BEIRUT: Arabs have for decades suffered stereotyping and misrepresentation in the Western media. Things have gotten so bad, homegrown comics joke, that the only roles Middle Eastern actors can land are bit parts as camel-riding terrorists. Visiting from London, the chairman of Arab Media Watch (AMW), Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi, spoke to The Daily Star about the vital role played by the media in forming popular opinion and highlighted the need for more monitoring organizations like his.
While studying for a Master's degree in international journalism, Nashashibi realized he wanted to work for an organization that monitored media bias on the Arab world.
Jewish and Zionists groups already operate several such organizations, and most notable among them perhaps is the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
However, when Nashashibi looked into the matter, he was "amazed to find no such organizations existed in Britain."
In a bid to fill the void, Nashashibi established Arab Media Watch in 2000, and since then, he said, it has gone from strength to strength.
"When we started, people said, 'We've been waiting so long for an organization like this.' There was a real sense of need for it," Nashashibi told The Daily Star.
However, not all Arabs realized that they were victims of stereotyping. "There is a feeling among Arabs that if you are not Palestinian or Iraqi, stereotypes don't apply to you," said Nashashibi. But AMW studies had found the people of Dubai popularly represented as "backward, more money than sense" fat cats, and North Africans as "fundamentalists."
All Middle Eastern countries had image problems, said Nashashibi, adding that it was in everyone's interests to tackle them.
"I don't think any other people in modern history have been stereotyped for so long," he said. "These stereotypes don't just affect Western foreign policy but also Arab communities in the West. If you want to improve the situation, you need to improve the media, which has the power to change people's opinions."
AMW doesn't just pinpoint UK media bias or error, but tries to pre-empt it altogether by helping media organizations find appropriate interviewees, helping journalists and editors in their research, organizing topical lectures, and producing studies and fact sheet for media personnel. AMW also organizes an annual musical event, inviting big names from the Arab world to perform in the UK.
Among others, AMW has produced studies analyzing media coverage on settlements, the 2006 summer war between Israel and Lebanon, Yemen, and the concept of retaliation. From January, AMW will also be working with non-governmental organization Friends of Lebanon to monitor English-language coverage of the 2009 Lebanese legislative elections, "how each political party is represented and whether they are given equal coverage in the media."
"We give the pro-Israeli lobby a run for their money," Nashashibi smiled. Rather than the hostile, aggressive tactics employed by the likes of MEMRI, Nashashibi said AMW had a "more pragmatic and reconciliatory approach."
The organization maintained good relations with the journalist or media outlet in question, rather than adopting a confrontational stance. After all, said Nashashibi, not all inaccuracies or bias were deliberate. Rather, they were often the result of insufficient information or time, or budget restrictions.
"We've really earned the respect of the media in Britain, even those who don't agree with our position," he added.
The AMW chairman said he hoped to see more like-minded organizations sprout up in the West, especially in the United States. "It's within our powers to change what we don't like," he said. "We just have to try."