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Last Updated: Monday, 14 November 2005, 12:20 GMT
Exchanging news

By Richard Sambrook
Director, BBC World Service & Global News

The problems of a world divided by race and politics confronted journalists and executives at the annual NewsXchange conference in Amsterdam last week.

Each November members of the broadcast news industry from around the globe gather to discuss the latest developments in broadcasting and in journalism. This year there were delegates from 51 countries - and more from the Middle East than ever before.

With the imminent launch of an English language channel from Al Jazeera and the announcement of an Arabic TV news channel from the BBC. it was perhaps inevitable that issues of east and west would dominate the conference.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali faced a storm of criticism at NewsXchange
The stories of two women, each of whom live with the threat of death, defined this year's gathering.

A discussion on how to report Islam was built around the Dutch MP, Somali refugee and scriptwriter Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She had written a film about the oppression of women in Islamic cultures with film-maker, Theo Van Gogh. He was murdered last year and she is now the subject of multiple fatwas and receives round the clock protection. She entered the conference hall with nine bodyguards.

The film "Submission" was heavily criticized by Dutch Muslims, who found it blasphemous - a view clearly shared by many Muslims in the audience at NewsXchange. Hirsi Ali was clear, focused and articulate. But she faced a storm of criticism, particularly from Muslim women in the hall.

One delegate asked the MP to pick up her copy of the Koran from the floor - saying to leave it at her feet was disrespectful. She refused. She blames the Koran for the abuse of her fellow Muslim women.

The resulting debate encompassed different interpretations of Islam, issues of portrayal, language, religious tolerance, the right to freedom of speech, the character of the Arab media and more in a heightened atmosphere which cut through the normal professional courtesies. It was a graphic illustration of the breadth of the cultural divide between east and west. It felt as if a profoundly important issue had been touched - but one which was depressingly far from being resolved.

Gisele Khoury of Al Arabiya
I am a dead person, but I am determined to see this through
Gisele Khoury
Presenter, Al Arabiya
Earlier in the day, the conference heard from Gisele Khoury, a presenter with the Al Arabiya network based in Lebanon. Her husband was killed in a car bomb in the summer and then a close friend, May Chediac, a political journalist with Lebanese broadcasting, lost an arm and a leg in another bomb attack.

Both had been critical of Syria following the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Ms Khoury told the conference by satellite: "I am a dead person, but I am determined to see this through" as she called for an international investigation into the attacks.

Two women whose lives are in immediate danger but who feel compelled to continue to speak out in support of their beliefs.

Death toll

Ninety-nine journalists have lost their lives doing their job over the last 12 months. Most of them were working locally in their own countries and most of those were murdered for asking awkward questions.

Intimidation of journalists, and the self-censorship which inevitably follows, is now a major risk to freedom of speech around the world. And there is widespread impunity for those who kill journalists - hardly any are ever brought to trial.

Each year the NewsXchange conference discusses journalists' safety and each year the frustration grows with the rising death toll of colleagues and the lack of accountability for their deaths. The International News Safety Institute, supported by a number of news organisations, is currently undertaking a global inquiry into the reasons for this rising toll and next year hopes to make recommendations for the industry and for the wider international community to protect journalists as individuals and freedom of the press as a principle.

24 x 7 pressures

Earlier in the week, issues of race and politics had surfaced in a discussion about the pressures of 24 hour news. Jean-Claude Dassier of the French TV news network LCI explained why he had held back coverage of the riots in Paris.

Some had reported this as an uprising by immigrants protesting at racism and social disadvantage. Monsieur Dassier disagreed. This violence, he said, was not political and not religious - it was just young kids setting light to cars as a "fashion" and therefore should be played down.

Politics in France is heading to the right and I don't want rightwing politicians back in second, or even first place because we showed burning cars on television
Jean-Claude Dassier
Director general, LCI
His peers were not convinced. Although understanding the arguments around the "oxygen of publicity" they felt it was a step too far not to report fully the most significant street violence in France since the riots of 1968.

Deborah Turness, editor of ITV news, seemed to hit home by asking the LCI editor about levels of diversity among the staff in his newsroom and whether he was "doing the government's work" by withholding coverage to discourage further violence from alienated minorities.

Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN, pointed out: "We are not the gatekeepers anymore. If we don't report it someone else will" A comment which set up the following session on the rise of Blogging and Citizen Journalism.

Citizen voices

This discussion ranged from new interactive services (mobile TV is The Next Big Thing apparently - go to Finland to see it in action now) to the use of phone-cams for video and stills with big news events like the London bombings to whether or not blogging poses a threat to conventional news organisations.

NewsXchange conference session
BBC World's Stephen Sackur chaired the session on New Technology
Blogger and Harvard fellow Rebecca MacKinnon joined by satellite from Beijing. Every day millions of people are creating their own media, she told us. Her site, Global Voices Online, picks out the most interesting blogs around the world. She explained that if someone wanted to know what people were thinking in, say, Iran they used to have to rely on the mainstream media. Now they can hear direct from people living there.

"You guys are losing control" she told the assembled news executives. People are turning to online sites to hear genuine voices. As a former CNN producer, Rebecca has seen both sides. She said she left broadcast journalism because her editors wanted her to reinforce stereotypes rather than build bridges between cultures.

It was a thought which could stand as a warning running through the entire conference. Broadcasters face enormous changes to their business - particularly from new technology and new competition - and they have to report on a deeply divided and complicated world.

Two days in Amsterdam won't have provided any answers. But for the assembled journalists and executives it did reinforce how difficult some of the challenges ahead will be.

World Service confirms Arabic TV
25 Oct 05 |  TV and Radio
Moving stories: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
23 Dec 03 |  Africa

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