AUSPC 2012: View from Arab Media
21st Annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference – AUSPC 2012
Friday, October 26, 2012
ARAB-U.S. RELATIONS: VIEWS FROM THE ARAB MEDIA
Ms. Barbara Ferguson – Consultant, United States Marine Corps’ Center for Advanced Operational Culture; former Washington Correspondent, Arab News; former embedded war correspondent in Iraq.
Mr. Jamal Khashoggi – General Manager and Editor-in-Chief, Al Arab News Channel; former Editor-in-Chief, Al-Watan.
Ms. Nadia Bilbassy – Chief U.S. Correspondent, Middle East Broadcasting Center Television.
[Remarks as delivered]
[Dr. John Duke Anthony] We used to have this session several times in the past, and then not in the last two years. But we’ve got requests would we please restore it, especially in nature of the substance and the quantity of reporting and some of it misinformation and misinformation about events occurring in the region of the Arab world in the past year and a half. So we’ve got three individuals to address these issues and take your questions.
Barbara Ferguson will be the chair. She’s been a chair three of the last four conferences that we’ve had. And this one on media, she’s chaired twice before so we look forward to having her, as she’s been a stalwart bridge between Saudi Arabia and the United States with Arab News but she’s no longer there. But she’s also had her foot in the US Government. She was embedded with the US forward deployed troops in the liberation of Kuwait and in Iraq, and has had an inside as well and an ongoing training relationship with the United States Marine Corp on cultural issues pertaining to the Arab world. Barbara Ferguson.
[Barbara Ferguson] Thank you all very much. I have to give you great credit for being here but I do believe we have saved the best for last. Any of you interested in the Arab world know that these are two of the top reporters in the Arab world and their insights are extremely important for anyone trying to understand and comprehend the Middle East.
For those of you who are Muslim who are still with us I wish you an Eid Mubarak, for Eid al-Adha. This is a very important day for all of you and I hope that you have time to celebrate this evening with your family and friends.
I’ve had the distinct honor of working with Jamal. We were at Arab News together. Jamal was the Deputy Editor in Chief and we’ve had a long friendship that I’m very proud of. I’m looking forward to Jamal speaking about how his new TV broadcast of news is going to be coming out soon and how Al Arab is going to differ from Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera and MBC, easy question to answer I’m sure.
And Nadia is someone that I’m particularly fond of and very, very proud of. As an American journalist who has been working for the Arab media here in Washington, D.C., I can tell you that it’s no easy task. But Nadia has really broken the glass ceiling as an Arab woman. And she has you will hear her on the Diane Rehm Show. She has been quoted throughout the United States. She’s done an excellent job on her reporting and she has just returned from Turkey where she was interviewing a lot of the Syrian activists there. So I know she’s going to have some really great comments to give us about all of this. We, as the two ladies spoke, Jamal, while you weren’t here, we decided that you would speak first.
[Nadia Bilbassy] Since you are the minority, for a change.
[Jamal Khashoggi] Thank you very much. This has to be really good, that you stayed behind on a Friday afternoon in Eid al-Adha so I have to say something useful.
Should the media or does the media affect US-Arab relationship? Of course it does. I’m sure it will. And I have two examples for that.
In the previous session, Dr. Abdulkhaleq he’s not here so I can speak freely, he ruled out that there wouldn’t be any bumps in the relations between GCC countries and the US. I doubt that particularly after the Arab Spring something is bound to happen. I see it happening in the UK today and the media played a role in that. How would you start the Post or the New York Times or Wall Street Journal and others were to start talking more and more about reforming the GCC, about political prisoners, human rights, somehow that will find its way to a Congress staffer or a Congressman then to some committee at the Congress and that will make us all make some GCC country upset and angry because we always think that we deserve better from the American government.
But things are changing. And something interesting is happening that in the past, when an American journalist comes to Saudi Arabia or goes to UAE, he has only a number of addresses to contact, usually government or close to governments. Now there are other voices. In the past other voices were anonymous. Now they are not anonymous anymore. They have an identity they have a character. Some of them come out of prison so they have a particular story to tell. So this is the kind of bumps I see in the road and I think Arab embassies should be vigilant. Maybe our better choice is to not have particular prisoners at all so there will not be a story to tell.
On the other side, also Arab media in light of the new environment of freedom, they are going very loose without regulations so they could make mistakes that will affect the relationship. I have two stories there.
A liberal news channel in Egypt, the owner of the channel during the visit of Mrs. Clinton to Egypt, her first visit after the election of Morsi. He called literally on the people of Egypt to come out on the street and go in front of the Four Seasons hotel, bring with them tomatoes and eggs and throw them on Mrs. Clinton’s car. And they did that. He was literally inciting people. And of course Mrs. Clinton said she did not notice any of that and probably she was right because I’m sure she did not go from the main door but this is the kind of the media we could anticipate in a loose environment.
That did not affect the relations between the states and the new government of Egypt. But other conservative or Salafi news channel called Al-Nass did some damage. When they released that infamous film “Innocence of the Muslim” and they broadcast it or broadcast part of it on Al-Nass TV and brought attention to it. And many people argue that that was the trigger that started the administrations upheaval, which led to the Benghazi incidents and the killing of other people throughout the Muslim world. That famous week around last 9/11. It was the work of a TV station. Some reporters assumed so and they began to investigate about that particular TV station.
So obviously media can affect the relationship but in the same time it does require some code of ethics some regulations.
The Egyptian government has shut down the TV station because it threatened the President and there’s a law case against the other TV station and you’re going to see more of that because as Egyptians try their own free environment of government, they need also to practice some of that at the courts in order to develop a restraint system or a better system or accountable system.
