Maghreb media rises to the challenge


WORLD VIEW:The Arab uprisings of the past two years were preceded by a media revolution over the previous decade.

Transnational in scope through new broadcasting channels, the revolution affected print media as well as the critically important social media, which bypassed the mainstream media.

Without that change, the revolutions and reforms would not have happened. Now that they have, journalists in the region are determined to reinforce the freedoms won with more effective ethical codes and self-regulation.

A meeting in Tunisia this week brought together print journalists from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania to establish a code of ethics for the Maghreb region of north Africa. Over two days they debated and amended a draft, in the process forging a new solidarity, comparing the problems they face in giving voice to their societies’ increased freedom of expression and discussing how they can resist political attempts to restrict it.

Despite being neighbours, these countries have distinct histories, cultures, politics and experiences of recent change. Tunisia led the way in December 2010; Libya dominated headlines during the violent revolution against Muammar Gadafy in 2011; Morocco has taken a path of gradual reform; and Algeria has so far been able to buy off protest with its oil and gas wealth. Mauritania has been drawn into the Mali crisis by its co-operation with the French operation, splitting its political and religious institutions.

Strengthening positions

Trade, communication, migration and common media are lacking in the region. The countries relate more to France than to one another, echoing colonial relations, but this is changing under the impact of political events. The meeting of journalists vividly illustrated this. They are convinced that acting together will strengthen their positions with readers and rulers, creating a moral force to help prevent them being picked off country by country.

The document they adopted will be used to bargain with governments and media associations. They agreed to meet again next year, create an observatory of good journalistic practice, establish awards, develop training programmes, and engage in dialogue with European media on developing self-regulation.

I was there for the EuroMed Media Network, which is exploring the relevance of press councils and ombudsmen as a way to implement self-regulation in the region.

We were struck by the commitment to public interest and citizens’ rights in the code adopted. Its preamble says that “the public right to quality information is the foundation of journalists’ needs and rights”, and that rights to information, free expression and critical thinking are fundamental freedoms.

The code deals with respect for the accuracy of facts and information, distinguishing fact from comment, journalistic independence from sources of information, and the need to protect sources. Journalists should respect rights to dignity and privacy, avoid encouraging discrimination or stirring up violence, and respect beliefs, it states.

Explosion of media

Observers may say that such noble sentiments are more easily said than practised. The media is commercialised or controlled by states or parties, this argument goes, and thereby unredeemed by ethical codes. Such fatalism concedes the ground too easily to economic and political power. The reality is seen more clearly in the remarkable transition under way in the Maghreb, accompanied as it is by an explosion of media.

There are 500 papers and magazines and 20 radio channels in Libya. Not all will survive, but there is a great appetite for information that was unavailable under Gadafy.

Tunisia has a long media tradition but struggles to maintain its independence under the new moderate Islamic government. Algerian and Moroccan journalists have a well-developed media but face similar pressures. Mauritania has a huge array of publications, which manage to survive despite army coups.

It remains to be seen how useful this regional framework will be. A code of codes has limited scope over and above the national settings where most struggles against limitations on the media take place. But similar difficulties with standards and politics have stimulated these journalists to co-operate. Political and social change in their societies highlight what is at stake if the media is restricted.

The journalists took great care with religious issues and the need to create a space to allow such values to be expressed without prejudice to other beliefs. That makes for vigorous debates on constitutional change and emergent reformist Islamic parties.

It would be a tragedy if ill-informed European responses to the events in Mali and Algeria obscure these historic openings in another round of anti-Islamic prejudice.

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