“Can we simply import media accountability instruments from the West?” This is the question raised more than once by journalists and media scientists at the Media Accountably in Transition conferences held in Cairo and Tunis in October and December of last year. Media professionals from Germany and the Arab region were invited to the conferences by the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism. Best practice examples from Europe, collected by scientists from the comparative research project, MediaAcT, were discussed alongside models of media accountability from Arab countries such as Jordan and Turkey. Some instruments for transparency included independent supervisory bodies that manage audience complaints, the establishment of a professional critique of the media, and an open dialogue between journalists and the audience.
The figure of the ombudsman as a mediator between the newsroom and the readers, presented by Yavuz Baydar from the Turkish newspaper Sabah, raised considerable interest at the conferences, with journalists lamenting that there are very few possibilities for viewers in Egypt and Tunisia to make complaints about content issued by the media. The possibility of imposing sanctions against media companies became another widely discussed topic after Ragai al-Merghany, journalist and director of the National Coalition for Freedom of the Media, presented a concept for the foundation of an independent media council. The need for such a council in Egypt and Tunisia derives from the lack of professionalism that their media markets tend to suffer from as a result of long-standing dictatorships and clientelism.
Throughout the conferences, journalists from both private and public media outlets as well as media scientists from local universities united in their criticism of old practices that have yet to be abolished from the industry, saying, “We do not only have to reform our media, we have to reestablish it.” One of the elements they referred to was the fact that the employees of many public media organizations have been introduced and promoted through personal connections rather than professional merit, and that such individuals now form a resistance against new reforms designed to produce more transparency and a higher quality of journalism.
Further accountability and transparency are essential to the future of the media in Egypt and Tunisia, which is largely dependent on the confidence of the audience which desperately needs to be regained. Public newspapers, television and radio networks have often been criticized for their closeness to the regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali, while private media outlets have come under fire for their unprofessional and scandalous coverage. Viewers, particularly from younger generations, have turned away from traditional media outlets and prefer to get their information from blogs and social networks or from national media organizations like Al Jazeera.
The Internet offers great possibilities, even for mainstream media, to regain the confidence of audiences. Whether it only acts as a service to enable comments or feedback, or as an editorial blog, the participants of the Cairo and Tunis conferences agreed that communication with the audience shouldn’t be a one-way street but a respectful dialogue. Newsrooms that do not reply to critical comments or delete them from their websites still have a long way to go towards responsible and professional journalism.
Article translated form the original German “Medien und Glaubwürdigkeit in Ägypten und Tunesien” by Tina Bettels
Tags: Al-Jazeera, Arab Media & Society, Arab Spring, Egypt, Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism, Media Accountability, Media Accountability and Transparency, Media Accountably in Transition conferences, Media Transparency, MediaAct, Tunisia