There has been a time when former President Bush made a complaint to the Egyptian government about Egyptian media incitement. The Israelis also did a number of that. But this will not happen again, it doesn’t make sense really considering the atmosphere after the Arab Spring. One day there will not even be a Minister of Information in Tunisia or Egypt to complain to. Media will be really free.
I remember a story Prince Turki, when he was in the Ambassador in the UK, used to tell all the time in audiences, that he received a phone call from his superiors asking him why the British media is so anti- the Saudi royal family and anti- the Saudi government. And he told his superior I will check on that and come back to you. So after two months they continued with the story that he sent his civilian the following fax or telegram that you’re right your highness. The British media is really nasty toward the royal family of Saudi Arabia and the government of Saudi Arabia. But you should see how nasty they are to their own royal family and their own government.
So I can imagine something like that that the future Minister of Information would say either to the Americans or to the Saudi Minister of Information when he passes a complaint about what is the media is doing nowadays in those free countries.
I’ll talk briefly on our Al Arab news channel, the channel I’m trying to set up, but I’ll talk generally about the changing environment totally in news television in the Arab World. While all of you are acquainted with the changing environment happening now in America and the west, this traditional debate about new media versus or advancing against traditional media, we all know about that. But we are facing that in the Arab world and I’m facing that in while setting up our Al Arab news channel. But there’s also a changing ground or a changing regulations, changing environment totally in the Arab world which is unique to us.
The first thing I began to witness and I feel it is happening that the old concept of pan-Arabism is diminishing. Localism is the key today. In Egypt after the revolution there’s about 30 new channels. Eventually they will come down to about 10 who will survive because usually advertising agencies they’ll take the top ten and forget about the rest. So the other 20 will just fizzle away. So while we are working, I’m sure our colleagues at Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera they began to witness those changes that it is not Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera are not doing a proper job. They are doing a proper job, but God created only four hours of primetime and everybody fights for this primetime. An Egyptian when he goes home, he now has the option of three, four, five,six various talk shows or news channels or, not news channels, talk shows usually. There hasn’t been any yet a news channel in Egypt totally devoted to news and Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
In the past he would go to Al Jazeera if he’s a news junkie, if he’s into news. But not anymore, he has alternatives. The same thing with the Libyans. The same thing or the Tunisians. And there is no way Al Arabiya or Al Arab in the future can devote half an hour to a local issue in Tunisia or in Libya, while a local Libyan news channel will do that. So I have to consider that. I think eventually I will favor a concept of some local or a region I want to be strong in. And my favorite region is Saudi Arabia that’s because I’m Saudi Arabian and the owner of the channel are Saudi Arabians. But then Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the MENA region, particularly in advertising. So I should go to that market, and that market needs a different style news channel.
That’s why we came down with Bloomberg to do four, six hours every day of business, and business is picking up in news business. It is a great interest and I think that will also introduce us into, if I will go to Egypt with some certain Egyptian programming or North Africa, I will go through business because that’s what interests the people right now.
Finally since I feel there’s a need for more cooperation between Arab media and various American organizations, government, private sector, institutes, colleges, to organize programs for training journalists, media. There’s a great demand for talented people, talented young qualified journalists. So there’s room for that.
And in previous sessions I heard an interest for various American groups about this sort of cooperation. Media should be a target or an address for this kind of cooperation because there’s a great demand, a great need for it. There’s plenty of talent right now I’m recruiting new candidates for our Arab news channel. I have no problems in getting tons of CVs but qualified ones are few. And that’s an area where I’m sure American organizations can help us particularly that the restrictions of the past have been lifted and I’m sure many of those organizations, colleges would be welcomed to team up with Arab media organization or local colleges in the Arab World. Thank you very much. I will end here.
[Nadia Bilbassy] I don’t know if you can see me, I cannot match Jamal’s length but I hope you can see me. Thank you Barbara and thank you Dr. Anthony. Thank you all for staying on a Friday night and all night for those who celebrate, Eid Mubarak to all of you.
Yes for the first time I think we see two women on the panel, normally I’m the minority. And I always say from an Arab women’s perspective, I always say I don’t actually believe men and women are equal. I believe we are superior.
The stuff that we do, the multitasking, the running the house, and coming to the office and looking good if you work for television, trust me it’s a hard job.
I was here I think two years ago. I thought it was last year but now that John said we didn’t have this panel except for I think two years ago and I was asked to talk about the Arab view vis a vis US foreign policy, and at the time I said two issues, two factors that remain important today as well.
One is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is the heart of the matter really, and second is the US support for authoritarian, one party rule, repressive regimes in the Arab world.
Now since the end of 2010, we have witnessed something that I honestly thought it would never happen in my lifetime, which is the Arab Spring. And for all those people who doubt the eventual result, I’m very hopeful and I believe that what we’re seeing now despite everything, it will be for the better because generations of young Arabs, women, young men, only remember one president for 40 years. And this president even when he was about to leave, he thinks that his son is entitled to take over.
So what happened in the Arab World is vital for us to be back again to where we used to be. You know I always try to remind my son of his Arab heritage and he will look at me and say, “What did you do? What did you contribute to the world?” and I will say look at algebra, without us you cannot use the zero. And he goes how many thousand years ago was that? And it’s true. So my hope and my belief that we will have a better Arab world and I bet on the women and I bet on the young people, because definitely they’re going to be the standard bearer of the change in the Arab world.
