The University of Tennessee School of Journalism and Electronic Media will be working with journalism scholars at three Middle Eastern universities in an effort to improve the quality of the media in their countries as well as to create a partnership of cultural understanding between the academic communities.
Adel Ziadet, from Yarmouk University in Jordan, and Abdulmalek Al Danani, from Sana’a University in Yemen, spoke with journalism faculty and students, toured campus and local newsrooms and gave a public address Friday morning as part of their two-week visit in Knoxville.
“We are here on a mission to gain an American experience concerning the communication education,” Ziadet said in an interview last Tuesday. “We hope to take some of their experience, some of their curriculum with modification to suit our students and values in Jordan.”
The Middle Eastern universities aligned with UT as part of a U.S. State Department program to foster more government transparency in the Middle East through responsible journalism. Working with university students, media practices can be reformed so as to challenge the government’s control of the media that is nearly the norm in the Middle East.
“The general theory is that we begin with journalism educators and then in turn train future journalism professionals, and that is the way journalism may be changed,” Sam Swan, UT professor of journalism and electronic media, said last week. Swan was awarded the $1.2 million contract to guide the project and the relationships between the universities.
While the media’s goal of promoting free access to information is the same everywhere, the challenges Middle Eastern media face are many, including the nature of the media’s structure itself. The dominant media in the Middle East are often government-owned, whereas 90 percent of American media are privately operated.
“They’re advertising-driven. They’re revenue-driven. They have to generate revenue from advertising to survive,” Swan said.
Though private newspapers have emerged in Yemen and may soon in Jordan, radio and television — the more popular media in the Arab world — are still government-controlled in both countries, Swan said.
In Jordan, for instance, 11 privately licensed radio stations supplement the one government-operated station, but all 11 are licensed to only feature music, Ziadet said during Friday’s presentation.
Middle Eastern media that is free from the government may not be entirely independent. Of the more than 200 media outlets catalogued by the Minister of Information in Yemen, 83 are affiliated with groups or organizations.
The growth of the Yemeni media since the country’s reunification in 1990 is a sign of progress, Al Danani said, speaking in Arabic through a State Department translator Friday.
Prior to the unification, all media were government-controlled. Currently, Yemen offers a variety of newspapers with a mix of government-owned and independent newspapers.
Twenty-five political parties, each with its own newspaper, are among the sources of information available to the Yemeni public, Al Danani, who likens Yemeni media to media in other developing countries, said in an interview last Wednesday.
Though such newspapers offer alternatives to information published in government-owned media, the phenomenon of newspapers affiliated with political parties may not guarantee unbiased reporting, Swan said.
“We teach that journalism should be balanced and fair,” Swan said. “Reporting should be completely separate from the op-ed page.”
Media in Jordan and Yemen end up balancing freedoms granted to them with a generally restricted environment, but conditions have improved significantly within the past 15 years, Ziadet said.
The Jordanian press law of 1993 granted freedom to the press and allowed for government rulings against the press to be appealed, overturning the more restrictive press law of 1973, which made no mention of freedom of the press, Ziadet explained.
This creates an environment where the Jordanian press can criticize senior government officials, but where the government has the right to ban foreign media and requires the equivalent of nearly $650,000 in Jordanian dinars to get a license, Ziadet added.
This media environment ranks Jordanian press freedom 96 out of 167 internationally, according to Reporters Without Borders.
A similar environment where promises of a free media co-exist with a reality of restraints lives in Yemen.
The Yemeni press law of 1990 grants freedom to the press.
“Very courageously we started to go down the path of constructive criticism of the government,” Al Danani said, speaking of journalism in post-1990 unified Yemen.
Yet, a Yemeni editor internationally recognized for his reporting on corruption faced imprisonment in his country, he said.
Media in the Middle East is often held back by what Ziadet termed the “personification” of the news. The news may follow the leader’s movements, discussing where he visits, with whom he meets and how he travels.
“The news here does not follow the person. It follows the event itself and how it is going to affect the society,” Ziadet said of American media.
Al Danani, on the other hand, draws a distinction between how private media and government-owned media cover the news citing Al Jazeera as an example of Middle Eastern media that tackles the news professionally.
“They report on the news and the reaction of the Arab people to the news,” Al Danani said.
According to Ziadet, however, even Al Jazeera does not always follow the news as it doesn’t criticize the government of Qatar, where it is headquartered.
The program that brought Ziadet and Al Danani to UT — funded through the International Research and Exchange Board — was planned to additionally include an Iraqi journalism scholar, from Baghdad University, who was unable to make the trip.
Swan, who has worked on a hundred similar projects in over 40 countries in the past 10 years, said he hoped the UT community could learn about the “culture, perceptions and realities” of Jordan and Yemen from Ziadet and Al Danani’s visit in addition to offering insights into journalism curricula that may be applied at their universities in the future.
“All we can do is to expose them to a lot of different ideas, approaches,” Swan said. “They have to see what works for them.”