14 November 2010
The media and inter-cultural dialogue
“Rebel rousers or mediator? The role of the media in inter-cultural dialogue” was the intriguing title of a recent media policy discussion session organised in Cairo by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNFL). The discussion followed on past discussions with German political foundations in Egypt, which had initiated long-standing debates on the inter-cultural exchange of information. Erik Bettermann, director-general of Deutsche Welle (DW), participated in the session. DW is Germany’s international broadcaster online, on-screen and over the air. It provides a European perspective to audiences around the world and promotes intercultural dialogue.
Taking part in the session were Egyptian writer and novelist Youssef al-Qaeed, rights activist and editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al-Democratiya Hala Mustafa, and the media expert Hussein Abdel-Ghani. Germany’s Ambassador to Cairo Michael Bock attended.
Point of contention
FNFL has been present in Egypt since the 1970s, for many years partnering with the Egyptian Radio and Television Union and the National Youth Council to help promote civic education among Egyptian youth and raise political awareness and participation.
The recent session focused on three major topics: the role of the media in advocating dialogue between civilisations; who determines the mission of the media; and how can the media promote dialogue.
Despite the modern technology of today, Ms Mustafa said, several issues stood in the way of bridging the gap between the Arab World and the West. The definition of freedom was a major point of contention between the Arabs and the West, she explained. Arabs saw freedom as social justice or equality, whereas the West took it to a much broader outline. The difference, she said, best revealed itself in the Danish cartoon incident, when Arabs saw the cartoons as unacceptably disdainful of the Prophet Mohamed while Westerners saw it as an instance of freedom of expression.
Neither the pluralism in the Arab World nor the highly developed media have managed to overcome the traditional, conservative political Arab thought, Ms Mustafa noted. According to her, the Arab inability to come to terms with modern conceptual thinking left Arabs on the margin of modern civilisation. This resulted in a conflict of identity, so they chose to identify themselves through their religion. Consequently, she said, most of what the West reads or sees through the Arab media reflects a violent culture. “We need more democracy in order to allow space for different viewpoints to flourish,” she said.
No monolithic bloc
“We have to differentiate between the elite and the public, Mr al-Qaeed began. “The public does not care for what the elite cares for.” The media affected the elite alone; members of the public, Mr Qaeed said, only listened to the Qur’an or religious channels, or watched soap operas. They read almost nothing at all. Mr Qaeed described the public as “worn out”; they had lost hope in earth and fellow humans, so they put their faith in God—the Muslim God, naturally. Westerners were just crusaders who wanted to defeat the Arabs. Mr Qaeed is not optimistic about bridging the gap between Arabs and the West any time soon. As long as Arabs receive aid from the West there can be no dialogue between them. “If we are for meaningful dialogue, both parties have to be on equal footing, and each has to be ready to speak the other’s language,” he concluded.
For his part, Mr Bettermann opened fire on the media. “The ‘media’ today is no longer the media as we knew it,” he said. “Today anyone can write anything and in less than 10 minutes it will become a public opinion issue. People with special or hidden interests exploit this to their benefit. The real danger is that the initiator of such issues can very seldom be tracked down.” He said the media could be a means of bringing civilisations closer; there were sufficient similarities between the West and the Arab World, but we could only discover them through a proper, responsible media.
Mr Bettermann refused to comment on the concept of the so-called new Western ‘colonialism’ or domination. In the first place, he renounced the use of the term ‘West’ to mean a specific trend of thought, explaining that Europe and the United States were home to various currents and were not a mere monolithic bloc called the ‘West’. “You cannot collectively brand us as the ‘West’,” he said. “We have many cultural and historical differences, just the same as we cannot label you collectively as ‘Arabs’, considering the cultural and historical differences that separate you.”
“The whole issue is a misunderstanding, and both the Western and the Arab media are responsible for widening the chasm between the Arab World and the West, Mr Abdel-Ghani said. “The media on both sides insists on propagating unsubstantiated stereotypes of the other.”
Mr Abdel-Ghani suggested that objectivity on all sides would go a long way towards nurturing understanding. The West and the Arabs, he said, should give up the double standards they apply when dealing with the other. “Terrorism by Muslims in the West should stop and, in Egypt, we have to overcome religious discrimination, including the utter difficulty imposed on the building of churches,” he said.
While Erik Bettermann was in Cairo he signed an agreement with Cairo University allowing all students to participate in joint DW/Cairo University events. The agreement is an extension of another which was signed in 2007 between DW and Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Media. Owing to high demand, joint cultural activities are now open to all students.
“Even though Egypt has come a long way when it comes to journalism, especially compared with other countries in the region, there is always place for improvement” Mr Bettermann told Watani.
He said the purpose of the DW-Cairo University partnership was to afford students more information on different cultures and train them to be competent journalists. “A good journalist,” he said, “is like a tour guide: he has to introduce his audience properly to other cultures. This can only come through good education and openness.”