We cannot talk about change without talking about the media. The media is vital it is the fourth authority, is the power that keeps checks and balances. Yesterday somebody, actually I read something on Facebook, talking about the social media and the importance of social media. I know Jamal wanted to establish a new kind of station but we all have to compete with the social media now with the Twitter, with the Facebook, with all kinds of ways that young people are trying to get the message across, and this person was quoting president Jefferson who said, “If I have to choose between a government and a newspaper, I will have a newspaper without a government.” And that’s a testimony to the power of the media.
The media in the Arab World has changed tremendously and let me be candid because I don’t think we can really try to advance without having a candid conversation that we can talk about what we need, what we had to go through, so we can reach where we wanted to go. For decades we had a government controlled media in any Arab given country, just name them. We had to report on the king, the president, that he opened a mosque here, he did a school and a village there, he did a little project there etcetera, ignoring the bigger story. And people now, maybe that was in the 90s, people now find ways to find out what’s happening. So they’re not waiting for me to report on MBC or somebody on Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera, they actually can go to Google they can go to Twitter they can go to all kinds of information that’s available to them. So the world has changed. It’s no longer the Cold War, you know when the United States wanted to set up Voice of America, Radio Free Europe which did a vital service.
But now information is abundant. It’s everywhere. And sometimes with that responsibility we see so many news items that’s been put in news sphere that nobody can check them but you’re wrong. And the last example I think we have seen in Lebanon where it almost could have set up a Sunni-Shiite war over this story that was not credible. But I think we have moved from that and that’s thanks to what we call the pan-Arab news media, Al Jazeera in the beginning that opened the way, paved the way for the first time ever to have some kind of credible news in terms of having another alternative point of view. It’s not just the government. It’s not just your prime minister, but somebody from the opposition can come and speak. And that’s healthy. This is encouraging, it’s very important to listen to all kind of diverse points of view.
So if you wanted to learn from the West, the first thing you want to talk about is a free media cannot exist in a repressive society. It has to be existent in an open society, and this is by the way the United States has probably the most relaxed rules when it comes to the media in comparison to Western Europe and other democracies. And I give you an example. All of you have followed this movie that has caused so much trouble and turmoil. And people will ask us, how come the US government cannot stop this stupid movie? I’m sure with all this powerful intelligence, the President must know about it. Well maybe he knows about it or maybe somebody else knows about it but they cannot stop it. Because it’s the First Amendment of the US Constitution is to guarantee the freedom of expression. And this freedom of expression can be hateful; can be terrible, you can say the most abhorrent things about people. But yet in a free society you are allowed to tell people what you don’t like to say and sometimes something even as disgusting as that movie was.
But this is not a stage we’re going to reach soon in the Arab media because it’s going to take a while. What I’m saying now is we’re on the right direction. We have new television stations. I came from the print media and I still have much more respect for the print media because I think you have more space to analyze things and to write things. Television is very superficial to a certain extent. You have to reduce a very complex story to a sound byte or two and a half minutes. But nevertheless, it’s good. What we’ve seen now is not bad at all, but this is what we wanted to reach, absolutely not.
The most important thing about the media and television is money. Most of you know that funding is very important. They always say follow the money in so many things and I’ll say the same thing in the Arab media. It’s where the money comes from that dictates the policies of stations. And the worst thing for all of us and we all know that, and again I’m going to be candid about it, is censorship. Censorship I experienced as a young Palestinian journalist working with the French news agency, we have to hand over things to the Israeli military and censorship we have with all the stations that we work with without any exception. Because it’s called self-censorship, because you know where the station stands and there are certain things you say and certain things you cannot say.
What I’m aspiring to have is that one day we’ll be free of any kind of dictating to us what can be said and what cannot be said. But journalism comes with responsibility. We have to generate or create a generation of young journalists who understand the value of the news and understand how responsible you are with a piece of news. In a western democracy you can bring down a government. And we know that in the United States with Watergate during the Nixon administration. We see it all over Western Europe where one reporter can actually bring the government down. And this is why you have to be very sure about what you say and you have to double check your sources and you have to be objective.
We tend to be emotional and I am by nature I’m an emotional person. Barbara said I just came back from Turkey where I was talking to Syrian activists. And I think it’s a shame on all the world conscience that we’re not doing anything. We have a moral obligation to stand up to the thousands of people who are dying every day. There are policies in the way and people don’t want to do anything, maybe many waiting for after the election. That’s a different story and maybe not this panel but we talk about US foreign policy. But in general your first loyalty should be to your profession despite how horrible is the story is in front of you and how painful it is to cover, try to stay objective. This is very, very important, trying to make sure that the news you put on air is true.
And I think this is the trap that the Arab media is falling into now as much as they decided to take the side of the Syrian people, but certain times you can see news that’s not real. And also if you want to talk about objectivity, we have to cover all the Arab countries. If there is a suffering in one country it should be equal to the other one. Maybe it’s not the same number. Maybe we’ll see 10 people dying in one country and 100,000 dying in another country, or 10,000, it doesn’t make it any lesser. What I’m saying that we have to be really objective in our coverage. For me it’s always a tough challenge and you always as good, as I was saying I’ve been a reporter for 25 years now, and I always say you’re good as your last story. That when you do a story you have to be careful about what you say because you have a huge responsibility. In our station we have 50 million people watching. I don’t know if all of them are watching news but at least I know in terms of Jazeera, Arabiya, MBC, Al Arab probably, all of these stations have huge followers and they have big responsibilities. How did they shape the Arab World ultimately? We have a mission, and we have a moral mission and we have a professional mission before anything else. But we’re not policymakers.
We’re not there to serve anybody’s interests to decide how the world should go forward. I’ll leave it to that and I’m sure we have so many points to take during the Q&A.
