United States Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey D. Feltman praised the career path of journalism students at Northwestern University in Qatar on Thursday.
Journalism has played a critical role in the success of the democratic revolutions that have taken place in North Africa over the last two months and is a critical component of societies seeking to improve themselves, Feltman said.
“There is a lot of change happening in this region,” he said. “And it was journalism that helped spark some of these changes.”
Feltman made his remarks during a panel discussion Northwestern hosted on media freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. Also on the panel was Northwestern’s senior associate dean for journalis
m Richard Roth, visiting assistant professor of communication Joe F. Khalil, and sophomore Zeena Kanaan, who serves as the president of the Society of Professional Journalists in Qatar.
The discussion ranged from the role of satellite TV in the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to United States media policies in Iraq. Feltman paid particular attention to the position of the United States that a free flow of information is a critical component of human rights – particularly online.
“The right of individuals to express their views freely, to petition their leaders, to do things like worship according to their own beliefs – these rights are universal in our view,” Feltman said. “Whether they are exercised in a public square or whether they come out in an individual blog.”
He continued: “These freedoms to assemble today, also need to apply in cyberspace,” he said.
Paraphrasing a speech that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a few weeks ago, Feltman said that cyberspace was to modern revolutions what cafes and coffeehouses were to revolutions in past centuries.
“The coffee house, the café of the 21st century is the internet,” Feltman said. “That’s where the exchange of ideas is taking place today.”
Feltman also cited evidence that rapid changes and increases in press freedom were already changing the face of journalism in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the late 1990s Feltman worked in Tunis, Tunisia. Each day he woke up and read a newspaper haling the accomplishments of the president, no matter what was happening in reality, he said.
He went back to Tunisia after the revolution there and found that the same newspapers he read in the 1990s looked much different and took a more critical view of the society, he said.
Though the discussion was wide ranging, Feltman returned again and again to the value of journalism to make good in the world.
“I think that some of the best informed, best analysts that we have available to us as human beings are those that work in the field that you’re studying for,” Feltman told the students.
“All of our countries are facing challenges,” he said. “Journalism is a really, really key tool to identifying what those challenges are and helping to create the space in which we can discuss what the possible solutions are.”
Feltman ended his opening remarks with a simple message for the budding journalists at Northwestern: “I admire your courage, I admire all of the colleagues who have gone before you in this field.”