The RAND Conference, wrap-up

17 Mar, '07

I rather enjoyed attending and presenting at the RAND conference for “Creative Use of the Media for Tolerance and Understanding” held over the weekend in Doha, Qatar. I benefited a lot from my fellow presenters, none of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting before. The list included media professionals from Afghanistan, the Middle East, Europe and of course the United States, all of whom had very valuable experiences to share for which I am grateful and would like to thank them all for being generous with their information and of course to RAND, the conference organiser.

Other than listening to presenters from conflict zones (Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bosnia) we were also treated to the advertising market analysis and statistics in the region which was an eye opener. Knowing how people in the region interact with the media, generally, gave us a bird’s eye view of people’s interests and their preferences are indicative of their own environment; for instance, according to statistics, Al-Jazeera almost universally was relegated to the bottom 5 amongst stations, with Al-Arabiya taking the lead in almost all the markets. In Iraq, Al-Iraqiya comes first followed by Al-Arabia. In Morocco, the movie channels take precedent on the news and in Saudi general entertainment rules supreme in the MBC channels.

Before I go on, let me give you an eye-opening fact: according to the statistics of monitored advertising media, advertising in the Middle East and North Africa television was approximately US$2.5 billion! 85% of those funds go to the top 10 channels, and there are over 600 (yes, six hundred) channels available to MENA audiences!

Internet advertising is in the low $10s of millions so far, but is projected to top $150 million by 2011. Still very small compared to the silver screen.

As to the presenters, each and every one of them is not only a pioneer in their country and chosen field, but also an incredibly brave person. It was certainly humbling to be in their presence and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to listen to them and learn from their experiences.

The first I would like to highlight is an incredible Jordanian woman who took it upon herself to investigate and publish the so called “honour crimes” happening in her country since she came back from college in 1994 and has been instrumental in forcing the issues through Jordanian society and breaking the social taboo of even talking about these crimes. She says that now, at least the prosecutors are a little bit more suspicious of the circumstances in which girls and women die, rather than treat them as minor incidents as they have in the past.

Investigative Journalist Rana Al-Husseini presenting at the RAND conference

Rana Al-Husseini has received many awards from human rights organisations, and has conducted quite a number of international and national seminars in which she highlights these issues. One incident she particularly remembers was the first “honour killing” she has reported: it was a 16 year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by her brother, got pregnant by him, forced to abort the fetus, married off to a man 50 years her senior who divorced her to be taken back to her father’s house who conspired with her rapist brother to kill her to cleanse their family’s honour. They killed her, but I don’t think their family’s honour was cleaned in the process.

Due to Rana reporting this in the English-language Jordan Times and her investigation into the case, the brother got 13.5 years in prison while the father got 7.5 years. Traditional sentences in these cases, she says, range from 3 months to a year only. Needless to say, had it been up to me they would have rotted in jail for the rest of their miserable lives.

But that is not the only case that she reported on, these crimes – numbering approximately 25 a year in Jordan alone and those are the ones specifically categorised as honour crimes – do happen throughout the world (Turkey, rural parts of Italy and spain and of course other Arab and Muslim countries).

Rana continues to be an activist and championing women’s rights. She looks forward to not reporting these crimes, alluding to her wish that these crimes would be eradicated in not only her native country, but elsewhere as well.

Zaid Mohseni and Fatema Laya Bayat from Afghanistan each gave a presentation about their own radio and television network and shared with us some of the difficulties they face, and more importantly how their stations have become a catalyst for change in their native Afghanistan, airing hard-hitting documentaries, public service announcements to increase tolerance and understanding as well as sponsoring various talk-shows in which ordinary citizens share their concerns.

Both are passionate people who want to genuinely make a change in their country, something I am sure that they are already doing judging by the clips their shared with us.

One interesting thing that they are both doing as well is the revival of culture within the Afghan society; Zaid’s organisation has established a music production company and has also produced several music video clips which have become popular on their station. Their TV channel “Tolo TV” also jumped on the list “Super Star” bandwagon and created the “Afghan Star” television show in which contestants from all over the country complete for the honour of best singer in Afghanistan.