[Ferguson] Thank you Nadia. I appreciate that. Jamal I’d like you to talk about the effective social media in Saudi Arabia and Sunday in the New York Times there was an article about Twitter and how Saudi civilians including judges are tweeting, using their names, and they’re very critical of the royal family and the Saudi government. In the article they said that there are so many millions of people tweeting in Saudi Arabia that the government is throwing up their hands, they can’t control it.
[Khashoggi] I think Twitter is becoming the newspaper that we never had in Saudi Arabia. It is really, it is having an effect, and we haven’t seen yet all of it yet. What could Twitter, what could Facebook do to affect change and reform in Saudi Arabia. God only knows. But it has begun to happen.
I used to say if one spent a couple of days with Twitter he would feel as if a revolution is going to happen in Saudi Arabia tomorrow. It’s not true. But you get that feeling and the New York Times used that in their headline. That Twitter revolution in Saudi Arabia or something like that.
Today something interesting happened in Twitter and the Saudis. You know Hajj is taking place right now. The Saudi government introduced a monorail train to transport hajjis from one location to another. Yesterday this monorail train works only for four or five days throughout the year. So it’s expected to be ready and fit when it’s time for it to be used in the Hajj time. So the Hajjis were using the monorail train yesterday and it stopped for four hours. It was tweeted by a ton of people with pictures, details, crowds. At the beginning officials tried to deny that. But of course they couldn’t because pictures and eyewitness accounts were proof. Just before I came to the podium I was checking my Twitter account. I’m very much into this habit right now and I get the news that the Governor of Mecca ordered a thorough investigation and he promised that he will punish whoever is responsible for the stopping or the delay. The train was stopped for about four hours. That shows how important Twitter is. But now we’re talking about the monorail train, God knows where it will take us. Not only the train, but Twitter.
[Ferguson] Nadia before we came up on the podium we were talking about the differences in the reporting the Bush administration and the Obama administration and I said oh my gosh I thought it was only me, and you said no, no it’s me too as a matter of fact its the New York Times as well. Would you please elaborate?
[Bilbassy] Sure. Well I’ve been covering the White House since 2003. And during the Bush administration I came almost in the height of the Iraq War so that Administration has an interest as well to reach the Arab media for sure, I’m not naive.
But in general it was as a reporter as a foreign reporter I found a much better cooperation from the Bush administration than the Obama administration. Which is really strange because you thought the Obama administration ran on the platform with transparency, more open wanted to reach out.
I was actually with President Obama in Cairo when he gave that famous speech with the Arab world talking about new beginning, everybody was like very impressed by what he had to say. And as a reporter I found it very frustrating trying to get my phone call returned, trying to get an email answered. It’s very hard and it’s been a battle ever since. We actually formed a group of foreign reporters who were covering the White House on the daily basis trying to get some attention from the Administration but it’s very tough. So and now especially the President and the staff is on the campaign trail so its going to be very hard until after the election, that was the case for awhile. I don’t know I can’t really explain it why because it contradicted everything that we hoped that it would’ve happened that we have more access but that was not the case.
[Ferguson] And I think that was very confusing when the first thing that President Obama did was to go to Egypt and so the Arab media was hoping they would have better access to him. I have a question here for both of you if you choose to answer it. How does American media bias affect Middle East media?
[Bilbassy] Well it depends on who you’re talking about. If you’re talking about Fox News reporting or the New York Times, there’s a huge difference. I mean as I always say my aspiration is to find really the ultimate objective Arab outlet but when you live here in the United States you really frustrated just watch the daily news.
As I say if you watch across all the broadcast media, which is ABC, NBC, FOX and CNN, before the Arab spring of course there was a stereotype. Anything to do with 9/11 or anything to do with terrorism cases there’s always guilty before you prove innocence. People rush to judgment, etcetera. The reporting is not in depth.
They have lesser and lesser people and that’s because of the problem the print media is facing which is the original foreign correspondent when they send somebody to the region. They’ve been living there and they know what’s happening and they come back with the real story. Now they take it from the agency sometimes or they ignore the story all together. Of course with the Arab Spring happening the region became back into focus especially with Egypt because that was the beginning of the revolution and there was access for journalists.
Syria is a different story because now we are reduced to use YouTube and other format of really bad quality television but it’s vital for the outside world to know what’s happening from inside Syria. I mean as I said it depends. You can still read fantastic stories in the print media like the New York Times and you see terrible reporting on stations like Fox News.
[Khashoggi] Let me answer from my perspective, from the Arab side. How would Arab media affect or handle American’s matter or American government matters in Arab media? I suspect, I feel that America would enjoy in the future or maybe really to enjoy better positioning than it used to be before. Why is that, after the Arab Spring?
Number one, because the Palestinian question, the Palestinian issue is stepping back. It is not in the front pages in the Arab press as it used to be before and that was the touching point between Arabs and the American administration usually because of American’s support to Israel. But since its stepping back and other issues are stepping forward, so I will see this criticism of American administration in the Arab media.
President Obama’s position or open support of the Arab Spring also helped the American administration positioning in the Arab media, that position of Obama is being appreciated by the Arabs. Something interesting, that famous picture of burning American flags are being replaced by burning Russian flags now and you could see that particularly in Syria. Sometime we also burn Chinese flags and that is probably unheard of. That is what the Syrians are doing right now. Iranians, Russians and Chinese flags are being burned regularly in front of cameras in Syria.
Also the governments and the people are aware that we need American support in our rise, renaissance, like hoping for some Marshall Plan to come and support countries like Egypt or future Syria or Libya. So I predict there will be less criticism of American government administration in the Arab media after the Arab Spring.
