- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his peace deal with the Israelis in 1979, he was overwhelmingly supported by millions of his people. One hundred million other Arabs were furious. They called him a traitor and punished his country with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. And then they assassinated him.

Since then, regional politicians and Western envoys have tried almost every trick in the book to reach lasting peace but without success. A major reason for this repeated failure is the lack of popular support. That support can only be won with an effective, independent media committed to explaining the details and benefits of a peace plan.

Lack of media independence in the Middle East continues to be an obstacle to peace.

Of the 600-plus Arabic-language satellite stations in the Middle East and North Africa region, very few are considered independent or semi-independent. Al Arabiya is proud to be counted among the professional and respected media, recognized earlier this year when it was the first Middle East outlet granted an exclusive interview with President Obama.

We should strive for the day when many Arab stations meet the criteria of balance and accuracy.

But for now, politicians and much of the Arab media run in the same vicious circle: Leaders fear their peoples’ reaction to peace. The media keep feeding the masses negative stories of possible peace deals. Politicians point to media reports as evidence that peace cannot be attained, while militant organizations threaten media outlets for reporting on possible peace deals. And so the world goes round.

Naturally, people are suspicious of deals made behind closed doors. While people will support a well-explained and transparent peace plan, it takes courage, professionalism and encouragement for a local reporter in the Arab world to do so.

In order for truthful information to survive in the region, local journalists, managers and other media professionals need training in the standards and practices of balanced, accurate and engaging reporting. This in turn will attract larger audiences, generate increased income and lead to editorial independence. With independence comes truth.

There have been a variety of international and regional efforts to develop training and capacity-building programs for the media sector. While many of these have been very helpful, they largely have consisted of one-off training programs or seminars rather than ongoing support. The Middle East and North Africa region still lacks a comprehensive training facility focusing on professional training and skills development for local journalists and media professionals, particularly broadcast journalists.

This should be a goal both of the Arab media industry and of foreign assistance organizations.

When local journalists are educated in professional standards, local populations will be informed on the decisions that are placed before them, including matters of peace. Of course, a peace deal will always be resisted by radical Islamists, ultranationalists, and governments that either are not consulted or are simply in conflict with the United States. But they will not be able to derail any agreement if it’s explained to and endorsed by the average Palestinian or Israeli.

Ending the Arab-Israeli conflict is an effort that will save lives, end suffering, combat terrorism, dilute radicalism, open borders, create commerce and build stability. But its popular support can only come from a professional media willing to level with their audiences. Without that, such a dream may reside in our heads, but never in our hands.

Abdulrahman Alrashed is general manager of Al Arabiya TV in Dubai.

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