Almost three years after the Arab Spring burst into life journalists in the region have lost patience with political leaders who have failed to deliver long overdue media reforms. In the past 10 days editors, owners and journalists from across the Arab world have held a series of meetings in Tunisia calling for urgent action to strengthen independent media and ethical journalism.
The Ethical Journalism Network joined Tunisian media leaders at a meeting on Wednesday led by the country’s Editors’ Association and Journalists’ Union which agreed to launch a national debate on the content of a code of conduct for media and to prepare a plan for the launch of an independent self-regulator comprising leading journalists, editors and representatives of the public.
The only red line drawn in this process is to avoid any role for elected politicians or governmental appointees in regulating media content and how journalists work.
The following day journalists from Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries met for a three-day symposium organised by the EJN and the Norwegian Journalism Institute in the International Culture Centre of Hammamet which helped define an action plan to establish an ethical agenda for journalism and media across the Middle East.
This plan includes a region-wide call for national debates among journalists, editors, owners and with civil society about the role of independent journalism in building democracy.
The meeting also suggested there should be national programmes of training and awareness-raising on the importance of ethical journalism and more work to promote self-regulation at enterprise and national level.
This strategy and the Tunisian initiative featured in the discussions at the 6th Arab Free Press Forum, organised by the World Association of Newspapers–IFRA and also sponsored by the EJN, where a core theme was how to make editorial independence and ethics part of a viable media business strategy for the Arab world.
Among those taking part were veteran campaigners for change and leading journalists like Kamel Labidi from Tunisia, Omar Belouchet from Algeria and Hisham Kassem from Egypt, as well as leading investigative reporters and new media pioneers, all of them well used to the harsh conditions of poverty, corruption and fear in which journalism is practiced across much of the region.
It is undeniable that the changing political climate and more open communications are killing off biased journalism which speaks only with an establishment voice. Nevertheless, old habits of news gathering and news organisation remain deeply embedded in the media culture.
State patronage, corrupt systems of paid for journalism and a polarised political environment stifle efforts to build independent media systems. Even if much has changed in recent years and more alternative voices are now being heard, it is still the case that the dead hand of government influence is present in many newsrooms.
However, journalists and many editors and publishers are waking up to the fact that survival in the competitive media market will increasingly depend upon how they build a fresh partnership with a sceptical audience.
In Tunisia, for instance, there are now calls for a new partnership with the media audience. Insistence on transparency in the way journalism works and wholesale reform of media structures have emerged as pivotal demands for building public trust. Agreement on a new code of ethics for media and a follow-up project to establish a credible national press council are seen as important first steps.
Everywhere the call is for safe, reliable and responsible journalism that is not hijacked by political or purely commercial self-interest.
The EJN’s plans to launch investigations next year into self-regulation of journalism and the wider crisis of internal corruption inside media were widely welcomed and provide more evidence that Arab journalists are frustrated by the slow progress of political reform and are yearning for change in media.
For many of them, from Egypt and Tunisia in particular, political gridlock and a stalled process of democratization have left journalism in a twilight world of legal uncertainty. But now there are signs that while governments dither, journalists and media are seeking to forge a new and ethical media landscape for themselves and for the public at large.