[Bilbassy] I can add something just quickly. I think there is a great disappointment in Syria for example that the United States has not taken a leadership role, and if you talk to many people there. They really believe I mean even in Libya where the President turned the leadership from leading from behind. I don’t know I might actually disagree on that. I definitely believe and I agree with you that the US has to be involved and is a vital player in the Middle East and it has to be there and it has to lead, its not just come take a secondary role.
But just I was just looking at something else with is the Pew Global Research and they did this polling about American stand in the Middle East and President Obama’s called worse than President Bush, believe it or not. In comparison to 2009 the approval of international policies dropped from 34 to 15, from the favorable rating of the US from 25 to 15 and confidence in President Obama from 33 to 24, and this is in 2012, which is currently as we stand.
In Egypt I think there were, I think the US were reluctant to involve in what’s happening and I don’t think they have much say in what’s happening there. You might disagree but I just hope that something will be done for Syria.
[Ferguson] Here’s a question for both of you dealing with Muslim opinion of the US. How is the American conservative political bashing of Islam during the elections, and not only elections, how is that affecting Muslim opinion?
[Khashoggi] I take that for granted. When I listen to the presidential debate in a campaign talking positively about Israel, I take that for granted. I feel that they have to do it all the time. They’ll always step out of line to prove that they’re supportive of Israel so really I do not look for that. I don’t see news there. It doesn’t surprise me.
When I watched the presidential debate I was looking for something about Syria, not about Israel because I would expect both of them would be totally supportive of Israel so really it doesn’t affect that much. Of course our radicals love your radicals and they do look for some serious bashing of Islam by a certain radical individuals to import it to our part of the world and inflame it so it will be the topic for the next administration and the coal to burn the next American embassy.
So somehow your radicals and our radicals synchronize together and they help each other.
[Bilbassy] And also I think the Arab World and the Muslim world have to understand that America is 300 million people. When you have one priest from Florida who has 24 followers and goes and burns the Koran, they say, “Oh look at America they hate us, they’re burning the Koran, they’re disgracing Islam etcetera.” I mean you cannot first of all for the reasons I mentioned before about the freedom of expression, this guy can burn the Koran and can burn the American flag and can burn the Bible and nobody can do anything to him. But he doesn’t represent the United States he does not represent the values of the United States or the government or the majority of the people. As Jamal said there are radicals on both sides, and these radicals feed each other. They just love it when they have someone like him burning the Koran and people hearing him in Cairo or Kabul or Jordan whatever. And they just respond equally the same and sadly sometimes violently and in the process innocent people die.
[Ferguson] But then there’s always the question about how much coverage should the American media give to Pastor Jones or someone like him. I have a question that I’d like both of you to talk about. Nadia you said you’ve just come back from Turkey you were speaking with the Syrian activists and that over and over again you heard them asking you asking where is the US leadership. Would you like to talk about that a bit more please?
[Bilbassy] Well I think foreign policy magazine answered this question. And they said the current administration policy toward Syria is an anxious thumb twiddling. Which is basically just this hoping that the regime will crumble from within. That the war has been costing Bashar al-Assad $1 billion a month and then hopefully by we think that by next year maybe he cannot afford to continue. Although he has friends in the region. We know them. They will supply him with whatever he needs. I think unless there is a change in the military field I don’t think the war can be won, because so far the Syrian government and President Assad is unable to crush the rebels and the rebels are unable to overthrow the regime so something needs to happen.
Today actually in the Washington Post was an article written by a French scholar, calling again for the free zone, no fly zone, and basically that would be the safety for most Syrians to go to. As a journalist I’m not a politician and I’m not a political activist but as a reporter I’m just saying what I heard from people from activists who believe basically that the world has abandoned them to their fate. I interviewed quite a few people and they call themselves the Free Syrian Army and when I talk to the guys they turn out to be a carpenter or a guy who had the grocery shop and they were telling me that they were forced to carry arms because the village was attacked by air and the wife was killed, the mother was killed, the younger brother is missing.
So there’s all these citizens who found themselves in a war situation, and again I believe as a person as a mother that we all have moral obligation to stop killing anywhere in the world. Whether it’s in Burma or in Syria or elsewhere. If this country believes in the true values it was established upon, which is freedom and justice and democracy and human rights it should apply equally to everyone. And I think we have heard this phrase, “Never again,” and we also see people dying in the thousands and I don’t know what the number is we have to reach before something can be done in Syria.
[Khashoggi] I find that not only the Americans administration position about Syria doesn’t add up but also the position of my country Saudi Arabia of Turkey doesn’t add up. It is, the numbers the logic says it will serve the interests of America, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to push the regime that is so weak off the edge and ease in the misery of the Syrian people and start a new Middle East.
That will work much better for the region, for America, for our interests in our war against Iran. It all adds up to push Bashar off the edge. Bashar is so stretched, so weak and compared to the amount of money Americans spent in Iraq, 1.6 trillion dollars, an operation in Syria will be cheaper than an operation in Libya. But the only excuse I could have for the administration is the election and they hope that after the election they will do something about it.
The information is available. When I look for information about the situation inside Syria in Time magazine or in New York Times, it is available, it is accurate, it is good, and it shows that for example many American politicians talk about finding the right people the moderate forces in Syria. They just need to check the latest articles about the various groups in Time magazine, a beautiful investigative report. It did not come from the CIA, an excellent report that was created exactly who is who in Syria and he proved that the majority, the 90 percent majority of the fighters in Syria they are mainstream. They hate al Qaeda. They even fight al Qaida.
