is talking about it.

In his speech, Wright talked about in the West – the US and Europe — the role of media is vital in shaping perceptions but that the reporting of the Arab world is “sparse and sporadic.” Obviously in Israel, reporting on the Arab world’s political echelons and policies towards Israel is continually grabbing headlines but little is known about the people of these countries.

Blogging through barriers?

With growing constraints on traditional media – economic, safety for journalists and competition – the question was put to Wright on whether new digital media such as blogging and citizen journalism can break down these cultural barriers and improve the image of the other in Western and Middle-Eastern societies.

“Bloggers are not making a great contribution to cultural exchanges,” stated Wright in his response but the organizers and journalist gathered at this conference, who firmly believe in the power of this new wave media and are here to harness it and use to reporting across these two cultures.

As moderator Mona Eltahawy, a Egyptian columnist in The Jerusalem Report among other publications, said: “The journalists gathered here might have some very different to say about this…..”

Stay tuned to this blog to find out……


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