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Discussion panel at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars

Had an excellent panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars and met with Dr. Haleh Esfandari (who was imprisoned for 8 months in Iran recently – 4 of which were in house arrest in Tehran) who chaired the session with Dr. Dr. Cheryl Benard of the RAND Corporation. With me on the panel were Najdat Anzour, the Syrian filmmaker; Honey Al-Sayed, presenter of the popular “Good morning Syria” show on Al-Madina FM; Ziad Mosehni of Tolo TV in Afghanistan; Senad Pecanin the founder and editor of Dani Magazine in Bosnia and Riad Kahwaji of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis based in the UAE.

It was a lively discussion where every one of us briefly talking about our experiences and then fielded questions from the attendants. I concentrated on the ‘Just Bahraini’ campaign, its history and my future plans for it as well as general discussion of personal and press freedoms in the Middle East.

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Washington DC here I come!

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I’m honoured to announce that I shall one of the speakers at a RAND Corporation conference, this time in Washington, DC:

Creative Use of the Media II: Washington, DC
February 28th, 2008
Location: The RAND Corporation

I’ll be staying for a few extra days in the area and will enjoy the sights and sounds of Washington, DC and hopefully New York City too.

Any pointers on what I should do and what to see will be appreciated.

I hope to connect with some friends there (BonsaiMark, Desert Island Boy, Silly Bahraini Girl – if they’re not too far away – and Steve all of whom are hopefully listening!), so if you’re in the area let me know. And Steve, I’ll be completely un-armed. I promise!

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The RAND Conference, wrap-up

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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Speaking at the Rand Doha Conference

I’ll be speaking at the forthcoming Rand Doha Conference:

RAND logoRAND is proud to announce it will be holding a conference in Doha, Qatar from 15-16 March on the subject Creative Use of the Media to Foster Understanding and Tolerance. The conference will bring together regional analysts, public diplomacy and information operations experts, and the initiators of popular, cutting edge media programs in the region.

We would like you to formally invite you be a featured speaker on the first day of our conference where we hope to highlight innovative media programs in the Middle East that we hope will offer a range of perspectives. We were hoping that you would speak about your experiences as a blogger, specifically your recent issues with authorities.

This should be a very interesting conference with an excellent list of invited speakers from around the world. I’ll blog the conference and put up my slides and notes when I return.

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