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AAM awards dinner honors Mideast media freedom pioneers

By Anna Gawel

The United States has encouraged greater media freedom in the Middle East in part to counter the virulent extremist narrative that has bolstered groups such as Islamic State. But as with many American undertakings in the region, it’s been a hard-fought ideological battle, with casualties along the way.

“I believe that in light of the rancor and division we’re seeing in our country as well as the challenges of extremism and conflict in large parts of the Middle East, the relevance of AAM’s mission is even clearer,” said Aaron Lobel, founder and president of America Abroad Media, a D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to harness the power of the media to promote the free exchange of ideas.

On Nov. 15, a week after the U.S. presidential election, the group hosted its fourth annual Power of Film awards dinner at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium to honor influential filmmakers, journalists and media leaders, particularly those from the Middle East.

“AAM’s mission transcends partisan politics,” Lobel told the crowd, which included members of Congress and ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. “I founded this organization more than a decade ago because I believed that media, whether it’s in this country, whether it’s in the Middle East or whether it’s anywhere in the world, should strive to improve the quality of civic discourse, to challenge opinions rather than simply reinforce them. It should facilitate respectful disagreement so people can learn to live with their differences. And it should foster the exchange of ideas and critical thinking.”

From left, Michèle Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security; “Homeland” executive producer Howard Gordon; actress Miranda Otto; “Homeland” executive producer Chip Johannessen; John MacGaffin III of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and America Abroad Media (AAM) President Aaron Lobel attend AAM’s “Power of Film” awards dinner, which honored the Showtime television series “Homeland,” along with media pioneers from the Middle East. Photo: Joy Asico

AAM, which is funded in part by the U.S. government and private donors such as the Abu-Dhabi-American Chamber of Commerce, Chevron and Carnegie Corp., hosts its own monthly global affairs program on Public Radio International. In addition, it partners with media outlets in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia to co-produce news documentaries and entertainment shows, mentor aspiring journalists from the Muslim world and host town halls — such as a recent town hall to promote dialogue among Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The media landscape in the Muslim world, including a free and fair press, has become more diverse in recent years, though progress remains fragile and uneven. At its awards dinner, AAM honored TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s largest and most popular independent media channel. Founded by Afghan émigré Saad Mohseni of the Moby Group, TOLO TV attracts audiences of up to 13 million people with programs ranging from an Afghan-style “American Idol” singing competition, to a cop drama that tackles corruption, to hard-hitting political news coverage.

“The conflict in Afghanistan has raged now for more than a generation, and the noble people of Afghanistan have suffered enormously as a result,” said retired Gen. John Allen, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, at the awards ceremony. “But through all of this, the Afghans have persevered and … one of the greatest accomplishments of the Afghan people is the emergence of a fiercely independent and sometimes boisterous and raucous media.”

From left, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.); his wife Marie Royce; former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.); Kristi Rogers; Heba El Koudsy; and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) attend the America Abroad Media “Power of Film” awards dinner at Mellon Auditorium.

TOLO TV aired the first drama series entirely written, acted, filmed, produced and broadcast by Afghans, while its news arms provided unprecedented election coverage in rural areas — all in a country where 15 years ago, radio and TV were banned altogether under Taliban rule.

“But TOLO’s diverse and courageous programming has not come without a price,” Allen said. “After years of threats, the Taliban began openly targeting journalists about a year ago with tragic results.”

On Jan. 20, 2016, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying TOLO staff to work, killing seven of the channel’s employees and leaving another 26 injured.

“We are believers of democracy, freedom of expression — all the things the Taliban don’t like,” said staff members of TOLO TV, who accepted the award “in memory of our seven colleagues and those who returned back to work after severe injuries with determination and resilience.”

From left, Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates Yousef Al Otaiba, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard G. Olson and CEO and Chairman of Moby Group Saad Mohseni attend the America Abroad Media “Power of Film” awards dinner, which honored TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s largest independent television network, founded by Mohseni’s Moby Group.

