Local and foreign observers across the MENA region are inconsensus that the region lacks a key ingredient to anythriving democracy: a pool of professional journalists. Thishas created a drought of oversight and accountability.
While the problem is known, there is hardly any evidenceit is being addressed. Even the institutions that one wouldturn to first, the region’s universities, have failed intheir task. The lack of journalistic standards in the regionhas allowed those universities and colleges that do offer adegree in journalism—which are few and far in between—tograduate students with little practical know how and writingskills based on the standards used in the developed world.
Whether the education was Arabic, English or French, theacademic training afforded to journalism students does notcome close to being equal to the education and trainingavailable in more developed countries, which means that mostof these colleges graduate wannabe journalists.
Governments of the region are keen to maintain theirofficial news agencies, and some of these agencies havestaff sizes rivaling those of international wire services.However, the state influence over the media has been drivenby a desire to control and is a huge obstacle to thedevelopment of journalism as democratic regulative or fourthestate. The dominant culture of unquestioning submission tothe state and any kind of institutional authorityexacerbates the problem. From Lebanon to Sudan, politicalaccountability and scrutiny is nil in the region.
In most countries, governments have either neglected ordeliberately avoided creating training programs to improvethe ability of Middle Eastern and North African journaliststo report effectively about politics, business and economicsand increase understanding among Arab populations of theseissues. Press associations and journalist unions also havenot delivered impulses that would stimulate the creation ofa press corps deserving of the name.
Finally, by not doing enough to nurture young journalistsand reward them for thorough inquisitive reporting anddisclosure of political, social, or corporate wrongdoings,media owners and publishing companies share part of theblame for the absence of a professional press corps. Thus,today very few journalists take a serious stand on issuesrelated to the welfare of the public and maybe one in athousand journalists makes an attempt to hold governments orgovernment officials accountable for their misdoings.
A good number of the region’s journalists find it hard toseparate being responsive from caving, being accountablefrom being a tool, being sensitive from being weak.Journalists are meant to be, by definition, eager forinvestigations of government misconduct. That is supposed tobe their purpose, embedded in their DNA.
A recent study conducted by the Amman-based Higher MediaCouncil (HMC) on the training requirements for members ofthe media showed that journalists lacked the most basicskills of the craft, including proper training for writingand editing skills, use of languages, computers and theInternet.
The study revealed that 35% of media practitioners havenever been involved in any training courses, while only22.7% of those working in the sector have a degree injournalism. Most writers have less than 10 years ofexperience.
In recent years, media institutions like Al Jazeera andinternational news organizations like Reuters, as well asNGOs such as the International Journalism Institute havemade efforts to offer workshops and training programs forpractitioners of journalism in the Middle East. Journalismprograms at some universities receive token support from theUN or have linked up with international programs. But goodas they may be, these efforts are not enough to create apool of journalists who are ready and primed to tackle thebig issues facing the region’s countries.
To start doing this, the Middle East needs a trainingenvironment where centers in all major cities provide thosewho want a career in journalism the understanding of therequired knowledge and skills. This training environmentwill only succeed if it is centered on building journalisticskills that are rooted in practice and suited to addressingthe challenges which working writers face daily in theirwork. It must also empower journalists in building a newjournalistic culture that serves the larger needs of theMENA region.
It is now more than ever that we need new writers, editorsand readers to step forward and speak up. Journalism in theMENA region is calling and good journalists to representpeople who do not have a voice in society. The press mustgive voice not only to those in power, but also to those whoare not being heard.
We need more active inclusion of journalists in continuousmonitoring of governments work, further understanding offree access to information and conflict of interest conceptsand better integration of legal frameworks in journalisticpractice. If we are able to achieve this in the MENA regionthen there is a chance that the media can be triumphant.
Fadi Chahine is the Managing Editor of Zawya Dow Jones in Beirut.