So it just puzzles me why American’s officials don’t have that picture clear. Maybe they have it clear. They just want an excuse why we are not supporting the Syrian revolution. But I’m not only blaming the American administration. I’m also blaming my government, blaming the Turkish government. We, the Arabs also demand of the Americans to do something about Syria. Why we are not doing much about Syria. We the Saudis the Qataris are not doing enough for Syria to end the misery of the Syrian people and help that revolution reach its end.
[Ferguson] Just a real quick question here. Localism is king. how is the local media forming up in countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia?
[Khashoggi] In Saudi Arabia most newspapers have switched from pan-Arab issues to local issues at their front pages, way back. Something like what 10 years ago I began to notice that. But the effect of that will be felt more on the news channels, because the news channels they’re not like print media. They pass borders and Arabiya or Al Arab can be watched all over the Arab world. But the only constraint is the time. Now Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are experimenting with a localism. They have certain hours for the Egyptian market. Al Jazeera has a certain hour for the North African market, but what hasn’t been successful yet is to bring the ad revenue.
Maybe they have the audience but they don’t have the ad revenue. So it’s a very interesting time. If I was a professor of media and communication I would monitor those experiments that are taking place. Can Al Arabiya secure a position and maintain it even if some Egyptian entrepreneur launched the first 24-hour Egyptian news channel? Can they maintain it? I don’t know.
But its something that Arabiya, Al Jazeera they are in a better position to broadcast news even from Egypt compared to local Egyptian channels. Local Egyptian channels they find it easier way of talk shows. The Egyptian airways are full with talk shows. Lots of talk shows. You can choose something like at least 10 talk shows every night, but a local reporter who reports on an incident from Imbaba that doesn’t exist yet. But I’m sure eventually it will happen. Somebody will pick up the idea and they will start some kind of news channel in Egypt, another probably news hours in Tunisia and I’m talking about local channels. But right now the only channels who are experimenting with that are Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and I hope that Al Arab will do the same thing too.
[Bilbassy] I think I’ll add something, all news is local and all politics is local and I think something can be learned from the American media if you watch NBC or ABC or any selection of channels, they have general news but then they go local.
So if you live in New York you will hear the weather in New York or you will hear what’s happening that guy in Imbaba equivalent to the guy in Imbaba what’s happening to him. And if you live in Washington you have that local news. So I think the Arab media can experiment in that as they have broadcasts generally to pan-Arab and then on localized news they can go to the region.
[Ferguson] And to Dr. Anthony we will give the last question of the last session of the last day of the last panel of this conference.
[Bilbassy] Can I just add one little thing, which is my wish. And my wish is hopefully one day we will establish something equivalent to NPR radio in the Arab world, which is from the people for the people so we have contribution. So if you guys are going to donate a dollar or 10 million, I don’t think 10 million, but a dollar or 10, that would be great because the whole idea is we’d be free from everything, governments, advertisement, influential people, business people and it will be from us to you and vice versa and this is how we provide a vital service to everyone.
[Anthony] Well following on that, Ms. Bilbassy made a spirited call for objectivity amongst journalists and media representatives but early in the day in the session on Palestine that was chaired by Allison Weir, she made reference to the fact that the reporting by and of the Associated Press that is appearing in most American newspapers without an individual byline other than just AP is filtered and often censored in Israel because it has to be routed through Israel even if the report for AP is filed in Egypt or Libya or Iraq or wherever.
How do you get around this aspect if you’re as objective as possible but you see your objectivity not even included in the report or it’s shaded or it’s watered down and its main points eviscerated through matters over which you have no control and even less influence?
How do you keep your professionalism, your drive, your standards, your enthusiasm, your fervor, your workaholic aspect and objectivity in being clinical and dispassionate as you can be in your reporting only to see it in the American case, related to Associated Press, which most newspapers subscribe to, full of deletions of your objectivity or shadings, watering down, eviscerating or even misinterpreting your objectivity? How do you deal with that? And if you complain what are the consequences?
[Bilbassy] It’s tough. One thing that journalists do is they believe in the things that they do but they like to see their names. So if you write a story and you work really hard on it, you want to see a byline. So the worst could happen is they just take it away, they change it.
We always complain and I used to work with AFP in the old days that the editors sit wherever they sit and they change it because they have nothing else to do because you’re on the field and they wanted to put some imprint so they change your story, and you’ll be happiest when they don’t filter it or change anything, alter anything.
In Israeli-Palestinian question particularly is really tough because as you said in general this country is very pro-Israel on every level, in the Congress, the administration and the policies. So you take it for a fact that even the reporting is going to be, with very few exceptions, very few exceptions that journalists are going to be favoring Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
So I don’t know, it’s really tough and I always say maintain your objectivity trying to raise your voice, trying to convince as many people as you can, your editors, whatever. But the most important thing instead of taking it from the agencies, have a correspondent on the ground so your correspondent can tell you the story of what’s happening. And big newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post in my time 20 years ago during the first Intifada foreign reporters would never even ventured to Gaza. They would use a foreign correspondent coming there and then leaving. But now they actually hire Palestinians because all of a sudden, this is why always credibility is important, is paramount. So I always say to young reporters if three people die in front of you, its not a massacre, but its good enough to talk about every individual and to give them a name, to tell their stories and to talk about their families so stay credible and stay objective as much as you can.
Most of the times it’s really tough and it’s a struggle and it’s a challenge for even anybody who’s been covering things for 20 years. That was the case for me in southern Sudan for example during the famine when you see a mother who has to sacrifice one of her children so that the weaker one can die and the stronger one can live. I mean imagine a story like this you have to cover.