Zaid’s MOBY Media Group was the first in Afghanistan to introduce a woman and a man on the air for which they were attacked by government, parliament and by the people for daring to do such a thing. Six months later, Zaid told us, every other station – including the government channels – started to feature women on-air without a problem!

Bushra Jamil is "Just Bahraini"

Bushra Jamil, who so reminds me of Dr. Munira Fakhro, came on next. Bushra is the force behind the only independent radio station in Iraq, Radio Al-Mahabba. The station broadcasts from Baghdad and is concerned primarily with women’s issues and broadcasts in three languages (Arabic, English and Kurdish). Its main purpose in life is to “bring back the smile” on people’s faces, but in doing so the station and its founders have gone through hell and back, almost literally. Their station was bombed, their transmitter irreparably damaged, and several of their personnel have been killed in car bombs. Just getting to the station every day is an onerous task, dodging bullets is the least of it.

Yet, Bushra and her colleagues get to work and broadcast their programs, initially over a 6 hour period which got increased to 18, only to be brought down to nothing when their transmitter got blown up. That’s when Bushra and her colleagues went into high gear and flew to the States to try to get money to get another transmitter, which they got from various organisations and the American people. Harris Corporation donated a new 5kW transmitter and they’re up on air again. Tenacious is not an unfamiliar word to Bushra!

Bushra, Fatema and Zaid all need your help! If you can contribute to any of their operations in expertise, money, equipment then please do. Especially Radio Al-Mahabba who are looking for a live audio mixer for their operation. If you want to contribute to any of these worthy stations, please either contact them directly or let me know and I’ll put you in contact with them.

Bosnian investigative journalist and editor Senad Pecanin

Senan Picanin from Bosnia presented the fascinating story of his weekly controversial activist magazine DANI which he started while the war in that country was still raging, in 1993. It got so bad, he relates to us, that they couldn’t get paper to print on, and there was no electricity in the printing press which was on the edge of town the whole of which was surrounded by hills concealing snipers ready and willing to shoot anything that moves.

Try topping that for commitment! But they do that at DANI on a daily basis; their office was sabotaged, guns were held to their heads, threats are a daily occurrence, but Senan tells me that one of the scariest experiences was when they had the corrupt Bosnian grand mufti on the cover of DANI who demonstrated his displeasure with this by instructing his office to collect every issue every published and call every single advertiser to tell them never to advertise in that magazine! Smart, but that in itself is a gross abuse of power that no Muslim, let alone a high cleric, should resort to. This, fortunately for the magazine, affected only 10% of their advertising revenue. Had the guys at DANI not moved quick to limit the damage, Senan says that they could have been forced to close down.

Make sure you browse DANI’s archive sections and even though you probably won’t be able to understand the Bosnian language, the cover pages are always controversial, daring and works of art to boot!

I wonder how long it would take us in Bahrain to be bold enough to publish even a 25% version of DANI’s covers!

It was my turn after Senan. I am glad that people found my presentation interesting. I’ve converted it into a pdf file for you to download and see for yourselves if you wish. Be warned; however, that it is large, a little more than 15MB!

I was asked to do a presentation about my own experience with the difficulties I have faced while blogging as far as official harassment is concerned. I chose to also talk about the harassment journalists and bloggers face in Bahrain under the Press & Publications Law, my conclusion to this overview and my own recommendations on what I feel should be done to correct the situation.

Riad Kahwaji started the second day of the seminar where he talked about the clear sectarianism and unprofessionalism of talk shows in the Arab world. He brought with him live examples of how talk shows degenerate (he showed a clip from Al-Jazeera’s Opposing Directions program hosted by Faisal Al-Qassim)

Riad also talked specifically about how these particular programs are used as vehicles to spread hate and sectarian violence and that they should be regulated, as their impact is much bigger and wider than any internet site. He suggested a comprehensive code of ethics maybe applied by the Arab League to ensure that producers are held accountable for the degeneration of their programs.

