The Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) organized on Thursday, January 14, 2021, a professional debate entitled “Media in the Time of the Coronavirus Pandemic: Checks and Balances”, as one of the activities accompanying the fortieth session of ASBU’s General Assembly (January 13-14). Experts and professors specializing in crisis media took part in the dialogue that dealt with the responsibility of the media in the time of Corona and the efforts made by the Arab media in covering the epidemic, with the limits to media freedom in times of crisis.
The debate, hosted by the Tunisian journalist Youssef Oueslati, was characterized in particular by the great participation turnout, both in presentations and discussion by many professionals in the member corporations, as well as Arab and foreign experts and media specialists from several Arab and international capitals and cities.
The dialogue started with a brief presentation by Dr. Najeh Al-Misawi, a Tunisian journalist, on the outputs of an ASBU-commissioned study on "Arab Media Efforts in Dealing with the Coronavirus Pandemic". It resulted from a questionnaire sent to Arab radio and television corporations about their experience in dealing with the pandemic and covering its news, More than 30 corporations answered it. This study confirmed much data, including:
• member corporations have demonstrated high professionalism in dealing with the Corona pandemic crisis, readiness and ability to adapt quickly and produce innovative content,
• The trend towards changing work patterns by adopting a remote work system, even partially, with good management of human resources whose number decreased due to the confinement,
• The pandemic caused some kind of confusion in the work of the press, technical and administrative crews, thus impairing the production of content to focus on awareness,
• The need to establish crisis cells within the media institutions to confront emergency events and emerging crises,
• Intensifying training courses at the Media Training Academy for the benefit of corporation employees in various fields of journalism, technology and administration, especially in the field of verifying fake news, specialized media, new media, and dealing with health crises,
• A proposal for ASBU to implement a comprehensive application that provides a number of interactive and production icons that can be used immediately and quickly among member corporations.
The debate examined the responsibility of the media in times of crisis, and the extent of their success in securing the two missions of information and awareness-raising. It was an opportunity to learn about the organizational models and procedural guidelines adopted by radio and television stations to produce content that guarantees accuracy and timeliness and takes into account the sanctity of the human person. Most of the interveners agreed that this task was difficult and arduous in light of the increasing power of social networks, which, in light of any shortcoming of the traditional media, could turn into a major maker of media content and monopolize public opinion to form its awareness, based on rumors, myth, and fake news.
The debate focused in particular on a discussion of two main axes:
• Media Responsibility in Times of Crisis: Informing and Awareness, based on two presentations made by Dr. Mirna Abu Zeid, a professor at the Faculty of Mass Communications at the Lebanese University, and Professor Milica Pesic, Executive Director of the Media Diversity Institute in the United Kingdom. It allowed a comparison of one Arab experience and another Western in dealing with the pandemic and its consequences, especially at the level of radio and television channels,
• The limits of media freedom in times of crisis: a threat or a necessity? Indeed, the whole world has witnessed some kind of restriction of public and individual freedoms, including bans on travel, movement, and gatherings. PCR analyzes were imposed and lockdowns and curfews were declared. Obviously, this restriction on the media is reflected in the context of restricting the freedom of movement of journalists and reducing the margin of field work dynamics.
Two Arab experts made presentations to the axis, the first was Dr. Ali Al-Buraihi, a professor of media and communication sciences in Yemen. He spoke about the Arab interaction in general with the restrictions and limits imposed by the Corona pandemic on the freedom of media work at a time when the available human, technical and professional resources have declined and their focus on covering the epidemic overshadowed other, no less important, issues.
The second speaker was Dr. Nasser Shroff, who works as head of the Middle East department at the German DW Foundation. He talked about the experience of his corporation and the new difficulties in carrying out its information and awareness work during a full year of pressures.
The discussions were almost unanimous that the Covid-19 crisis imposed an unprecedented pattern and modus operandi on the media, resulting in changes in the pattern of production and newsroom activity. Several media outlets have modified their editorial line, providing news of the epidemic prior and with more focus to news on politics, sports and society. The imposed confinement, the application of the health protocol, the resort to work in rotation and remotely, and the decrease in the number of press and technical staff, led to more reliance on official sources and made public radio and television channels a news source of greater importance than they were before the pandemic.