But in general I mean in all conflict zones whether it’s in Palestine whether its was Bosnia, whether its in Syria now, whether its in Burma, everywhere. It’s very tough for a journalist to tell a story and to stay objective and somebody else basically changing it. And a struggle for us even now, for me as a reporter when I put my story on MBC we have to do one minute and twenty seconds, sometimes one minute and forty seconds is too long. How can you tell a story in that short of a time?
And sometimes they take a sound byte that’s really important to the story so its something we have to take as reporters that not everything is the way we wanted but we struggle to convince our editors and one last thing since Jamal is giving me the platform talking about women and the glass ceilings. I think its very important that sometimes you have these reporters who work in the field for so long that they can go back to headquarters and they’re the ones who become the editor. So the measure for women’s success in the Arab media is not how many anchors you have and how many liberal and modern they are, with a scarf or without a scarf, but once you have that woman who’s in the editorial newsroom who makes that decision and you have that woman who’s the general manager of the station and you have the woman who’s the head of HR. This is the real measurement for all of us as Arab women to make sure that we have another crack in the glass ceiling.
[Khashoggi] As Ms. Bilbassy was saying it is really tough. It is tough for us as reporters to see our story being rewritten or edited. We just have to live and let others live and move on sometimes and make a story about it to tell later, and that’s what I’m going to do. I remember in 1992 I had a similar situation when I was in Algeria. I interviewed the judge who was going to try the leaders of the FIS, the Islamic party that won the elections of 1991, and they were later put into prison so the judge told me the trial was a couple of days later but the judge trusted me enough as a reporter and tell me that we were going to sentence both of them to 12 years and the trial did not take place yet.
So I sent the story to my paper, Al-Hayat that Abbassi Madan and Ali Belhadj would be sentenced to 12 years and the judge said that. At that time we used to file through faxes and the fax was taken from me to the back room in the hotel, of course God knows who is there so somehow the fax reached the paper but later on in the day somebody from the Algerian government called the managing editor in London and told him please remove the part about 12 years because it will hurt our credibility and it will cause us difficulties here in Algeria.
I learned later when I saw the story that my scoop was taken away and I got really angry but you know being in Algeria which was under siege at that time and the army has taken over, it wasn’t really proper for me to complain so I just let it go and move on. But that is the kind of thing we reporters can encounter sometime.
[Ferguson] Thank you all very much, Nadia and Jamal that was very interesting. Thank you all for having the tenacity to stay until the very end. It obviously paid off with the significant exchange of ideas from the media and finally in closing we’d like Dr. Anthony we’d like Dr. Anthony to close the final session of this conference.
[Anthony] Thank you, Barbara. Thank you, Jamal. Thank you, Nadia.
One last comment on the previous session is that 1300 American journalists, media representatives of all kinds went to Saudi Arabia and the Eastern Province during the period of Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 at the time of the Kuwait crisis that year. And the numbers were so huge the question came up, what would we do with them on the weekends and down time? And the thought was well let’s expose them to various aspects of our culture.
We’ll have a sign up sheet there and along with all of the European and the Asian and the Latin American and African media representatives, as well and it turned out that after the 3rd weekend there were almost no Americans who signed up for these cultural forums, and they did it another weekend and still no Americans, but the Danes and the Belgians and the British and the Italians and the French and the Chinese and the Japanese and the Brazilians were all on these buses going to cultural outings.
And a survey informal was made of the Americans as to why they weren’t going on these outings and the answer was invariably that we were told to go here and write on three topics and three topics only. One on oil, one on women, and one camels, and we’ve written all three of the stories and so our job is done.
We don’t see any need to sign up for these. We’ll just rest and jog and have fun. So that’s a statement of the parochialism of the limited horizon but I think it’s a more and better and worse at the same time that more and more American media and Americans in general are keenly interested in this region.
At the same time budgets and other constraints of newspapers have fewer resources to station full time American journalists in the region and they’re working through stringers or other representatives in places that they don’t go.
Segueing into the final session here, one of the aspects we were trying to be precise in our definition and use of our language, and several times there was the phrase to the Golan Heights by us Americans who specialize in the region. This is as misleading as a phrase as there can be. The Golan Heights would be if you think in terms of metaphors here, the area right below the edge of this cliff or this ridge here, and below it. The people look up at it and see it as strategic asset if they had it and a disadvantage if they didn’t control it. So until now we use the language of the Golan Heights and people’s thinking is, well of course anybody would want this. The misleading aspect of it all is the occupation is not just here, it’s all the way over to here. In other words the Golan is the Golan province, Syria’s by far richest natural resource province in terms of water.
So it’s not just the height, there’s 18,000 square kilometers, and the Israelis are in occupation of 12,000 of those 18,000 kilometers including Israel’s wine industry, including more than 20,000 settlers. The bulk of them, the earlier ones established during the Labor government there, which is as rigid as the Likud and not with wanting to withdraw from the Golan so I think we need to be even more precise on our vocabulary and the concepts behind it and the implications of those concepts.
Also with regard to employment, most panels said that this is the daunting overriding challenge and how much it has to do with dignity and perhaps no one in this room is unemployed, although the student volunteers would fit in that category but they’ve not really felt the sting and the blow of being unable to get a job. And how each day standing in front of a mirror or trying to persuade oneself that I’ll go have an interview today or I’ll leave off my resume, how this eats away at a persons inside, and if one’s single how it eats way at their romance and their longing to marry and have a family. How it eats away at their willingness and longing to want to have an effective set of accommodations. It’s all beyond their reach unless you get it from your parents or a gift and that too is dehumanizing and humiliating in its own different way.
