Arab reporters meet in Jordan to exchange expertise and to discuss professionalism in the journalistic coverage of elections

Reporters from Tunis, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan have met in Amman at a debate forum to exchange their experience and identify measures to improve their work during electoral processes. The forum is part of the Media and Elections Project, implemented by UNESCO Amman Office throughout 2013 and funded by the European Union.

"This is a unique event, as for the first time in Jordan reporters from diverse backgrounds and with variable media expertise, openly discuss a very specific aspect of media coverage, which is related directly to elections; a novel journalistic reporting topic which has gained considerable weight recently in light of political reform scenarios that spread across the region for the past few years”, commented Rut G. Sobrino, Project Manager of the Media and Elections Project at UNESCO Amman. While the two-day forum stands as one of the last activities marking the end of the Project, at the opening session Ms Patricia Pennetier, from the EU Delegation to Jordan, announced the EU’s continuous support to media through its partnership with UNESCO through a new project planned to kick off in 2014.

The first presentation was led by Ms. Sanam Shantyaei, from France 24, a journalist who covered electoral processes in a number of countries, including Iran. She shared with the participants a useful formula for successfully covering elections. This formula combines the profiles of the candidates, the campaigning, the mood of the society, the features ahead of elections, coverage during the election day, and the final results. In her interesting lecture, she addressed the role of professional journalism during elections and emphasized the need to inform the public about the backgrounds of candidates while at the same time capturing the existing society momentum, which in turn demonstrates the implications that one party or another has on the people.

Journalism in times of transformation

The role of professional media was also highlighted by Mr Ayman Ayoub, Director for North Africa region at IDEA Institute. According to him, some of the challenges that journalists face during electoral processes are violence, ill treatment of minorities, lack of women participation and observation of monitoring missions. Working in journalism entails all of the above; therefore the responsibility of journalists takes a new dimension in the current momentum that the region is undergoing. Mr Ayoub also mentioned the cancellation of Bassem Youssef programme in Egyptian TV. "I am afraid that we are facing a state of silencing media criticism," he said.

The presentation of the Egypt case was preceded by high expectations from the audience explained by the country’s role in the Arab region. Ms Mai Shams, an Egyptian journalist formerly working for BBC, mentioned major challenges of journalists covering elections in her country, mainly lack of the culture associated to election polling. For the coming 2014 elections "I do not envision any changes for the better in relation to the professional coverage of elections in Egypt because we have to reconsider the way we, the journalists, report in general," she said.

Jordan and the Parliamentary and municipal elections that took place in 2013 were also discussed in the forum. Mr Daoud Kuttab, Director of Community Media Network, shared his views on the coverage of recent elections in the country and mentioned the need to continue working to improve the quality of Journalism in Jordan.

Though the landscapes presented in the first day of the forum were highly varied, all presenters emphasized the common challenges they face when covering elections in order to define overall measures to facilitate their work and to improve its quality. "There are violations in the electoral systems happening all over the world and it is the responsibility of the journalist to report on those," commented Mr Mohammed Hassan, based in Ramallah and part of the Thomson Reuters team.

Covering elections in fragmented contexts

The second day of the forum, the cases of Lebanon, Iraq and Tunis, were addressed. Raghida Bahnam, from Al Arabiya channel, and based in Dubai, compared her various experiences covering elections in the United States, United Kingdom and Lebanon and underlined the right to access information as the key difference between countries, when comparing Journalism in different contexts. "My experience in Lebanon was quite different from the one I had in the UK and in the US; in Lebanon most of the concerns of the society such as the rise in the prices of the electricity bill were not addressed in the campaign and in many cases I could not even contact the candidates," she said.

“There is no democracy if there is no freedom of the media," commented Ms Magda Abu-Fadil, Director of Media Unlimited in Lebanon, "but we also need transparency." Abu-Fadil tackled the relevance of also addressed social media tools developed during the electoral processes and mentioned initiatives such as www.entekhabet.com, a satirist blog about the activities of the electoral campaign where users had the opportunity to interact and share their views.

"In Iraq we envision the same issues that I am hearing here in this forum; despite the huge number of media outlets -168 newspapers and 28 TV stations- there was lack of independence as well as lack of interest and no knowledge about electoral processes in the society as in other neighboring countries. As so, a major role of the media was to increase awareness about the importance of voting", Mr Zuhair El Jezairy commented. Prominent journalist and former Chief Editor of Aswat al Iraq, El Jezairy compared the elections in Iraq in 2005 and in 2009 and described how social fragmentation and conflict affected the process and the media coverage.

Safety of the journalists operating in Iraq was at the core of the presentation of El Jezairy who stated that "Iraq has the highest number of journalists killed, equal to the number of reporters assassinated during the 20 years of the Vietnam war." He brought the room to deep reflection when he told on specific cases of colleagues of him who were killed in Iraq when he was the Chief Editor of Aswat al Iraq (Voices of Iraq), the first independent news agency created in the country.

The forum served as well to present to the participants the Road Map Strategy, the recent research conducted in the framework of the UNESCO Media and Elections Project that includes interviews and questionnaires shared with the Jordanian media community. The document, developed by Albany Associates, partners in the Media and Elections Project, summarizes challenges faced by journalists while covering elections and proposes measures to improve this exercise. Mr Simon Haselock, Senior Associate at Albany shared his experience in elections in a variety of countries, such as Bosnia and Iraq emphasizing the relevance of professional and independent media in countries in transition. "Elections are a component of democratization processes, but not the only one; there is still lack of understanding of the concept of democracy and its implications as well as of the role of media," he assessed.

The Summit was concluded by the presentation of Mr Achref Maktouf, President of the International Center for Democracy and Election Monitoring in Tunis, who gave a clear overview of the media coverage of elections in his country, the first to experienced the so-called Arab Spring phenomenon. As in previous presentations, lack of independence of media covering elections was a major challenge underlined. "In Tunis, public media has been under the control of the Government, something that made possible the imprisonment of journalists when publishing critics related to politics ," he commented.

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