Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June-July 2012, Pages 55-56

Arab-American Activism

NAAP-DC and PITAPOLICY Host Panel On Media Freedom

Photo Courtesy Ridah Sabouni(L-r) Mehrunisa Qayyum, Omid Memarian, Hanan Elbadry, Fahd Banhawy and Danah Abdullah. (Photo Courtesy Ridah Sabouni)

"Journalists have been successful in changing the state's narrative," opined Omid Memarian of the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency at an April 9 panel on "Media Freedom" held at the K Street Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC. Journalists and bloggers of Middle Eastern-American descent participated in a lively panel convened by PITAPOLICY Consulting and the Network of Arab American Professionals, Washington, DC Chapter (NAAP-DC). "Media Freedom" was the second discussion forum in the "Media on MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Series."

That series is an effort to foster knowledge-sharing between experienced journalists of Middle Eastern descent and young professionals interested in the media profession. Panelists representing print, broadcast and online media included Danah Abdullah, editor/founder of Kalimat Magazine; Fahd Banhawy, American Press and TV Service; Hanan Elbadry, U.S. bureau chief for the Satellite TV Company Cairo News; and IPS' Memarian. This reporter served as the moderator.

Since World Press Freedom Day is celebrated every May 3, panelists discussed how media freedom varies across the Middle East and North Africa as a result of political culture; the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and watchdog agencies; types of media outlets; and who finances and shares media ownership.

Elbadry described how she has worked in all facets of the media, from print to broadcast. Observing that the media industry continues to evolve in the 21st century, she cited examples of how post-Mubarak journalists in Egypt continue to face self-censorship issues.

According to Memarian, who is based in the U.S., more than "150 journalists in Iran have left" the country due to state censorship. Describing his own 2003 interrogation by Iranian authorities, Memarian recalled that he was asked why his writing appeared on another Web site over which he had no control. "They [security officers] did not understand the concept of 'linking' on sites," he said.

Banhawy discussed the range of skills needed to engage with MENA audiences. His Arabic video clips demonstrated what a broadcaster—unlike a print journalist—must be prepared to address in an impromptu fashion.

Kalimat magazine, a quarterly magazine launched in 2011, released its first English-language print version in April, despite the cost and distribution challenges facing print publications. Abdullah explained why launching an English- language publication is necessary, saying that more and more Arab Americans consume print media. Kalimat magazine invites writers from the Arab Diaspora to participate as a voice, rather than as subject matter.

The panelists welcomed questions from the young professionals looking to pursue a journalism career during a politically dynamic time like the Arab Awakening. They also responded to such Tweeted questions as "how does one balance journalism with activism?" or asking "how to spread a culture of ethics in new media" that traverses the borders of the MENA region. Journalist Noreen Nasir tweeted: "At what point does it move from fight for free speech to completely shifting culture of journalism in country?"

Members of the Arab American Institute who attended the event helped generate a parallel discussion with Omar Baddar's AAI blog piece: "Media Freedom in the Middle East," which highlighted how media freedom is a challenge experienced by American-based journalists as well.

The Busboys venue was selected as part of NAAP-DC's goal to patronize Arab-American owned businesses as well as facilitate a dialogue in the activist community. Stay tuned for Part III of Media on MENA in the Fall—topic suggestions welcome!

Mehrunisa Qayyum