90 minutes, lots of talk from opinionated people, and no conclusion. Does that sound like the Arab League or the UN or any other gathering fueled by world media…
What I liked about it is that no matter what these people do, and no matter how much they attack blogs and bloggers, they will come to the eventual realisation that blogging is here to stay. It has ceased to be a phenomenon a long time ago, but they are still holding on to that dream of the “big red switch”.
Well, let them dream, the Internet and the free and easy availability of blogging platforms has unleashed the Arab imagination and capability to criticise their governments and write about things they are passionate about.
I loved what the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in the UAE, Dr. Anwar Gergash said in response to a question by the moderator which he laid out how blogs should be regarded as far as laws are concerned and that is the traditional press should use the strictest rules of journalistic ethics, a little bit more leeway should be given to TV and radio, while blogs should be the least controlled, and their owners most certainly should not be chased with libel lawsuits.
Why? He explained that theory specifically well which demonstrates his deep understanding of new media in general and his preparedness to accept criticism. He said that there should be a separation between news and opinions; news must be reported with full journalist ethics as the cascading effects of reporting incorrect news might have some adverse reactions; while in the case of opinions and comments, those should be regarded as the essence of freedom of expression and their instigators should be left alone. I suspect he also holds the opinion that if someone takes umbrage with those opinions, then they should be resolved by posting a response to that opinion or comment, or even creating a blog and posting their competing thoughts on that.
Dr. Gergash says that he follows blogs as he gets the raw information from them, rather than the editor doctored content from the traditional main stream media. He says that if there are 4 television stations in a country and maybe 30 newspapers, there are more than 500 blogs in that country possibly and if those 500 bloggers are talking about a unique particular subject then that has weight and indicates the unadulterated feeling on the street. Something that you cannot get from traditional media.
This is what I call a responsible way of thinking of things. Blogs are as varied as those people writing in them and it is impossible to hold them to a code of ethics should they choose to ignore that, and more importantly, as most blogs are opinions of individuals they should be respected as such and left alone.
Lawrence Pintak (director, Adham Centre for Television Journalism, American University of Cairo) goes a bit further; he asserts that in the US specifically if a person chooses to be in a public persona, be that an entertainer or the president of the United States, the ability of the people to criticise them – in person and/or the position they hold – becomes a free for all, in law! The burden of proof then shift to that public persona to prove malicious intent on the part of the critic rather than the other way around. The situation changes completely when one unfairly libels his neighbour for instance, then that neighbour could take his critic to court and thence to the cleaners.
Obviously what we have in our little world is the complete opposite; once a person gains the status of public persona, a further status of inviolate demigod is also bestowed upon him or her. In fact, if a person holds any position in government, be that a janitor or a clerk, one – taking the Penal Code and the Press and Publications Law of 2002 into consideration – one should be very careful and research that person’s familial and tribal affiliation before daring to criticise! Even if that person can claim that he played marbles with the son of the 2nd cousin of the divorced wife of the middle manager whose father once helped change the punctured tyre of a dead minister’s blind uncle – once removed – is a dangerous enterprise and would ensure that the law when applied to you will be double as that would be through the “extraneous circumstances”!
Another person who not only demonstrated that he and his organisation understood the emerging power of bloggers, but also is actively trying to harness that power is Major Gen. William Caldwell, (Spokesperson, Multinational Force in Iraq) who says that a year ago they have one person following blogs, 6 months ago they had 4 (if I remember correctly) and now not only do they have people following what is written in blogs, but they have weekly conference calls with bloggers in order to apprise them of operations and field information of the front! Smart, very smart. I hope that others in our area will emulate this pattern.
The whole session took a life of its own with blogs and blogging ethics taking centre stage. Which I personally think is unfortunate as the published topic of the session I think is much more important and should be investigated more fully without this distraction of non-bloggers issuing fatwas on the dos and don’ts of blogging.
I was particularly dismayed by how Abdellatif Al-Menawy, (head of news, ERTU) has hijacked the session, doing an Ameen Omar on us. The guy was talking like a machine-gun going at the highest setting not even stopping for breath once in a while defending the great Egyptian government and condoning the authorities reaction to “wayward” bloggers. He suggested that there never was any harassment of women in the streets of Cairo and it was a bloggers’ conspiracy which exploded the issue needlessly! He waxed lyrical on how great the system was and bloggers should be (and I paraphrase) hung, or at least have their opinions disregarded and never used as sources.
He was seconded by a blond Egyptian bimbo in the audience who went a few steps more in categorising bloggers basically as vermin (my feeling, not her words.)
I personally don’t know why I was included in this panel. I was the only blogger in there (as far as I can tell) who was not asked about what I think blogging is and who the typical bloggers are, but was set there – I think – to be lynched as the “irresponsible blogger” who published an unsubstantiated deposit slip, forgetting that I took pains to indicate that I wanted it authenticated and I took it upon myself to investigated by calling the receiving bank and then publishing the findings and offering and apology. And of course forgetting that that particular slip was heavily distributed through chain-mails.
No matter, at least it brings these issues to the fore, and I am thrilled to hear government decision makers like Dr. Gergash and Major Gen. Caldwell now “clicking on”, so there is hope that other high-ranking officials in this region’s governments would do so too.
As you can tell, the session could have been managed a bit better, though Husam did try and I empathise with him, but people were just wanting to hear themselves talk and argue; it is their moment of being in a historic multicast and didn’t want to give that chance up.
Conclusions? None really, the basic discussion of The Battle for Democracy in the Arab World should have been the central theme and although it was touched upon, it most certainly was not the main theme of the session. My suggestion for future sessions is to have less people on the panel, be more methodical in asking questions and directing and redirecting errant observations back to the central theme.
Still, I enjoyed the experience tremendously. This is a first for me and I look forward to doing more, it’s a lot of fun!
Now I’ll go have another coffee and wait for the delayed Gulf Air flight to take me back home. Thank goodness that tomorrow is yet another holiday in Bahrain, I can sleep in a bit!