Senan told me a fascinating story on how Bosnia handled this situation: apparently during the war, a famous television anchor went on air with a huge knife in his hand and said words to the effect of “we thought that Muslims are our friends, they are not, this knife is for them” while brandishing the knife on live TV!

Another incident was a television station intimated that it was going to show the country’s president (I think) who is a female at the time, having a meeting with a visiting politician and they screened a hard-core sex movie for that clip!

Due to these incidents and others like them, a law was passed by parliament to create an ombudsman which will hold all radio and TV channel responsible for whatever they broadcast. This ombudsman will not only have the full authority to issue a broadcasting license, but also to slap hefty fines and even withdraw licenses if they saw fit.

The really effective thing about this committee is that it is composed of the private sector, intellectuals, media experts and personalities. No government employee is represented there at all. And it works! Maybe this is something that we should seriously look into and adopt and adapt and then remove radio and television operations from the Ministry of Information. If it worked in Bosnia, it might work here as well.

Chaker Ayadi, a Tunisian from the Centre for Arab Women Training and Research and a teacher of Media Studies at Dubai’s Higher Colleges of Technology. Chaker got some Emirati young ladies to produce short documentaries about how women view themselves in the Emirates and how they see themselves in the future. The end result – Adolescent Colors – was fascinating, if frustrating somewhat to me personally. All of the 5 segments showed young ladies making excuses and being apologists for them being the victims! Thank goodness there were two or three who had an opinion of their own and stuck by them. If you get a chance, watch the documentaries as they will give you an insight not available to outsiders, outsiders being non-Emirati girls.

The good thing is that Chaker managed to convince one filmmaker – Nada Salem – to come to the seminar and talk about her experience directly. That was good as we got the chance to hear directly from the lady and gave us the opportunity to question her about filmmaking and the documentaries effects and responses they received after screening them. Nada was thrilled to have been able to “fly solo” for the first time in her young life and leave Dubai to come to Doha without a chaperone. One telling thing about the whole thing the documentary has shown – the Emirates identity and gender crises – was summarised by one off-hand comment by Nada; when she was asked if she has any brothers (to act as her chaperone) she quickly replied “No, Alhamdullah!”

I haven’t covered the “technical” presentations of Ahmed Nassef who is one of the founders of Muslim Wakeup! which would have been a fantastic presentation, unfortunately he only talked about Maktoob which he now manages. Both Elie Aoun of IPSOS and Khalil Arouni of UM7 gave fascinating presentations showing statistics of viewership, country distribution, demographics and the huge money being spent on advertising in media.

As I said at the start, I really am happy that I took part in this conference and am glad that I have created new and I am sure lasting friendships. To take part in a conference with these luminaries at this level is an excellent experience that I would not hesitate a second to repeat!

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Comments (37)

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  1. Bernie says:

    They sound like a very brave collection of people not to mention motivated and fascinating.

  2. So while I was playing Agony Aunt here… you were having fun elsewhere?!
    On a serious note, thanks for the insight and for introducing us to those truly amazing people!
    Also.. your presentation ROCKS!!

  3. mahmood says:

    See, it’s all YOUR fault! :tongue:

    Had you not taken care of the fort, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy myself so much! :devil:

  4. PerseusQ8 says:

    Another coup for the blogfather, BRAVO!!

    Just read the presentation, which was absolutely brilliant. Sadly the situation isn’t much (or any) better in Kuwait. Our ministry of (dis)information practices the tactics and shares the same ridiculous iron-age mentality of control and suppression.

    I want to show this to everyone I know.. so spot on. My hat’s off to you, sir.

  5. Hasan says:

    That was a very engaging, honest and brave presentation. Keep fighting for what’s right. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  6. I can’t wait for Tolo TV to start putting news on-line.

  7. amal says:

    well done, Mahmood!! Wonderful presentation..

    Thumbs up!

  8. zaydoun says:

    Isn’t it ironic? Here you are at the Rand Corporation’s excellent conference (to which I wasn’t invited, but that’s OK) while this happens in Kuwait!

  9. mahmood says:

    Unbelievable Zaydoun, I was so looking forward to watching it!