So the countries that have rebelled on this particular issue no amount of platitudes and well wishes and policies and positions and attitudinal changes among governments is going to fix this, not even at the margins. When you hear a figure of 700,000 new entrants into the job market in Egypt a year, how can anyone accommodate and address even one seventh of that, one tenth of that, it’s beyond their reach, not just of the private sector but a mix of public and private sector.
You can’t command private sectors to hire people endlessly when they say that we’re in business to make a profit, not in business to go into deficit. So this is an untenable illusion and likewise to expect that governments perforce if only to remain in control and to deal with the issues of instability and insecurity private companies can deal with it more effectively than governments can or will.
When the governments will see that they have no choice but to revert to state centric planning and decisions in terms of their economies even though it will be uneconomic and it will dissuade foreign direct investment. It will dissuade the private sector. It will have its own negative repercussions but we’ve been there before and what I’m suggesting or implying is that I can see it over the horizon coming again for a second coming here. I’d love to be proven wrong.
But ponder the following, in countries like Yemen which was supposed to have been addressed here but the specialist did not make it. In Yemen there are 130,000 villages of under 200 people in each. You live in a mountainous or desert village with less than 200 people you have no school. You have no electrical system probably. You have no functioning water system. You haven’t a sewage system by its name. You don’t have a graded road let alone a paved road. Ponder how individuals in this situation will better their life, will find meaningful employment and identification in lessened or absent humiliation?
So the problems are enormous and the challenges are immense and the solutions are elusive in the short term and we need not kid ourselves about what this implies for our relationship unless we can help it more than hurt it.
With regard to three platitudes or policies or norms that various government representatives said that we are trying to promote and project and protect in the region, rule of law, accountability and transparency.
Rule of law. Constitution of the United States article 6 says that all treaties, laws, international conventions to which the United States is a solemn signatory are the supreme law of the land. In layman’s language it means that they are superior to federally enacted legislation. We are a member of the United Nations by treaty. We are signatory to the fourth Geneva Convention by treaty.
The fourth Geneva Convention couldn’t be clearer. It prohibits the occupying power from exploiting the occupied people’s resources. The occupied people’s land cannot be expropriated. The occupied people cannot be expelled from their lands and the occupying power cannot settle its people in the occupied people’s lands. This has been happening weekly, often daily since June 1967 and no country underwrites it more than we do, even though we were the leaders along with Israel for the signing of that Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949. The horrors, the wounds of the holocaust was still raw and understandably we both pushed for that and persuaded everyone else to abide by it but we are the number one violator of it.
That is to say and the following statistics come from a friend of mine who was formerly Director of the Middle East section in the Office of Management and Budget that since 1979 at the Camp David accord, every second from them until now the US has provided Israel with 150 dollars every second, 6,777 dollars every minute, 336,000 dollars every hour, and 8-10 million dollars every day. This in the context of rule of law segueing into the issue of accountability.
I challenge anyone here in the audience perhaps other than an armed forces representative to name any senior official who’s been indicted or held accountable for the excesses of Abu Ghraib or the excesses in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or the prison in Bakuba north of Baghdad. Name one.
With regard to transparency, ponder the following. That in the period between the election of 2000 and the beginning of the George W. Bush administration there was a task force on environment and energy established by the President of which Vice President Richard Cheney was to chair. That task force met 42 times. Only three of the 42 times did they meet to discuss the environment. The other 39 times were to discuss energy and at those meetings were brought geological maps of Iraq and Iran. And when the Government Accounting Office, the taxpayer funded office that is designated and mandated to make the government accountable, tried to obtain the names of the people who attended those meetings the Executive Branch stonewalled. And when the Government Accounting Office then said then we will subpoena the list of those who came, the friends of the administration and the Senate said that if the Government Accounting Office insists on this, we will revisit the Government Accounting Office’s funding. The Government Accounting Office ceased it’s probing on that. So much for transparency; even all these years since then.
We have tried in this conference to be as open and forthright and representative if not always as balanced as some would like is possible. I hope its been noticed the number of women that we’ve had participate in this conference and I would challenge anyone to cite as many women involved in other conferences of an annual issue that focus on these kinds of issues.
I’m not sure whether people noticed either that on the Palestinian session most of the presenters were Jews and that the case was similar last year in terms of two Jews, two Christians, and two Muslims, half women, half men, half from the public sector, half from the private sector. These are things that are happening not by accident or coincidence and we invite your input and comment as to how we can do it better.
In closing I would like to say that here in listening I’m reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes who became the Supreme Court Justice who stated, “That a mind once stretched never reverts to its previous condition or position on the issues for which it was so rigidly fixed and fixated before.” I’d like to think that’s occurred here.
Secondly in terms of the individuals who’ve been representatives of their institutions, many of which didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s said that I said of someone else two nights ago that the only thing longer than a person’s shadow, than what one can leave behind, is an institution and that that was but one third true. That these individuals have left behind for all who’ve attended here a role model, a frame of reference something to guide themselves by differently than before this conference was held. And I hope that some of you in the academic realm or even in the government bureaus will have seen and heard individuals that you’d like to have come to your university or your agency to brief your fellow colleagues and gain as you have gained here.
And lastly with respect to what we have been focusing on, this is not just any part of the planet. We’re talking about the intersection of three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe. For Westerners at least Jews, Christians and Muslims, we’re talking about the cradle of culture, the crucible of civilization, the anvil of antiquity, the source of sunshine on the classical world and the epicenter of prayer and pilgrimage, of faith and spiritual devotion for half of humanity.