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Northwestern University in Qatar hosts timely media forum

Prominent journalists analyze fake news, social media, blockade crisis in the Arabian Gulf

NU-Q panel
The panel included NU-Q Professor Banu Akdenizli as moderator, Faisal Abdulhameed al-Mudahka, editor-in-chief at the Gulf Times; Vivienne Walt, foreign correspondent for TIME Magazine; and Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed

DOHA, Qatar - Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) hosted a timely media forum this week featuring prominent editors and correspondents analyzing fake news, the impact of social media and the role of global reporting in the current crisis in the Arabian Gulf.

The Qatar Media Industries Forum on Oct. 23 examined “International Media and the Blockade” through the eyes of journalists covering the crisis and underscored NU-Q’s leading role in media research, education and scholarship in the Middle East.

The panel of experts included Faisal Abdulhameed al-Mudahka, editor-in-chief of the Doha-based Gulf Times; Vivienne Walt, Paris-based foreign correspondent for TIME magazine; and Borzou Daragahi, Middle East Correspondent for BuzzFeed News, based in Istanbul. The panel was moderated by Banu Akdenizli, an associate professor of communication at NU-Q.

NU-Q Dean and CEO Everette Dennis introduced the panel and welcomed industry leaders, media, faculty, staff and distinguished guests to the forum in the West Bay section of Doha, including Sheikh Thani bin Hamad al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling royal family and a graduate of NU-Q. A second round of the panel discussion was held later in the day on the NU-Q campus in Education City in Doha.

"This is an interesting case study in how media respond in a crisis,” said Dennis, welcoming students, faculty, staff and guests to the second forum in the main auditorium of NU-Q’s modern, spacious new building. “Some good things have come out of it.”

Reacting to the economic blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, al-Mudahka said the international media have generally covered the crisis fairly since those countries severed ties after accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. But he noted several Arab outlets, including the Arabic language channels of some international outlets, have either ignored Qatar’s side or promoted “fake news” about the crisis, including inaccurate reports about panic or food shortages here.

“They’re spreading hate speech,” he said, referring to Qatar’s rivals in the blockade-sponsoring countries. He declared those countries were using a “social media army” to discredit Qatar by spreading untrue information about Qatar and “using religion against us,” as well as deploying singers, sports figures and others to unfairly denounce the country.

The fact is, he noted, “The whole crisis started with fake news, with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency” and the planting of a fabricated story last May 23 to discredit Qatar. The reasons for the hacking still remain unclear, although Qatar supporters suspect its rivals. The story planted briefly on the state-run news agency’s site attributed false statements to Qatar’s ruler, which helped touch off the standoff with other gulf states.

Walt said that foreign media covering the crisis have had difficulty explaining it, in part due to “fake news” and fabricated stories in the region and in part due to President Donald Trump’s occasional tweets on the matter--which have, at times, seemed at odds with his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who has been trying to negotiate a settlement. Tillerson was in the region again this past week, and he made stops in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

QMIF audienceAn audience member asks a question during the  Qatar Media Industries Forum
at Northwestern University in Qatar
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“There has been confusion, even chaos, around Trump’s tweets,” Walt noted. She said that disruption has often been the focus of media coverage and has “overshadowed the issues on the ground here” and the media’s attempts to explain them in their coverage.

“We’re at a real crisis point when social media is determining the news of the day,” she declared. “As journalists, the challenge for us is to cut through all the noise and focus on the truth. The challenge is to filter out the noise.”

Daragahi observed that the use of “social media can distort what’s happening in an area.” While social media has been a good source of information for journalists over time, it can also be misused, he said. “The repetition and weaponization of social media by powerful players, here and in Europe, does more damage than good for consumers,” he added.

While Qatar is willing to engage with its rivals to negotiate an end to the crisis, al-Mudahka said it will not agree to demands to shut down the international Al Jazeera broadcast network, one of 13 demands the blockade-sponsoring countries issued to end the crisis. Al Jazeera is based in Doha and has come to reflect, for some, a more open attitude towards free expression here than is seen in other countries in the Arab world.

We’re at a real crisis point when social media is determining the news of the day.

Vivienne Walt
Correspondent, TIME

“Qatar is very unique. We have Northwestern University here, and we have Al-Jazeera here, and people here are more aware,” al-Mudahka said.  “So, we are very fortunate to be in Qatar.

“Al Jazeera will never be closed,” he added, noting he believes that the blockade has actually had the opposite impact on Qatar in some ways. Rather than isolating the nation, it has led to media coverage of “more subjects” here, “new faces” and more voices speaking out publicly and more freedom in the country, al-Mudahka said.

“That is our gain. It is our soft power,” he observed. “If you close Al-Jazeera, you’re closing Qatar.”

Moreover, he said, “What we see now is the Arab Spring revolution and the counterrevolution,” he said. “That is the struggle now.”

Daragahi said that many in the Gulf States are losing faith in the credibility of their own media. “There is already a crisis in trust,” he said. “People go and look at social media instead, because they don’t feel they get real news from their media.” While he said social media has been a help to journalists in some ways for gathering information, for the most part, “It’s a lot of nonsense and garbage and not a good thing.”

Akdenizli pointed out some of the findings about trust from a recent study released by NU-Q, the University’s fifth annual survey of media use and public opinion in the Middle East. That survey, taken before the crisis, showed that two-thirds of Arab nationals trust media from their own country, but only half trust news from other Arab countries (66 percent, 52 percent). However, she suggested that public perception during the crisis is, increasingly, that some of the media coverage in the gulf states has become “very biased.”

Discussing the perception of fake news, al-Mudahka gave examples of when that coverage crossed into being just “silly,” noting one story that suggested Qatar had hired an expert in “black magic” to assist in the crisis. “I have created a cartoon page to display the fake news … and I am collecting all this fake news,” he added, noting that he hopes to publish a book on the subject in the future.

“People are smart enough to judge for themselves what is silly and what is true,” he said. Calling for media to promote more reconciliation among people, al-Mudahka concluded, “I think the media should build bridges, not add to fake news.”

A related challenge, Walt said, is that there has been “unbelievable pressure” on traditional media outlets around the world as foreign staffs have been “cut to the bone,” while those outlets increasingly lack reporters with experience in foreign reporting.

“Nothing has hurt in media in the United States more than the loss of foreign correspondents, and it’s affecting how Americans see the world,” she observed. “Foreign staffs have been decimated, and that is a real loss.”

Robb Wood, director of strategic partnerships at NU-Q, also gave a presentation at the forum on the findings of a survey on media coverage of the blockade in the U.S., Britain and the United Arab Emirates. The findings showed some of the key terms frequently used about the crisis, with many of the top publications in those countries using the words “airways,” “terror,” “Trump” and “demands.”

The Qatar Media Industries Forum (QMIF) provides media leaders in the Arab region with a platform to explore topics of critical importance to Qatar’s emerging media and communication industries. Each year, NU-Q hosts two forums bringing industry leaders together to exchange ideas, advice, and experiences across a broad range of topics, that have included media consumption in the Arab World, mapping Qatar’s media market and meeting the demand for regional content.

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