The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held a brainstorming session on Sunday, July 17, focusing on the founding of a new program that will be "Monitoring the professional performance of Arab media outlets". The meeting was attended by a number of the most notable media personalities and experts on the subject from throughout the Arab world. Dr. Azmi Bishara, the center's general director, opened the meeting with a discussion on standards.
Bishara opined that the Arab homeland is going through a "media revolution," that has done much to form the concept of a joint set of interests amongst Arab citizens. Bishara also added that, in terms of professional standards, the Arab media outlets are living in a state of chaos at the present time because of the absence of organized professional syndicates and the lack of binding ethical charters, as well as rules and regulations that protect the press's freedoms. It was this reality, according to Bishara, that paved the way for foreign media groups to come in and fill the vacuum; these organizations would then carry out media monitoring while promoting their own specific interests, particularly during election periods. Bishara also pointed out that Arab media is now being judged in line with standards set up by Western organizations, and that the time is now ripe for Arab experts and intellectuals in the field to make their feelings known through media monitoring. During the past two decades, according to ACRPS General Director Bishara, the margin of freedom has expanded considerably, which begs the question: does the available Arabic media meet the minimum professional standards to be worthy of the name? Posing this question would not have been possible earlier, he suggested, because of the presence of totalitarian regimes that would not have allowed for a free press. The present situation, however, necessitates a free professional media because Arabs cannot wait for the growth of open, democratic regimes before they could demand media accountability.
Bishara went on to talk of the importance of understanding how media outlets deal with issues of public concerns at this time; ownership of the media continues to play the same role they have always played. When the "street" is in the ascendancy (e.g., during the height of the Arab revolutions), media organizations tend to play up their credentials as defenders of the people. Yet, according to Bishara, as soon as they realize that the government is back in control, they become sycophants.
The stated aim of the program now being launched by the ACRPS is to determine the adherence of Arab media to the minimum standards of professionalism, as well as its meeting the requirements of the internal and external journalism environment. Individuals who do not have a vested interest in the media organizations will carry out this task. Additionally, this program will refute the perception that the media outlets only hold others accountable, without being themselves held accountable. Another participant, Dr. Nahawand Al Qaderi of the Lebanese University's Faculty of Media, spoke of the Arab countries' need to have a better culture of media monitoring as an integral part of a wider culture of accountability and responsibility, especially given the lack of any transparency in the ownership of Arab media organizations. Qaderi was clear that any new plan to monitor the media needs to involve four dimensions: knowledge, professionalism, ethics, and interactivity.
Dr. Sadek Hamami, of the Communications Faculty of Sharjah University, used his time to emphasize the lack of any legislative framework to regulate the media, which means there is no reliable standard against which one can hold the media accountable. In Hamami's view, the media has their work cut out for them in the upcoming period; their priorities, he suggested, should be the "management of public discourse" and "helping to create a public space".
Professor Bassem Touayssi, of Jordan University, suggested linking democratization with professionalism and quality standards. In Touayssi's words, the important things to monitor within a media outlet fell into two categories: "the external environment of the media outlets, which include the legislative environment and issues related to intellectual property and ownership, and internal issues, which cover such things as institutional relations." In addition to this, Touayssi confirmed the importance of assessing the media scene while taking press freedoms into account.
The participants also heard from the editor in chief of Egypt's Al Ahram, Hani Shukrallah, who spoke of the "chaos" that reigns at present in Egyptian media. Government-owned media was, he says, very confused in a revolutionary age. Real democratic change, he suggested, would see the shift from "government-owned" to "publicly owned". He also spoke of the inter-relatedness linking professional standards in the media and holding to truth without any political or ideological bias. He highlighted the importance of the protection of human dignity, freedom, and justice, as well as the rejection of oppression and racism.
The attendees went on to have an open discussion on the importance of monitoring, given the vital role that the media play in political and cultural education; the monitoring program, it was agreed, would give the Arab citizen an opportunity to critically assess the role media organizations are playing, and allow journalists a chance to correct their mistakes.
The attendees also discussed the importance of monitoring new media and the citizen press, which had been marginalized before the Arab revolts. These include public and social media that helped form a "public space" open for social discourse, and played a role parallel to, and in opposition to, official media outlets. In some countries, these untraditional media outlets came to represent societal fragmentation and competitiveness, forcing others to ask serious questions about the relationship between them and conventional media. The participants confirmed the value of objective, neutral, and balanced standards in media monitoring.
In the second part of the discussion, the participants went on to specify exactly which types of media organizations would be liable to a monitoring program, and also the exact methods by which monitoring would occur. The participants focused their attention on the most widely read and widely followed media outlets. Despite the fact that there was no total consensus on exactly how to move forward with the issue of monitoring, there was at least a partial agreement among the participants that the starting point for any new monitoring efforts was the revolutionary spirit blowing through the Arab countries at present. Others emphasized that the starting point should be the way in which those who control the media decide to direct the public discourse. All participants did agree, however, to the production of a new series of research reports that would address issues of professionalism in the media throughout the world, and in Arab countries in particular. These papers would lay down the theoretical framework for monitoring the professionalism of media outlets while critically evaluating the media monitoring experience in the world at large, focusing on the Arab world, in order to formulate the methodology to be adopted. The participants also agreed that a common position paper should be drafted, examining issues of media discourse, power, and hegemony. The position paper will also set out the principles to which the monitoring body would adhere. A final paper will be used to map out, in detail, the exact methodology for the evaluation of the professionalism of the Arab media.
The participants agreed to hold a further session during which they would agree on a series of standards by which to measure Arab media groups, discuss the topics that would be looked into as part of an evaluation program, and decide which media organizations would have to be examined as part of any extensive monitoring program. Furthermore, the participants agreed to expand the mandate of the evaluation program in order to include the professional performance of Western media groups who work in the Arab homeland, and to form national evaluation teams in Arab countries that would evaluate the work of various media organizations in each Arab country.