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Wed. February 01, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Abdul Rahmad Al Rashed, Nadia Al Alami
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International Affairs Forum:Would you say the media has an especially large responsibility when broadcasting to areas that do not have extensive democratic and civil liberties? Mr. Abdul Rahman Al Rashed:I don’t know, I have a sensitivity when the word comes: responsibilities. [It] always somehow gives me the feeling that someone will do the censorship, or someone will tell me as a media person what to do, or tell the other journalist. So, yes and no. I think there is some sort of understanding of the issues in these kinds of territories. It’s always better if I give you examples. For example, if you are in a territory like, let’s say the Middle East, and if you want to do an article or a news report on television about religion, and if this report will create a lot of problems in the streets and…a lot of violence, a lot of media managers and companies [would] rather not go that far. This is what I’d call probably responsibility in this case. This is what you are referring to. But always people mix these things because they use the word responsibility so [to] not criticize the regimes. That’s what I mean by responsibility. They say responsible media, and it means the media will behave in a good manner, according to what is expected of the media on a religious level, or political level, or whatever. This is something I don’t agree with really. There are times when you have to make responsible decisions, yes. And this has to do with the situation on the ground, whatever the territory is. If you’re talking about the Middle East, I would say religion is always the most sensitive subject. So we always avoid the issues that lead to clashes. We will talk about religion in our oral report stories or air opinion, yes we do. IA-Forum:Is Al Arabiya careful about reporting on religion in order to specifically avoid inciting violence? Mr. Al Rashed:To a certain degree, yes, because here we have a long history of violence. A lot of it has to do with religion, or religion being used. So, usually we avoid that, intentionally and consciously. But there are times you cannot do it, because in the past five years a lot of wars and conflict took place in the region, especially in Iraq under the name of religion: Shiites, Sunni, Muslims, or Leban, Christians and Muslims. So yes, there are many occasions we did not, but there are occasions we had to report the news: conflict took place, people were killed. Now it’s news so we have to cover it and we have to call things by names: Shiites and Sunnis and issues as is. IA-Forum:This question is especially for Mr. Al Rashed, but of course feel free to give your input, Ms. Alami. As the general manager of a news network based in Dubai, how do you deal with attempts to silence your broadcasts, whether they are in the form of censorship from Middle Eastern governments, the U.S. government or violence directed at your station? Mr. Al Rashed:All above, actually. We all have problems with all of them…Most governments in the region do put pressure on us, and sometimes they succeed. So I have to be very frank with you: they do succeed sometimes because we have offices there, we have people on the ground there. So they close our offices and we completely cannot operate, or they put our journalists in jail and it becomes a more difficult situation. And the worst scenario, actually, is with non-government groups, like militias in the region. These people do kill, and we lost people on the ground. We lost about nine people in Iraq alone. So, we always have to be careful. Yes, we are pressured, but it’s a daily game. We do report news, and normally we succeed in convincing all the ones who are angry or they put heavy pressure on us, [we] convince them to go onscreen and appear and literally explain their point of view. This is how we appease them, which is okay. I don’t think this is wrong, professionally speaking. So, we are doing that and luckily it’s been quite successful. IA-Forum:Other than government censorship, what are some other problems facing the journalism industry in the Middle East, and what needs to be done to solve them? Ms. Nadia Al Alami:What Internews does is we work on supporting training programs for journalism in the Middle East. We work across sectors, so basically we work with universities, we work with small NGOs [building] the capacity to be able to cover news in a more professional way. And this is what we are trying now to work with Al Arabiya on starting a new training center, a regional training center in the Middle East, and it is an idea that came from Al Arabiya and the MBC crew group. Mr. Al Rashed:I’d just like to add one thing, which is, as Nadia said, it’s for the region. I think the most important thing for media to be developed and do its own job (and the job for media is quite essential…not only just publishing good newspapers and having good television, but also playing a major role as a communicator between all the groups here): it is training. I think training to lead to professionalism, because we have more than five-hundred T.V. stations that have come out recently because of the satellite revolution, and there are thousands and thousands of new journalists who are joining all the new media companies or even the old media companies. And the issue here is training, because if you train journalists on a professional level, normally you will have good journalism. Good journalists mean good journalism. And good journalism, in the region I think it will lead to a lot of kind of corrections on different levels in the region, definitely…There are many media outlets, but there are not many professional journalists. IA-Forum:Would you like to add anything else about the new media training center you have been working on together? Ms. Al Alami:I also want to add that there have been efforts by various groups to do training programs in the region. The challenge has been that they are programs that came in from outside the region. They conducted them in the region and then they left. And after they left, these programs fell apart. And we think the beauty of the [new training] center is that it is an idea that was developed by people from the region and Internews Network, along with…other media groups, will be supporting the center based in Dubai. So even after all these groups leave, the center will already have established its capacity and will be able to maintain itself in the long term. And this is something we didn’t have before and this is the challenge most international NGOs, like Internews Network face. We go in a country, we do training programs, we buy equipment and then we leave, and after we leave, they cannot maintain it. So we’re hoping that this will be a different case. IA-Forum:In the U.S., there are many guidelines journalists can voluntarily follow, such as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Do you think there are enough similar guidelines in the Middle East to ensure quality reporting? Mr. Al Rashed:We [at Al Arabiya] have our own guideline…it’s similar to most media companies. And I think most media people have (in theory I’m talking about, obviously) they have obligations toward their professional job to go according to these rules. So, we do have it. But [the