World View: Healing divisions in the Mediterranean
Negative media images of Arab world and north Africa must be counteracted
A Tunisian woman shows her ink-stained finger after voting in the country’s first post-revolution election. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images
Alarm bells are ringing about the deteriorating impression of southern Mediterranean peoples and states held by Europeans to the north of that sea.
Negative images of the Syrian war, fleeing refugees and brutal jihadis disproportionately dominate media coverage and crowd out alternative narratives of common interests and cultural interaction between north and south.
Context and complexity are lost, undermining generosity and making possible populist policies of mental and border closure.
Research on intercultural trends for the Anna Lindh Foundation confirms the picture.
Preliminary results from its latest EuroMed survey show a much greater public sense of media negativity from the north in the south and a greater demand there for better media training and education to counteract it.
Audiences in the Arab world and north Africa are more aware of these issues than Europeans. The survey shows converging values and aspirations between the north and south, contradicting images of cultural polarisation.
These issues were debated at the foundation’s Mediterranean Forum in Valletta this week.
Nearly 700 delegates from its 42 member countries and 4,000 local branches representing civil society, cities, cultural bodies, artistic and youth organisations met in the Maltese capital to discuss how their work together on intercultural dialogue can counteract conflict, extremism, unemployment and socio-economic inequalities.
They also received support from political leaders and international organisation such as the EU and Unesco.
The delegates agreed to prioritise work with young people over the next three years in an effort to bridge gaps with policy-makers.
A successful programme of youth debates in the southern Mediterranean encouraging evidence-based research and argument and critical thinking about their countries and region is to be extended to the north.
Young Mediterranean Voices can provide a platform for that, based on the findings that “fostering youth-led dialogue initiatives is the most efficient measure to prevent and deal with causers of radicalisation and conflict”, a view supported by 79 per cent of northern and 86 per cent of southern citizens surveyed.
Other programmes will bring together local authorities and activists in multicultural cities such as Thessalonika, Tunis, Casablanca and Barcelona to encourage dialogue, diversity and tolerance.
Such values are endangered by the current mood and badly need to be resurrected and proclaimed more strongly and vocally.
Local elections in Tunisia will give women 50 per cent representation for the first time.
Media are a third priority in the coming period. It is a tricky area. NGOs and policy-makers tend to be prescriptive about the values involved, demanding coverage of formal positions, rather than facilitating access which would allow for more vivid, sympathetic and personalised reporting.
Journalists resist such dirigisme but get defensive when accused of violating ethical norms of balance, fairness, evidence and sourcing inscribed in their professional codes.
Bad journalism which overlooks or abandons those norms undermines trust in media and drives viewers, readers and listeners elsewhere.
Younger people gravitate to social and online media and then find these outlets often lack the necessary professionalism for selecting and ordering the news required to understand and interpret events.
As a result established media tend to capture these online fields. All these trends are readily visible in media practices and coverage of the EuroMed region and its deepening conflicts.
In response the organisations involved in this forum favour a research and evidence-based approach towards engaging media on how to improve reporting on the conflicts and the more positive interactions.
Gaps between public perceptions and media coverage lead to the deteriorating visions, thereby alarming policy-makers and researchers.
The survey evidence shows television and online media are more trusted in the south than the north. Print media, radio, films, documentaries and books are more used and trusted in the north.
However, the quality of coverage they offer on EuroMed affairs is affected by the hostile political and public discourse in Europe towards the south – and often by reduced resources for the international coverage required to understand and contextualise the crises of migration, wars and terrorism involved.
It makes sense to map and monitor media reporting and practices both ways so that journalists, civil society activists, policy-makers and political actors can engage more with each other on these issues.
Much work is already being done in this area but there is scope for more research and analysis; for dialogue, exchanges and mentoring of journalists; for better links between journalism schools; and for bringing together the young debaters with media.
All this activity needs structures and funding and takes time. But it is worth the effort to help offset the growth of polarisation in the EuroMed region.