    Well, they need to understand that they cannot hide glaring facts from their people for long, the international organisations and media are very interested in this area and they will carry these kinds of reports if the local stations and media won’t.

  10. BinShehab says:

    Very good job.

  11. Anon- 4 ever says:

    GOOD JOB MAHMOOD!

    Your presentation was excellent i cant agree more with all the issues you mentioned!

    we proud of you mate, keep it up

  12. Esra'a says:

    You make us proud Mahmood! Great work and I’m glad you posted this update, and can I just take this opportunity to thank Qatar for hosting a series of excellent events these past few years including the much-needed interfaith conferences.

  13. Hisham says:

    Super job, mahmood! Thanks for the write up as well. In short, You’re the Man!!!

  14. Butterfly says:

    Interesting presentation Mahmood. I didn’t know that they tried to force websites registeration in 2005!

    I hope you will not be in trouble again for this presentation.

  15. Butterfly says:

    لست أدرى هل هي مصادفة ايضا ان أجد في أحصائيات مدونتي عبارة “معلومات عن محمود اليوسف” تم أستخدامها في محركات البحث والتي أوصلت صاحبها لمدونتي!

  16. Russ Hampsey says:

    Blogfather,
    What a great rundown of the conference. It was very inspiring for me to meet you and the others at the conference who stand up for their inalienable human rights daily. I have to share that more than once I shed a tear during the recitations describing the endurance of the human spirit against those who chose to try and deny those rights to you and your fellow countrymen and women. Good luck my friend and never lose the faith, we are all brothers in this fight for freedom of expression.
    Russ Hampsey, USA

  17. docspencer says:

    Dear Mahmood,

    It sounds like this was a very good and useful conference for the region. Your writeup of the proceedings is absolutely outstanding, and I hope that you will be able to place it in the major papers in Bahrain as well as in other Arab states’ newspapers.

    I need your help on something.

    I tried to post a message under “Going for Gold in Israel”. Everything looks normal, but the message is not posted. Is this the way your software or Web site is supposed to work?

    Best regards,

    Vic

  18. Joel Portman says:

    Vic, Mahmood

    I have had the same experience. I posted something on “Going for Gold” because a relevant story just cropped up on the news. I posted it about 16 hours ago but it hasn’t shown up. Any idea why?

    Regards

    Joel

  19. Rancher says:

    These are great sources for blog posts, thanks. I’ll start with Ms. Al-Husseini and work my way down. Sorry to see the gag, good luck with your case.

  20. milter says:

    Mahmood,

    Reading your resume and your presentation triggered a thought association in my confused brain.

    Somehow the issue of women and their role in society seems to be at the core of a lot of the problems. Quite often that brings the influence of religion into the picture and the dominance of men interpreting it.

    Next thing, you wrote about Nada Salem and her comment at the end:

    when she was asked if she has any brothers (to act as her chaperone) she quickly replied “No, Alhamdullah!”

    That reminded me of a comment by the Irish comedian, Dave Allen. He would very often make “disrespectful” jokes about religion (especially the Catholic version), and on one occation he was asked: “Are you religious?”

    His answer was: “No, I’m an atheist, thank God”.

    His thoughts about the creation of the world and Adam and Eve can be seen here on YouTube.
    Maybe one or two of his type will help soften the approach to religious taboos and their defenders in The Middle East .

  21. milter says:

    Sorry, the link about Dave Allen was in Danish.

    The English link is here

  22. milter says:

    Oh, and I forgot this :

    To take part in a conference with these luminaries at this level is an excellent experience that I would not hesitate a second to repeat!

    Maybe you’re one of them yourself, Mahmood. Maybe your blog is one of those that are seen as part of the hope for the future. Well, as long as you can stay out of prison

    :whistle:

  23. mahmood says:

    doc, Joel, I checked the spam queue just now and there is nothing by you there. I have no idea what’s happening there.

