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Published on January 28th, 2014 | by EJC


Propping Up Professional Journalism In Times Of Transition

This article was written by Andreas Reventlow and originally published at International Media Support on 6 November, 2013. Republished with permission.

Stimulating meaningful debate; conveying complex information and opposing opinions; uncovering corruption and abuse of power. Journalists have no shortage of professional obligations. But can they really be expected to live up to them in the face of violent, political transition?

Journalists have a responsibility to not let their professional values and standards be compromised by their environments. But the discrepancy between normative responsibility and everyday work can be tremendous when the scramble for political power sets in.

In Egypt, both state and private media outlets were quick to label supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi as terrorists in early July. The media affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood did similarly little to abide by professional ethics and standards, and both sides were accused of provoking violence.

But there are also committed journalists and editors who continue to shine a light forward in the political transitions of the Arab world. The dedicated team at the news website Mada Masr provides in-depth, critical analyses of the volatile situation in Egypt as it unfolds on a daily basis.


Protests in Cairo in August 2013. Photo: Mohamed Azazy.

In Syria, 48 journalists have lost their lives on the job since the beginning of 2012. Here, the Syrian Observer website persistently supplies its readers with a unique, high-quality insight into one of the world’s worst crises.

In other words, it is possible to live up to the standards of professional journalism, and in turn set new standards of achievement for others – even in the midst of uncertainty and violence. But it takes a number of basic preconditions if it is to be sustained.

Human rights defenders, legal experts, academia, and representatives from journalist unions and syndicates across the Middle East and North Africa are working tirelessly to provide these preconditions and through them to reinforce the professional role of journalists. They do this by setting up the often-invisible structures of the media sector: the unions; the lobbying groups; the training institutions; the licensing systems; the regulatory bodies.

At IMS these institutions are sometimes referred to as the backbone of the media sector. Without them, and without the legal frameworks and the judicial setups that go hand-in-hand with them, journalists do not stand a chance in fulfilling their professional obligations to the public as well as to decision makers.

The chaotic flourishing of the media in countries like Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia after longtime despotic rulers were overthrown has yet to be accompanied by genuine reform of these backbone institutions. Similarly, restrictive legal frameworks used by governments for decades to intimidate and oppress the media did not receive the long-overdue overhauls they were in need of. Rather, new regimes have demonstrated an appetite to use a variety of legal provisions to assert their control over the media.

In Morocco, the widely publicised case of Ali Anouzla is one example. Here, the attempt to quell the right to freedom of expression utilises anti-terrorism legislation. Anouzla was arrested in September for indirectly linking to a video posted by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which his website Lakome introduced as propaganda material. He was charged with “defending and inciting terrorism”. He was released on bail in late October, but the charges remain and Anouzla is due in court at the end of December.

In Egypt, the immensely popular satirical news programme El Bernameg hosted by Bassem Youssef was taken off the air last week. Youssef’s criticism of Egypt’s widespread pro-army sentiment had prompted an official state investigation.

Individual cases like these highlight the acute need for reformed legal frameworks, independent judiciaries, and strong backbone institutions that together can guarantee the safety of journalists and the right to exercise freedom of expression.

Real strides to meet this need are being taken across the Arab world. This week a group of legal experts, human rights defenders, and academics met to take the next step in reforming the media sectors in several of the countries in the region. Reforms that provide the needed preconditions for professional, independent journalism to thrive.

The challenge to reform is the interconnectedness of the central issues that relate to the media. Restrictive media laws; corrupt judicial systems; lack of ethics and poor professional standards; opaque ownership structures; weak unions; little or no political will to support self-regulation: where does one begin?

“Our first step is to prioritise,” said one of the experts in the meeting. “It’s a work in progress. The transitions towards democracy are still very much in the making, and so are the transitions towards media sectors that can sustain professional, independent journalism.”

The tireless work of these proponents of freedom of expression lends some optimism to the future of the media in the Arab world. Even if the task is enormous, reform of the media sector is vitally important if journalists are to live up to their professional obligations – obligations that are no different than those of their peers in the rest of the world, but which are decisive in the political transitions in the Arab world.

A report on the meeting on media reform in the Arab world will be published by IMS in 2014.

About the Author:

Andreas Reventlow is a Communications Coordinator at International Media Support (IMS), a non-profit organisation working with media in countries affected by armed conflict, human insecurity and political transition. Across four continents, IMS helps to strengthen professional practices and ensure that media and media workers can operate under challenging circumstances.

Photo: Charles Roffey

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