Has the media played a significant role in inciting the public to protest in the Arab World? Participants in the first session of the 2012 Arab Free Press Forum in Tunis discussed whether the media is a mirror that reflects peoples ideas, as Al Jazeera English senior political analyst Marwan Bishara suggested, or whether it works more actively.
Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for Al Hayat, although emphasizing that as she lives in New York she doesn't have a complete picture of media on the ground, said that she believes some satellite channels did not distinguish between covering the events and inciting people to engage in revolution.
Mohamed El Dahshan, Egyptian economist and writer, stressed the importance of considering different types of media that different people follow. Some local media which are under government authority have proved an obstacle to change and threatened protesters. As one of the audience noted, media will always be a hindrance if they are not telling the truth.
Al Jazeera is clearly a key player in any discussion about the role of the media in the Arab World. Fahem Boukadous, Tunisian journalist and activist, said that before the Tunisian revolution last year, it was as if Al Jazeera was a Tunisian channel and the Tunisian media only awoke after 14 January 2011. The Qatar-based news service played a key political role in inciting change, he said. Participants argued, however, that the broadcaster had a different agenda in Bahrain.
Should the media have a role in inciting the public to action? Should its editorial line be slanted one way or another, even if on the side of positive change?
Objectivity and neutrality - transmitting information and recounting events without influencing anyone - have always been esteemed as key journalistic values. But Forum participants questioned whether there can ever be true neutrality in reporting. Maybe it is better to relinquish a degree of neutrality but strive to always be transparent, so that your audience can make its own informed judgment about your credibility. "There's no objectivity when it comes to victim and oppressors," added Gamal Eid, founder and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
Rohan Jayasekera, associate editor of Index on Censorship magazine argued that there will always be a place for advocacy journalism that calls for peaceful change. This must not be confused with incitement to violence, however, which is always wrong.
Participants also discussed the press's relationship with social media. The press has always been a force that is separate form the rest of society, in its own space, but now this is a space that journalists have to share with the public via social media, said. Boukadous agreed that the media is not longer separated from society.
But even in a time of ubiquitous social media, the press still has a crucial role to play. As El Dahshan said, "we cannot disregard the role of journalism and just rely on what citizens cover in the street: we must find a balance to achieve the best results." Jayasekera explained that he believes that at the root of making citizen contributions useful is a journalistic skill, the ability to absorb vast amounts of information and communicate it in an understandable form.