  24. Your presentation was written about here too: http://www.ordoesitexplode.com/me/

  25. Joel Portman says:

    Mahmood

    I haven’t even been able to post to this thread. I have sent you a ‘comment’, with a copy to myself, but the copy hasn’t come back. Could you email me, so I can establish some ability to contact you and the blog?
    Thanks
    Joel

  26. Joel Portman says:

    To clarify: it seems a little comment like this gets through, but the one I really want doesn’t

  27. mahmood says:

    Joel, the insinuation that I censor you specifically is ignorant, to say the least. You could educate yourself about how WordPress and its spam plugins BadBehavior and Akismet work before lobbing stupid insinuations like this.

  28. mahmood says:

    Joel, 5 comments (all duplicates) where in the spam queue, I have released them. The ones in this thread I have deleted (as you have represented them in the other thread) as WordPress does not have the facility to move comments from one thread to another.

    The reason for them being in the spam queue is that they contained more than the allowed number of links which is set to 3. The system thinks that anything which has more than 3 links has a high possibility of being spam. I shall now increase that level to 5 and hope that spammers won’t click on to my generosity.

  29. Joel Portman says:

    Mahmood

    I never for a single moment thought that you were censoring me, and never suggested it.

    All I was concerned about was that, for what has so far turned out to be 48 hours, my comment never appeared on “Going For Gold”. You then wrote in post 25 above, “doc, Joel, I checked the spam queue just now and there is nothing by you there. I have no idea what’s happening there.”

    I then found out I could get it ALL into “Going for Gold”, except for a URL of a BBC website. I therefore wrote on “Going for Gold”:

    It appears as if the problem of getting my above message through (of course, it was only meant to be one message) may perhaps have been that some mechanism is censoring reference to the BBC News website – I don’t know.

    That is the only suggestion I made of the POSSIBILITY that there might be some censoring process totally external to yourself – a little reminscent of the mouth gag you have painted onto your own photo.

    Do you then think it is reasonable to write “the insinuation that I censor you specifically is ignorant, to say the least. You could educate yourself about how WordPress and its spam plugins BadBehavior and Akismet work before lobbing stupid insinuations like this.”

    After all, you, with all the knowledge of WordPress, BadBehavior and Akismet that you seem to think we should all have, said “I have no idea what’s happening there.”

    I would be grateful if you could cut out the extra copies of my comment, to just leave it there once as intended. It is a fact you admitted yourself in post 25 that your website has been behaving in a way you don’t understand.

    I do not deserve your accusations of lobbying stupid insinuations, because I never made any. I have tried to be polite, and if I multiple posted, it was only because my post never appeared.

  30. Joel Portman says:

    Mahmood
    Our posts have crossed of course – I didn’t see your last one before posting my last one. I should point out that I could not submit the BBC News URL as a single comment on its own – certainly breaking no “max number of URLs” limit.

    Perhaps you might consider withdrawing your accusation of “stupid insinuations” – or point out where you think I made them.

    Joel

  31. mahmood says:

    Ok, wrong side of the bed. I need more time to look into this which is in rather short supply at the moment.

  32. Joel Portman says:

    That’s quite all right Mahmood. I know it is not personal. I know you are just as likely to call Jasra Jedi ignorant, stupid and needing to educate herself the next time she doesn’t say anything stupid 🙂

  33. mahmood says:

    Well, in all honesty Joel, and please do not take this personally, I know JJ personally and can tell you that she does not have an ulterior motive, something that I am unsure of in your case. You appear only when there is an issue we are discussing about Israel…

  34. Joel Portman says:

    But Mahmood, though I comment little, I do read your Blog, for its wittiness and its opening up to me a world I knew little about. I came to the defence of Israel when you specifically challenged someone to convince you that Zionism isn’t racism. The motive was not ‘ulterior’ – it was completely up-front, and I can assure you it was completely under amateur rules. I have never been employed by, belonged to, or been a spokesman for any Zionist organisation.

    Let’s finish this conversation as friends. We don’t need to keep defending ourselves. God willing one day you may know me personally too, as you know JJ. You will know then that I have many other attributes and interests, and hopefully I will be less likely to be on the receiving end when you have a bad night’s sleep

    Best regards

    Joel

  35. mahmood says:

    Amen…

    and good night! :biggrin:

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