Participants exchanged views on the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, difficulties in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of social media in news reporting.
The annual seminar brought together diplomats, senior UN officials, journalists, bloggers, activists, film-makers, academics, experts and policymakers from around the world to discuss the evolving media dynamics in the region. Professors and students from Astana’s Nazarbayev University, the Gumilev Eurasian National University and KAZGUU University also attended the gathering.
The UN delegation was led by Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information Cristina Gallach. At the opening ceremony, she delivered a message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“I am pleased to convey my greetings to all those taking part in this United Nations International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East. I am grateful to the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan for hosting this event.For nearly a quarter of a century, this annual Seminar has served as an important opportunity to enhance dialogue and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. In parallel, it has provided an opportunity to review and examine key media dynamics as they relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider, ever-evolving situation in the Middle East,” Ban’s message said.
“The UN system will spare no effort in supporting the quest for peace. The occupation that started in 1967 must end. But this can only happen through a negotiated solution. I have repeatedly called on all parties to resume peace talks and fulfil the aspirations of their people – the aspirations of Palestinians for an independent, sovereign and viable state and the aspirations of Israelis to live in a secure and safe state,” it continued.
In her welcoming speech, Vice-Speaker of the Kazakhstan Mazhilis Dariga Nazarbayeva said that there has been increased violence against the media lately. She used the “barbaric” executions of journalists in Syria, as well as problems faced by reporters in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and along the Palestinian-Israeli border as examples. Even at home, journalists are at risk, as seen in the tragic shootings of staff at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
“Media revolutions have changed our world,” she said, with events in the Middle East and Ukraine serving as examples of how social networks influence societies. Terrorist groups also organise their activities through Internet communities and social networks, transforming the web into a weapon.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Erlan Idrissov noted that Kazakhstan understands that the Middle East is experiencing some of the world’s most pressing crises and is watching them closely. At the same time, the mood regarding the Palestinian situation is changing, with growing recognition of a Palestinian state among European nations.
“We believe this is a move in the right direction and we are working for a peaceful end to this longstanding issue,” he said.
The two-day seminar featured five panel discussions with journalists who had been on the frontlines of political and social events important enough to change the tide in favour of either war or peace. Throughout, journalists spoke of their challenges in reporting on the complex Palestinian experience which is characterised by war amid regular and often severe restrictions on the media. At points, they described how language and terminology were instrumental in framing reader opinions.
The journalists, who had worked at the epicentre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, showed the audience many photo and video reports that depict war, chaos, human blood, fire and bombings.
“Less and less people are taking part in real journalism. Today, there are many commentators who had never been inside of a war zone,” prominent Israeli broadcast journalist Itai Anghel said.
In talking about the risks journalists face while covering military action, representative of the UNESCO Division for Freedom of Expression Saorla McCabe told that her organisation works to protect journalists in the Gaza Strip. In her presentation, she discussed the UN’s plan for journalist safety and issues of impunity, which was endorsed by the UN Chief Executive’s Board in April 2012.
This plan was written to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media employees, both in and out of conflict zones and pays special attention to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide. Its measures include, among other things, the establishment of a coordinated inter-agency mechanism to handle issues related to the safety of journalists as well as assisting countries in developing legislation and mechanisms favourable to freedom of expression and information and supporting their efforts to implement existing international rules and principles.
During the seminar, the Oscar nominated Palestinian drama film Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad was shown for the first time in Kazakhstan. It was screened at a special UN section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury’s Prize. The audience was very impressed with the film and gave it strong praise.
“The power of images, illustrations, video and photography has been rapidly proliferating. A study of news consumption in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE found that 75 percent of those surveyed said they are more likely to access a news story if it is accompanied by video, 83 percent said it improves their understanding of the story,” Chairman of the Committee for International Information of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko said as he explained the challenges all actors are facing in the new age of digital media. “This has become an overlapping world of journalism, communications, and activism. Social media platforms have given voice to many individuals who have the opportunity to break news in real time. Social media played a high-profile role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. Trust in social media as a news source is growing fast for the youth in the Middle East. Should this trend continue, social media may become a more trustworthy source of news than television by next year.”
“While creative and social media can lead to positive impact and influence, these can be hijacked and abused by extremists, such as the so-called Islamic State. Their brutal videos and messages were shared via social media and spread around the world via digital and regular news media. This is a gruesome reminder of the power of social media and the need to control messages using these new channels,” he said.
“Governments could substantially increase their efforts to engage with citizens through emerging social channels like Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, as well as the more established channels. For example, the UAE government in 2014 launched a unified Instagram account promising behind-the-scenes footage of government work, including ‘on-the-spot information’ from Cabinet meetings. And I would like to express our intentions to utilise emerging social media to engage with people in the Middle East and build closer cultural ties with that region,” Vassilenko added.