issue is not really about having] the guideline. The issue is to be able to do it: the practicality of it. People aren’t trained to do it. The editors, the producers, the directors, the managers; it’s a chain of people. They all have to really be capable of doing it, rather than just having this guideline, which is about forty pages. This is where training is important; to go from one step, which is the theory, then to the practicality. Ms. Al Alami:And also in the Middle East, there is this concept of self-censorship, which you have briefly mentioned before. And this is also a challenge that we face, because self-censorship means that it really restricts the information that’s provided because journalists for one reason or another are self-censoring. Because they are afraid they will get arrested or they are afraid of social pressure. Mr. Al Rashed:This is a daily fight. So this goes on and on and on…You want to have a lot on screen, and others want to have less, and it just goes on. I think the issue here is individuals should be capable of getting the information they want, and write what they want, and then they should try very hard to have it on screen, not just write it or produce it. IA-Forum:When you’re compromising and imposing self-censorship, where do you draw the line between what you need to do to appease the government and stay on the air, and your responsibilities to broadcast accurate news to the people? Mr. Al Rashed:It’s a thin line, really; a very thin line. As I said before, I don’t like to sound like a hero. No, no, it’s not true…It’s a difficult environment, we work there. But it’s a cat and mouse game and we push always the ceiling to higher and higher. And luckily, not just us, but even other stations and other newspapers, are doing a good job with challenging all these regulations and this is what is changing the region. It is the media that is changing the region. IA-Forum:Can you tell me about a specific example where you’ve had to cross that line? Mr. Al Rashed:It’s a daily story, but I can mention on particular levels because we do cover wars, and there are so many of them around. And usually in the region, you cover it from one side because if you cover it from two sides, you’ll be hit by both sides. So most media feel comfortable covering one side, and we go beyond that…in Sudan for example, the Darfur issue. The call for the arrest of the president of Sudan. We covered all the stories about it and our office was shut down I think for a few days, and then it was reopened again, and we were threatened many times, but the journalist individuals on the ground in Khartoum and Sudan and the editors in Dubai were up to the challenge, and they insisted on carrying out all the stories and they did a good job. IA-Forum:What role, if any, should countries like the U.S., which enjoy a free press, play in the fight to lower Middle Eastern media censorship? Have these countries been living up to that role? Mr. Al Rashed:I think we go back to the training: we go back to the issue of backing up professional media, because you cannot really fight on behalf of people every single day. There’s no way you can do it, no one can. People on the ground should do it. Journalists from the Middle East should take care of their own issues, not someone who is living in Washington or London. So I think the things we hope we can see and we look for is to back up these institutions. To back up the training centers, to back up the media training in general, so what will happen, if you have professional journalists, is it is more likely they will do their job on their own. You don’t need to fight on their behalf. This is the only role I can think of. Ms. Al Alami:I just want to also add that Internews Network has been working in the Middle East for the past six years with the support of funding that we get as grants from the U.S. government. So we have been trying to develop the media scene in the Middle East through various projects and the projects do vary depending on the country that we are in, but it all goes back to one important aspect: training. Without the training we would not be able to have any impact or change on the media scene in the Middle East. IA-Forum:Let's turn to “libel tourism”. In the International Herald Tribune in March, an op-ed expressed disgust at how prominent figures in the Middle East are taking English journalists to UK courts and suing them as a form of censorship. What are your opinions on this issue? Mr. Al Rashed:Well, I’m a victim, so you don’t have to teach me about it. IA-Forum:Really? Can you tell me a little about your experiences with that? Mr. Al Rashed:Yes, I used to work in London, so we faced many libel lawsuits and we lost big ones, actually. And some newspapers actually closed down because of that. Not us, but other ones, smaller ones. English libel laws are very strict, to the point where there is no way on Earth you can prove yourself. No way, almost. So what will happen is basically you will just be always worried and you will always issue these stories nameless, faceless, so nobody will take you to court. Not only that, but one story happened to us recently. One Tunisian, I think, fundamentalist or religious leader, Islamist, in London was unhappy about something reported on Al Arabiya and he decided to take us to court in England, not in Dubai. So we got the letter from their lawyer saying they will take us to court in London and we said, ‘Look, we are not going to go to court because our jurisdiction is in the Emirate, in Dubai. You want to take us to court; you take us to court in Dubai. I’m not going to go to London because this is not really my jurisdiction.’ We refused. He actually went to the court, the court convened, and obviously we lost the fight in London, but we refused to attend the court because it just basically was not right. And we told the court we don’t believe in the English laws because we live in Dubai, and so it didn’t matter…So we didn’t pay anything, luckily, because we refused to accept the judgment. But, yes, I think in England, because I lived there, I think it’s a tough place, sometimes it’s a way or a kind of censorship, because it is almost impossible to win a case if you are a journalist there. I talk about if you lose a case, you lose about a half million pounds, it’s just too much for any newspaper or television to keep losing like that, that amount of money. Mr. Abdul Rahman Al Rashed currently serves as the General Manager of Al Arabiya Satellite Television station based in Dubai. Prior to this post, Mr. Al Rashed served as the editor in chief of Asharq Al Awsat, a leading Arabic weekly magazine – where he wrote controversial articles that often sparked debate in the Arab World. Mr. Al Rashed is also a senior contributor to the daily newspapers of Al Madina and Al Bilad. Mr. al-Rashed also presented an investigative journalism program on MBC titled "al-Ain al-Thaleetha" or "the Third Eye." Nadia Al Alami is the Vice President for Middle East and North Africa/ Latin America and the Caribbean with Internews. She was also the senior democracy advisor for the Middle East with Pact working on MENA programs under the USAID Civil Society Consortium, and was a Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan where she was key in implementing programs related to legal and civil society development and political reforms.

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