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 The Media and Dialogue among Civilizations


 
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By Dr. Walid Abdelnasser


Introduction:
Civilizational diversity is a constructive and enriching force in the long march of humanity, rather than a cause for division and confrontation. The dialogue among civilizations, therefore, reaffirms the rights of both to be �different� and to be �equal� simultaneously. It aims at bringing about a deeper mutual understanding among peoples belonging to different civilizations by increasing their knowledge of each other�s ideals, value systems, motivations and ways of thinking and ways of life. As an ongoing and peaceful process, such dialogue is based on tolerance and mutual respect, and requires from all participants to engage in it on an equal footing and to listen carefully to each other�s viewpoints.

The dialogue among civilizations will help avoid misunderstandings and distrust among different groups of people, and to solve current humanity's economic, social, humanitarian, cultural and political problems by sharing experiences on the national, sub-regional, regional, inter-regional and international levels.

The Role of the Media:
Since the media play an important role in shaping pubic opinion, they have great potential to facilitate the dialogue among civilizations by expanding the public�s knowledge about the belief systems and the practices of other cultural, religious, ethnic, and social groups. This potential, however, is not automatically realized, as the media operate under various constraints, such as financial limitations and strong competition, commercial marketing considerations, ideological biases on the part of individual media, a public demand for sensational and �exotic� news, or a growing demand for visual material. These constraints, more often than not, lead to a shortsighted, one-dimensional, stereotypical, and biased coverage of events in other cultures.

Media professionals should become more aware of the vital role that the media play in informing the public and its potential to foster justice, peace and mutual respect among different cultural, religious, ethnic and social groups, nationally and internationally. Individual newsmakers should constantly reflect upon their own level of objectivity and tolerance in choosing a subject to report and the style and words in which to do so.

Similar to conventional media, the so-called new media and new information and communication technologies embody a huge potential to facilitate dialogue among civilizations. The internet, in particular, offers individuals the opportunity to easily communicate with members of other cultural and social groups irrespective of national or other borders. These new forms of media contribute greatly to increased, diversified and decentralized information flows. New technological developments have made it possible to establish connections among mobile telephones, televisions, personal computers, and other electronic devices. This wireless and satellite technology can be used to partly substitute for � but not fully replace - conventional communication infrastructure, allowing developing countries to �leapfrog� technological developments.

However, it needs to be clearly stated that access to new information and communication technology is not evenly spread around the world. Most internet users, and hosts, are located in western developed capitalist industrialized countries. To realize the potential of new technologies for dialogues among civilizations, more efforts will have to be made to remedy this imbalance. Language also constitutes an obstacle to the full realization of the potential of new communication technologies for an improved dialogue among civilizations. The dominant language on the internet is English, which represents the native language of only a small proportion of the world population. More linguistic variety in terms of internet content, better, cheaper and possibly automated translation services, along with a greater emphasis on foreign language education, will help lower the language barrier to a successful dialogue among civilizations.

Despite what was mentioned earlier about the role of new forms of media in facilitating dialogue among civilizations, it remains to be true that in inter-civilizational dialogue, face-to-face direct communication serves as the best tool to rectify distorted, stereotypical views about other groups of people or events in other cultures, formed on the basis of information received indirectly, e.g. through the media. Face-to-face communication will also remain of primary significance in fostering greater mutual understanding among different cultures and civilizations in our contemporary world. Although new information technologies cannot replace face-to-face direct communication, it can be used as a tool to promote more direct forms of interchange, as it offers opportunities for direct communication between individuals in widely dispersed locations.

Dialogues among civilizations .. The lessons from history:

Historical observation proves that, in the past, the media have contributed to a better understanding among various cultures, as can be seen, for example, in the role the media played in the establishment of international humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On the other hand, the media have also contributed to ethnic, religious or other conflicts among as well as within countries and peoples by serving as instruments of propaganda or acting as elements of incitement and hatred for parties to the conflict. History also reveals that media coverage of a particular culture occasionally tends to move in a pendular type of movement, varying between stereotypical and sensational coverage, and a style or reporting that pays more attention to the �normal� and �ordinary� than the �exceptional� and �extraordinary�.

History highlights the importance for newsmakers to report and analyze the similarities among different cultures and civilizations along with the dissimilarities, in order to promote a better mutual understanding, and with it, the basis for fruitful dialogue. To do so, they should have a profound understanding of their own cultural background in order to draw proper comparisons and fairly evaluate features of and events taking place in other cultural settings.

Multicultural society and civilizational transformation:

Examples from various parts of the world show that the media can both facilitate and obstruct intercultural dialogue in multicultural societies. In some cases, the media have played an important role in enabling a better understanding among local groups belonging to different identities, ideological frames of reference and value systems by giving them room to report on specific ethnic, linguistic, cultural and/or religious matters while simultaneously disclosing what they share in common. In other cases, however, media catering to specific ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious groups have created or reinforced an �image of categorization�, according to which individuals develop a strong identification with their own ethnicity, culture, language or religion and an antagonism towards the "other". This process can lead, as it has done in the recent past and continues to do, to violent clashes between members belonging to different ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious groups.

Reporting on cultural diversity within a single country is best served by media pluralism, giving room to the expression of the diversity of viewpoints that co-exist within this society. Multicultural countries which currently lack a sufficiently diversified and transparent media network are entitled, if their governments deem it necessary to request and consequently receive assistance from the international community in order to increase the number of news sources, including, but not limited to, public service broadcasting. Apart from national television stations, newspapers and other media catering to the whole country, local news providers can also play a positive role in fostering tolerance among different ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious groups in one region within this country. Local multi-media centers, where citizens can have equal access to information and work together on equal footing to found media programs irrespective of their cultural group affiliation, are another positive element in promoting intercivilizational dialogue.

