Doha Centre for Media Freedom recently organised a three day workshop as part of its Media Literacy programme. To conduct the training course, DCMF invited the prominent journalist and media literacy expert, Magda Abu Falil to share her invaluable expertise.
DCMF spoke to Magda, the director of Media Unlimited about media freedom, the importance of social media and challenges facing journalists in the region.
“Journalistic ethics are essential for safeguarding press freedom around the world and especially in the Arab region.”
Practicing responsible, ethical and credible journalism is one of the most important aspects of defending press freedom in a day and age where it is easy to rely on unverifiable sources according to Magda Abu- Falil, who argued that media professionals must develop their own standards and guidelines.
However she chose to shy away from the suggestion that there is a journalistic “code of ethics” derived from government or some other authority, suggesting instead that news organisations need to develop their own guidelines as to how they practice their work.
“Ethics should come from within organisations and should be based on their conviction, they need to establish guidelines on writing, editing, using sources, credibility and conflicts of interests, etc,” she said.
These guidelines to ensure responsible journalism are necessary for guaranteeing media freedom, as working irresponsibly can do significant damage to the profession across the globe.
“Irresponsible journalism can affect press freedom quite a lot, and it can do an awful lot of damage. That is why we need ethical journalism which is something that we are not always getting,” she said.
Changing face of the media
Perhaps the most significant challenge to conducting such journalism is the rise of online social media. Whereas journalists had to put in the work to verify their sources in the past, ensuring that what they published could be proven, social media makes it possible for anyone with access to a laptop or mobile phone and Facebook, Twitter or any other similar platform, to broadcast themselves. Unfortunately this is all too often taken at face value, which leads to two major problems: journalists using the information for official news reports, and people taking what they read, see or hear to be the truth.
“A lot of information is not properly substantiated, and it is important to remember that journalists have to rely on more than one source,” argued Magda.
However, she was keen to point out that this is not to say that citizen journalism and online media are a negative development.
“It is thanks to citizen journalism that we have access to information that we may otherwise not have been able to obtain – if it weren’t for citizen journalists then quite often we would not know the truth,” said Magda, adding “it is a vital part of the entire journalistic scene, but it must be balanced.”
“Social media is developing in this region, but it is taking time and I have been talking about this for over a decade. You can’t deny that there have been certain improvements but there are definitely problems – people often get carried away and they are not sure how to use these tools,” she noted.
“Too often we see blogs and other reports which are based on nothing more than rumour.”
Magda argued that it sometimes seems that journalists are too focused on broadcasting the news as quickly as possible at the expense of standards of practice.
“It requires work to do it properly, it’s not just about getting it out there fastest and beating the competition,” she added.
Coverage in Syria
The culmination of many of the issues Magda discussed can be seen in the coverage of the ongoing conflict in Syria, where difficulties facing members of the international media have led to a huge rise in the number of citizen journalists reporting on the ground.
“The coverage has been a really mixed bag, with some traditional journalists having snuck in and others being shown around by government minders, so it is hard to know how much of the real situation they are getting to see and they are not allowed to cover much,” she said.
“Many journalists have been killed; I knew Marie Colvin – she was one gutsy lady and cared about the human side of conflicts and she did a really great job,” she added.
The dangers and difficulties facing media professionals and journalists from traditional outlets has led to citizen journalists generating the majority of news and reports from Syria. However, the need to tell a certain story has also led to the blurring of lines between citizen journalism and activism.
“You have the citizen journalists who are getting information out there, but you have to ask what their angle is.”
“In the fog of war, the first casualty is the truth, and this needs to be kept in mind,” added Magda.
Western coverage of Arab world
During her career as a journalist Magda Abu-Fadil has worked for newspapers, international news agencies, magazines and now blogs for the Huffington Post. Few people possess such insight into the way that the media in the Arab region is developing, and few can talk with such authority on the way that the Arab world is portrayed in Western media.
She believes that coverage often depends on individual interests, arguing that there are a number of different factors at work in the US at the moment.
“It is a matter of fact that there is a very influential Jewish lobby,” she said, adding “people have been programmed to think within the Judeo-Christian tradition, and if you add the concept of Islam which they don’t know about and then compound it with 9/11, then it is no surprise that we continue to perpetuate existing stereotypes and generalise.”
“The media have been pouring fuel onto the fire, as they have their own agendas and financial interests,” she argued.
“Sometimes Arabs have been their own worst enemies – they have not handled the media well, they have not got their message across, they have not learnt to speak the others’ language and they are not using the media to get their views across well,” she noted.
“They are learning, but they need to learn a lot faster.”
Importance of media literacy
Magda dedicates much of her professional life to educating others about the importance of media literacy, having written for years on the relevance of the subject to developing the media in general.
“I first came and spoke about the importance of media literacy at a literacy conference in Doha in 2007,” she said, adding “it is imperative, and it has taken a while, but people are finally starting to realise.”
“These efforts have to be sustained and they must be followed up – they cannot just last for a one-day session or workshop, these must be long-term efforts,” noted Magda.
“I think that the Doha Centre for Media Freedom has got the ball rolling and is on the right track, and I hope this can continue, but it will take a lot of work,” she added.