Discussions on media and cultural dialogue follow Arab-West Relations forum

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CAIRO: Following the opening of the forum “A New Era for Arab-West Relations” at the Arab League headquarters Wednesday, discussions kicked off with an Anna Lindh report which denied the notion of the “clash of civilizations,” stating that there are distorted mutual perceptions on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The report, titled the Anna Lindh Report on Intercultural Trends, 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, and was presented by Andreu Claret, executive director of the Anna Lindh Foundation.

The report also said that the role of the media is controversial as two out of three people were unable to recall the media having a positive change in their perceptions of others.

The report also denied the western stereotype of a conservative Arab street and anticipated the plural reality seen in Tahrir Square. Cultural and religious diversity are not an obstacle for dialogue but misuse of religion is, the report concluded.

President of Media Tenor Roland Schatz also presented a report by his organization regarding Arab-West relations, which found that armed groups and terrorists have shaped the image of Arabs in the West.

Furthermore, a critical view of Islam persists in the West and third parties eclipse Muslim sources in international and domestic coverage. Muslims representatives barely get a hearing in Western television programs, the report said.

Interestingly, the report also found that the social networking website, Facebook, beats Al Jazeera as the most quoted source in the media.

Media and dialogue

A panel debate on “The Implications of Social Transformations in the Region and the Potential of Media for Intercultural Dialogue and Bridging the Gap in Mutual Perceptions,” followed with Joe Klein from Time Magazine as the moderator.

The panel featured distinguished figures in the media, including Dalia Mogahed from the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, who presented hands-on facts on the public.

“Unemployment and poverty alone did not make this revolution, [there was a major] difference between aspirations and actualization in people’s lives,” she said.

These differences were represented in studies which showed that Egypt has the highest democratic aspirations, but it also has the lowest practices of democracy. GDP per capita has been rising, however life evaluation of people has been going down. Mogahed said that since people were experiencing less freedoms, there should have been more social services offered by the state, but that the opposite was actually happening. “These difficulties created the fuel of the uprisings,” Mogahed noted.

Mogahed said the media contributed to the Middle East uprisings in three different ways. She explained that events in Tunisia and Egypt are a product of at least a decade of relatively free media. The uniting power of global media, she said, helped the whole world feel they were in Tahrir Square. Finally, Mogahed said that the collaborative power of social media also contributed to the uprisings, noting that it is the fearlessness of the people that created this and not Facebook or Twitter.

Mogahed also explained that the role of the media in the next phase will be first to continue the accurate portrayal of people’s humanity, uniting the world under common values and also to act as a pillar in a new developing democracy by becoming a source of political awareness and holding officials accountable.

Editor-in-chief of the French Le Monde newspaper, Sylvie Kauffman, said that universal values are what will bring both Arabs and the West together by “applying [these universal values] to day-to-day lives and functions of society.”

She used women’s empowerment as an example. “During the revolution women were outspoken but are now looking on how to fit,” she said, referring to the committee drafting the constitution which didn’t have a single female.

On the other hand, David Ignatius, associate editor and columnist at the Washington Post, said that in order to eradicate false impressions and misconception, as media “we have to work harder.”

“When covering a revolution, our job is not to be cheerleaders for anybody, including the revolutionaries, our job is to tell the truth, reinforce bridges of understanding not build them,” he explained.

Ignatius said that revolutions are like babies, they are lovable when they are small but often much less as they grow older, “When we see something that it unlovable we have to criticize it an not be intimidated.”
The panel also included renowned journalist and director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research, Hafez Mirazi, who said that the “focus [should] not be on dialogue of civilizations but the clash within civilizations and dialogue within civilizations.”

“All politics is local,” he noted.

Mirazi said not to overestimate the power of the internet, as they brought on developments just like radio and satellite did. “People will try to transcend borders to get their message across, Facebook allows power of assembly, which people were deprived of, but when these restrictions are not there maybe people won’t need to watch Al Jazeera or go on Facebook,” he said, adding that in the future the media might not be as powerful.

The forum also included sessions discussing the potential of media and civil society to build bridges between people and to address the gap in mutual perceptions between the Arab world and the West.

“[The] most important activity is interfaith activity, those of us concerned with eliminating stereotypes, [must] provide media with reason to cover,” said Abdallah Schleifer, professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, who noted that civil society has to understand the media.

Moreover, he said that in dispelling stereotypes, student exchange programs are the primary way not the media.

On her part, Sara Silvistri, senior lecturer at City University in London, noted that “the last three months showed how interconnected we are and how close we are,” as the “experience of the people of Egypt [was] considered by the general population in Europe and US.”

Egyptian blogger Mohamed Gamal lauded social media as forums for dialogue between the east and the west. “[The internet has created a] culture of sharing between all.”

The forum titled “A New Era for Arab-West Relations” held at the Arab League brought together more than 150 experts, media managers, journalists and civil society representatives discussed social transformations, media freedom and bridging the gap in mutual perceptions.


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