CAIRO: More than 150 experts, media managers, journalists and civil society representatives came together at the Arab League headquarters for the forum “A New Era for Arab-West Relations” to discuss social transformations, media freedom and bridging the gap in mutual perceptions.
“We’re embarking on a new era of reform and social and economic transformation,” said Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa, in his opening speech, adding that this year will be based on the notions of democracy, respect for human rights and social justice.
Moussa referred to the current uprisings in the Middle East to bring down dictatorships and herald a new era of democracy and transparency, an era in which respect for relations with the world’s countries is essential.
“An image builds thousands of bridges,” Moussa said referring to the role of the media.
“Freedom of media and speech is great but we should also realize our responsibility to respect all points of view,” he noted.
“Media can be used to fight intolerance and extremism, as well as [play a role] in the Palestinian conflict and bringing about world peace,” Moussa explained. He also highlighted the need for dialogue in the region, saying that the media, especially the new media, showed its potential for this.
The Swedish Minister of International Development Cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, also spoke in the opening session, pointing out that the “aim of our dialogue should be to strengthen universal values.
“If you have to choose between the right to vote and food, you would choose food,” he said.
Carlsson spoke of the digital divide and the use of social media. “[Information and communications technology] tools can be used to promote democracy, connect citizens, expose corruption,” she said, adding that “they are key to increasing transparency worldwide.”
She added that extensive restrictions on the internet and its closure are a violation of the universal declaration of human rights. “It is futile to try and prevent access,” the minister noted.
Carlsson said that Arabs and Europeans share a common history and “inevitably a common destiny,” adding that thanks to the media the world is sharing the view of this destiny.
“Media can help us safeguard principles which are the cornerstone of human civilization,” she said.
“You have an enormous advantage in being able to communicate one language: Arabic,” Carlsson said addressing the 22 Arab nations. “As a European, I’m jealous.”
President of the Anna Lindh Foundation for Dialogue between Cultures, Andre Azoulay, also addressed the attendees, first expressing his enthusiasm. “You gave me an occasion today to show my optimism for the future next to Tahrir Square.”
“Democracy is now written in Arabic, freedom is written in Arabic,” he said.
“History is knocking on our doors, it is knocking not just on Arab doors but European doors as well, we cannot miss this,” he pointed out.
“Our major challenge is the clash of ignorance not the clash of civilizations,” Azoulay said.
Moreover, Europeans have to look at issues differently in order to build a common future. “Hate is not an Arab or Islamic signature. It’s a different game now, of universal values,” Azoulay said.
He quoted Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, who said that in the future, religion will be the pillar of tolerance not of hatred.
“As an Arab citizen, the way I look at the future of my children is exactly the same as a British or European citizen,” he said.
Social media is the main tool for intercultural dialogue between Arab and European youth, according to Anna Lindh research findings.
On a final note, Azoulay said, “At the end of the day when we fill the gap between the two shores of the Mediterranean, we will still have one cause: Palestine.”
Former President of Portugal and the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, Jorge Sampaio, said, “Our objective is to protect and respect the cultural and religious diversity between and within each country.”
“We are interconnected societies with a common humanity, essential at times of change,” he said.
“Calling Arab spring social evolution ignores social trust of people trusting the social media.
“Social media allows people to share aims and work together to reach them. We live in a networked society,” Sampaio said.
Sampaio said that it is important to understand the other and with satellite television, “With television we all became each other’s other and it’s hard to hate the other when they enter our living room.”
He emphasized the importance of the independence of the media and its role in promoting intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.
The forum is held in partnership with the Swedish Institute Alexandria, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the Anna Lindh Foundation and Media Tenor International.
The forum will base its discussions on the launch of the Anna Lindh Report on Intercultural Trends, which is based on the first Euro-Mediterranean Survey carried out with 13,000 people from 13 different countries about perceptions, values and intercultural behaviors in light of the media.
The forum sessions will be exploring how Arab and West relations could be built differently in the next decade, taking into account the social and cultural transformations in the region and with a focus on developing the potential of media for improving knowledge and respect between people and societies as well as promoting the capacity of journalists to face the complexity of cross-cultural issues.