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Arab governments "All talk, no action" when it comes to free press, say participants at Arab Free Press Forum

(WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - Beirut, Lebanon, 6 June 2010 - When Arab governments talk about press freedom and democracy their words rarely lead to action, participants at the 4th Arab Free Press Forum said Sunday, as the two-day conference on the state of the independent Arab press opened in Beirut.

"Democracy is exported as a slogan to the outside world," said Nidal Mansour, Director of the Jordanian Center for Defending Journalism, speaking on the opening panel that addressed issues of censorship and judicial practice. "Constitutions in the Arab region often have no value at all when it comes to guaranteeing a free press and freedom of expression."

Despite their claims to the contrary, many states continue to exercise censorship and exploit the judicial system to pressure the independent Arab press to conform.

"The most pernicious and blatant form of censorship is the advertising boycott - economic censorship," said Aboubakr Jamai, the former editor of the dissolved Moroccan daily "Le Journal Hebdomadaire".

Dozens of publishers, editors, journalists and press freedom advocates from 25 countries attended the conference, organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

The morning session called on Arab and Western governments to engage the principles of freedom of expression to invigorate political debate and reform in the region. "Unable to deal with the difficult issues of economic crisis, social inequality or terrorism, Arab governments find it easier to control the press and limit access to information," said Samir Jubran, former Editor-in-Chief of Yemeni weekly "Al-Masdar".

In a tribute to murdered journalists Samir Kassir and Daif al-Ghazal, journalist and human rights defender Kamel Labidi welcomed the rising number of Arab organisations that support press freedom. "There is now more of a possibility to put an end to the impunity of those who killed our colleagues, but this dream will not come true unless we all stand together."

The afternoon session discussed the impact of the Internet on publishing in the Arab world, offering reasons for hope in terms of press freedom and ways to get around censorship. "The Internet has broken the state monopoly on media distribution, while citizen journalism challenges the traditional role of the journalist," said Daoud Kuttab, founder of AmmanNet news network in Jordan.

Drawing from his recent report analysing media habits of young people in the region, Professor Jad Melki from the American University of Beirut highlighted the rising consumption of new media sources and acknowledged a thirst for news ­ particularly in Arabic ­ as a sign of engagement with current affairs.

WAN-IFRA's pioneering Newspapers in Education programme was spotlighted in a session with teachers from Jordan who reported on their successful classroom techniques to encourage students' critical thinking and their engagement with the issues in the news. International education consultant Gerard van der Weijden brought the session and the first day to a close with a presentation about the different ways newspapers are engaging children, increasing circulation figures and developing long-term strategies for effectively engaging in local communities around the world.

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