Thoughts about the EU Parliament meeting on Arab media

The meeting about Arab media was hosted yesterday in the EU Parliament in Brussels thanks to the effort of PSE group.  Jamil Azzar -the one who created the Al Jazeera‘s motto “the opinion and counter opinion”- was there, and obiously was the one who received most comments, questions and critics. Al Jazeera is still an hot potato, even after 13 years of broadcast. I’ve been always thinking how strange and powerful is the fact that everybody has got an opinion about this TV station, even the ones who don’t understand Arabic. Many in the audience were still skeptical about AJ independence regarding Qatar and its policy, some of them praised the station for being the one who opened the way to free speech in Arab media, others -among them, a Lebanese from International Crisis Group– criticised the station for being too close to Hamas during the Israeli attack to Gaza of december 2008. He underlined that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are following the “mass audience imperative” -focusing mostly on Panarab issues like Palestine and Iraq- while forgetting other dramatic crisis as the Sudan (he claimed International Crisis Group has been proposing Al Arabiya to broadcast footage and information from the country  for free for the past few years but they never accepted it-.

Ahmed Kamel, former head of Brussels bureau of Al Jazeera and author of the programme “Min Uroba” (From Europe), attacked the station for being linked to religious extremists and not being free from Islamists when it comes to its programmes.

The debate was also focused on the use of vocabulary: the eternal fight over the word “shahid” (martyr) used by Al Jazeera and by most of Arabic stations when it comes to people dying in Palestine under Israeli occupation. Kamel, who now works for BBC Arabic, didn’t agree at all with the use of this word, while Al Jazeera justifies it -only when it comes to Palestine- by claiming it is a “contextual word”, that is used only in the Israeli-Palestianian context.

I recently noticed in Damascus, when attending a panel about “objectivity in Arab media”, that the debate over “shahid” is not not only widespread in the Western world -where nobody understands what “shahid” really means and in which context the word is placed-. It also generated a very hot discussion in Damascus where -even if the majority of the audience was agreeing with using it for Palestine- some people openly declared that they disagree about it. Among them, the director of the new born Syrian channel, Orient (Mashrek) TV, based in Dubai.

The debate over Arab media is always very hot and I think we as Europeans will need  many years in order to discuss about this as a “normal” media system. There is still too much suspect, angryness, post-colonial imprinting when dealing with the topic.

Debates like the one hosted by the PSE group in the EU Parliament are really useful at least to have the two parts speaking one in front of each other, freely, without prejudice.

MBC’s Group content director, Badih Fattouh, and Hussein Amin from American University of Cairo were also present,bringing up to discussion respectively the topics of entertainment and of the Arab Charter to regulate satellite broadcasting in the Region.

After the panel, we screened some excerpts from my Rome Arab Tv festival, “West by Arab media”. I noticed that, once again, even in Brussels, the  “Irhab Academy” episode of the musalsal Tash Ma Tash is still the best welcomed by the audience.

If only Europeans were a little bit more ready to accept that the Arab world has got diversity and irony, too, maybe we could screen many other examples like Irhab Academy that would really take the debate over the Arab media at a deeper stage than Al Jazeera and terrorism only.

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