They came from the four corners of the Arabic speaking region, glamorous television presenters in their stilettos, editors of Gulf newspapers and magazines in their Armani suits, academics, politicians and former ministers of information disguised as journalists, and--in the minority--the backbone of Arab journalism, the hacks of print media. However, the first Media and Contemporary Challenges Conference held in Kuwait last month (7-9 June), was much more than a PR exercise.
Freedom and democracy were high on the agenda of topics for discussion, while state intervention, censorship and the role of certain ministries of information were roundly condemned for their part in their suppression.
Political arguments over ideology frequently obscured professional judgement, this was particularly noticeable when speakers from the coalition that supported Saddam Hussein, the Marxists, the Islamists, and certain Arab nationalists, took the floor.
There were also one or two 'professional' shells exploded by the tiny minority who managed to get people talking. Veteran Saudi journalist, Othman Al Omair, who started the first serious Arabic Internet site, Elaf, cast the first stone by declaring that the only consistently 'Pan-Arab' feature of the Arabic language media are the Arab ministers of information, who disagree on everything except censoring the media.
The die-hard Arab nationalists with their totalitarian fundamentalist views were having none of this and a lively exchange ensued. Two Nasserite academics from Egypt who believed the state should be in control 'to protect the ethical values of society', scorned the old school of classical journalism that separates hard news from commentary and opinion. They also defended the totalitarian Soviet style argument that 'readers' were not mature enough to understand events when presented neutrally. Thus, they argued, it was the media's 'social responsibility and duty' to interpret events in the news, in order to guide the viewer or reader towards a more mature conclusion.
Al Omair sparked further discussion when he aired his belief that the Internet will be the publishing arena of the future and represents the only hope of escaping censorship and state intervention …