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Online culture of peace discussed at Arab New Media Summit

04-03-2010 (Amman)
Online culture of peace discussed at Arab New Media Summit
First day of the Summit
Nearly 30 bloggers, webmasters and online journalists are back to work with new appreciation for their role in promoting a culture of peace. The bloggers, who came together at the Arab New Media Summit for Peace and Dialogue, came from five countries in the region that have been impacted both directly and indirectly by conflict.
The Arab New Media Summit for Peace and Dialogue was organized by the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia’s (UNESCOCAT) Department of Audiovisuals, in partnership with the UNESCO Office for Iraq. The Summit took place at Al-Ahliyya University in Amman (Jordan) from 8 to 10 February 2010. This first meeting of new media professionals from the Arab Region aimed to strengthen their capacity in fostering mutual understanding, peace and reconciliation, and to provide a platform for cross-border cooperation over common issues.

The Summit’s participants were the main contributors, leading discussions, identifying challenges and seeking solutions. They were supported by a group of experts, including the lead trainer from the Amman-based 7iber.com, Ramsey Tesdell. "New media can be a powerful tool for citizens around the world to begin a discussion about the important issues in their lives,” said Tesdell.

With new media professionals from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the debates were lively and spirited. There was general consensus from the participants that the one challenge they all shared was the lack of freedom of expression. This was the result of ownership bias, self-censorship, outright legal barriers and threats from authorities as well as parallel powers (armed groups operating outside the law).

“This has been a unique and pioneering experience in the Arab region, an enriching occasion to exchange experiences and to analyze how media can act together in such fragmented and diverse areas,” said Rut G. Sobrino, project officer in charge of the Summit.

Discussions did not only tackle internal threats to local and new media but also the negative image of events found in the foreign press. “The Iraq drawn by the international press and the Iraq described by the local media professionals are two different countries,” said a participant from Baghdad.

Whether a blogger operating from a bedroom or the chief editor of an established media house, all expressed concern for their safety and shared numerous stories of harassment or worse. Zuhair Al-Jezairy, Director of Aswat al Iraq (Voices of Iraq) - an independent online news agency - told the story of one of his reporters killed within a few hundred meters of a checkpoint. “She was gunned down,” he told the spellbound group, “one of more than 300 media professionals who have been killed in Iraq since the war in 2003.”

A 21-year old Iraqi blogger brought the room to tears as he read from a blog post the story of a young Iraqi woman who survived a car bomb attack at her university, but lost two of her friends, cradling one as she died in her arms. She has since gone on to help women in Iraq realize their rights.

Moreover, the delegations agreed that one of the most serious problems facing media professionals is the lack of independence and freedom of speech. From the online perspective, a Lebanese journalist said that “there is independent journalism but no independent media in Lebanon since most radios, TVs and newspapers are affiliated to political parties.”

Despite the challenges, the participants were enthusiastic about the space they were creating for people to express themselves freely, giving voice to the voiceless and introducing new vigour to the debate about issues, including those that threaten their independence. The Internet has expanded the ways and means in which people are sharing information, and the participants spoke of their use of social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, among others. While the possibilities are widening, they agreed they need more knowledge of how to manage information through virtual networks. The potential of ICT in decreasing the cost of audiovisual production was also tackled in the debates.

However, not all countries face the same problems. Those from Lebanon raised the matter of the language used for communication and information as an important issue. A participant from Beirut noted with great concern that a language brings values - a reference to the prevalence of English on the web. The Iraqi participants explained that the low number of Internet users in their country was due to the lack of infrastructure, among other factors. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the challenge is the brain drain in new media, a consequence of the conflict in the region.

More information on the Arab New Media Summit and upcoming events, such as the release of a guide on best practices and the creation of a network of media professionals on peace, dialogue and conflict prevention, can be found on the Arab New Media on Ikbis and the Arab New Media blogspot.
Related themes/countries

      · Arab States
      · Freedom of Expression
      · Training of Media Professionals
      · Media in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations
      · Weekly newsletter
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