Regulatory bodies, which set and monitor minimum standards of fair and just broadcasting, should particularly exist in developed countries which control the bulk of news providers and networks.

Perspectives from the Third World:

The history of media coverage on the third world in western countries � and vice versa � illustrates how paying excessive attention to the differences among cultures and civilizations, rather than focusing on what they share in common, results in over-simplified distinctions between �the East� and �the West�. Such a view not only ignores cultural and other commonalties between these regions, but also completely disregards the differences among sub-cultures and sub-civilizations under the same cultural or civilizational umbrella or paradigm. This spirit contradicts the very essence of the call for dialogue among civilizations, which strives to recognize diversity within unity. Unfortunately, in general such an overly simplified categorization of civilizations continues. Media still occasionally apply the hierarchical, and dichotomous rhetoric of orientalism and colonialism in their coverage.

A number of examples can be found in the Third World where audience are provided with a chance to see for themselves how members of other cultures perceive world events. For example, television viewers in some countries in the south can watch news programs from a variety of countries on a daily basis. In some cases, a national newspaper from a Third World country would produce a newspaper in a joint venture with an international paper from a developed country. Occasionally, the joint paper may carry articles on the same news item which appeared in the two original papers, thereby presenting its readers with different perspectives on the same �reality� and encouraging them to think critically everyday. Alternatively, newspapers from Third World countries may produce an international edition that is printed in a developed country to provide a different perspective on events in this country, its region as well as in the world at large. A third possibility that materialized in reality has been to have a newspaper from the Third World producing periodic (weekly, bimonthly or monthly) newspapers in foreign languages, mainly English or French, to express views pertaining to the members of this culture or civilization on domestic, regional and international events, in an attempt to counterweight the prevailing value loaded western-originated coverage of the same events. An example in this respect is AlAhram daily newspaper of Egypt.

The south is a diverse region not only in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, or poltiical systems, but also in languages. However, the majority of news about the south is produced in English and by foreign correspondents who, quite naturally, make their judgments based on their own cultural backgrounds. In order to better reflect the diversity of �native� viewpoints on events taking place in countries of the south, more reporting in English should be done by journalists from the south and who, at least, have lived a good part of their life there. This will not only serve to better communicate the diversity of the south and the truth about its reality, at least from the perspective of its peoples, to the international community, but will also promote mutual understanding among members belonging to different cultures within the Third World.

This effort will be greatly facilitated by increased cooperation among media in the south, including exchange of information among media from different parts of the south from their �native� perspectives on a regular basis, as well as encouraging other types of similar media cooperation and exchange arrangements.

Globalization of the media and cultural diversity:

Over the past decades, a worldwide process of consolidation among the media has taken place. One of the results of this process has been the establishment of news services operating on a global scale, with their news programs available in a similar format in almost every corner of the world. On the other hand, however, the consolidation of media enterprises has been characterized by value loaded biases, mostly against cultures and civilizations of the Third World. The main reason of such adverse development has been the fact that this consolidation process predominantly took place in the developed Western countries.

The globalization of media does not, therefore, necessarily have to be interpreted as a vehicle for the globalization of value systems, i.e. an increasingly common perception of reality among members of all cultures. Some media certainly try to do just that. Some do it out of internationalist or humanitarian considerations, while others do it out of plans os achieving hegemony by one culture or civilization, which they believe, or claim, to be superior to others as they believe in a pyramidical hierarchy of civilizations and cultures Other media, on the contrary, perceive their role as promoters of particular cultural values, which are frequently identified with specific territorial boundaries. Among the latter, there are those that give no room to viewpoints other than those of the culture they want to promote, while some may be open at least to a search for solutions to similar problems on a global level.

More conducive to the dialogue among civilizations are media which through their coverage of news events involving members of other cultural groups try to emphasize the existence of some common ground, of basic ideas shared by members of all civilizations within the cultural diversity and pluralism which characterize humanity today. This type of news coverage and feature articles or programs would encourage readers and audience to comprehend, respect and appreciate the particularities of different cultures in their locality, country, region and the world, by presenting such cultures with close reference to the respective �native� value systems and cultural parameters. At the same time, they would give room to showing the commonalities, shared values, customs, ways of life that exist across cultural boundaries, thereby eventually enabling the establishment of some common frames of reference in some areas � as opposed to universal values � among the members of different civilizations.

To play this role of a facilitator of inter-civilizational dialogue effectively, the media will have to cooperate more closely among themselves, at the local, national, regional and international levels. Such cooperation may include:
- exchange programs among journalists. These would not only give journalists a chance to broaden their personal perspectives by experiencing different styles of journalism while reporting back to their home institutions, but will involve them actively in the work of their hosts;
- an exchange of media content (television programs, newspaper and magazine articles, website content � etc) to encourage direct exposure of readers and audience to other cultural perspectives;
- the consideration of the possibilities and feasibilities of joint production of media content, which will foster the identification of common denominators among different cultures and civilizations.

Sub-regional, regional, inter-regional and international organizations should render support in all forms to the development and implementation of such cooperation.

The importance of education:

The final interpretation of any kind of information is made by the individual recipient. Sufficient attention should, therefore, be paid to the education of each individual citizen of the world, so that she or he can appropriately filter and evaluate information. New information and communication technologies in particular lend themselves easily to the polarization of ideas by providing channels to disseminate biased versions of reality. Education should be aimed at equipping individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to think critically for themselves.


 

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