Even using humor to challenge extremism can be a dangerous enterprise in the Middle East. AAM honored Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi for his Ramadan comedy series “Selfie” that mocked the Islamic State, earning him death threats from the terrorist group.

“Can you imagine the courage it takes to lampoon ISIL? To talk about a better Middle East using humor? To put yourself out there using the most potent weapon in any language — satire?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who presented the award to Al Qasabi.

The Republican senator — a frequent critic of Donald Trump — engaged in his own comedy routine on stage, joking with the audience, “You ready to make America great again?”

“I’m here to honor a comedian from Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know there was such a thing,” he quipped, adding that, “Anybody that ISIL hates, I like.”

Shirley and Art Sotloff paid tribute to their son, the late American-Israeli journalist Steven Joel Sotloff, who was captured and killed by the Islamic State in 2014.

On a more serious note, Graham praised Al Qasabi’s defiance. “He has millions of followers in the Arab world. He has been put on ISIL’s hit list because he can do more to harm them than any bomb we drop or military operation we engage in.

“I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and the region over 38 times in the last decade. I always leave with a realistic sense of optimism. Many people at home in South Carolina ask me, ‘Is it possible to win this war?’ And my answer is always yes because I’ve seen the faces of those who have engaged in a desire for a better way,” Graham said.

“The good news for us is that most people in the region are not buying what ISIL is selling,” he added. “And to destroy this vicious ideology, we need an all-of-the-above approach. We need to give young people a hopeful life to counter glorious death. We need to provide a schoolhouse for a young girl desiring to be educated. America must be involved because when it comes to ISIL and all things evil, it is our problem too.”

Steven Sotloff, the late American journalist who was beheaded by his Islamic State captors in 2014, took that mantra to heart.

From left, Lael Mohib, Ambassador of Afghanistan Hamdullah Mohib and Craig Gordon of Bloomberg News attend the America Abroad Media “Power of Film” awards dinner.

AAM paid tribute to Sotloff’s work, which included extensive reporting from war zones in the Middle East for TIME, Foreign Policy, The Media Line, The Christian Science Monitor and CNN. Sotloff was one of the first to report on the Benghazi consulate attack in Libya, and he foresaw the massive Syrian refugee crisis. In August 2013, Sotloff was kidnapped in Syria and held captive for a year by Islamic State militants before being executed in a video that sent shockwaves around the world.

Sotloff’s mother Shirley said her Florida-born son was an inquisitive boy with a passion for adventure who developed an appreciation for Mideast culture after a Birthright trip he made to Israel. “It didn’t matter what religion. What mattered was the plight of the less fortunate — the desire to be a voice for the voiceless,” said Shirley Sotloff, who established the 2LIVES Foundation in her son’s memory to support the education and safety of young journalists in conflict-torn regions of the world.

David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media, who worked to secure Sotloff’s release, said the reporter’s death “was not in vain,” noting that the White House has since overhauled its hostage policy to better coordinate with the families of kidnapping victims and not threaten prosecution if they pay a ransom.

“The first complete success of this new policy was last week when an American was released by the Houthis in Yemen — a direct result of the work the Sotloffs had done,” Bradley said at the AAM dinner.

From left, Dana Masalimova, Ambassador of Kazakhstan Kairat Umarov and Muna Habib attend the America Abroad Media “Power of Film” awards dinner.

“He first made his name covering the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya,” Bradley said of Sotloff. “His special focus was on the victims of war — the oppressed, the dispossessed and the orphaned. He became known as the voice of the voiceless. It was deep empathy that took him to what proved to be the most dangerous front in the world, the Syrian battle lines.”

Bradley noted that two of Sotloff’s letters were smuggled out during his year-long captivity. “Parts of it have been made public. There’s one famous quote he has: ‘Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you have only one.’

“Steven goes on to say that if given that second life, he would choose to live it side by side with his family,” Bradley recounted. “What’s not made public is the close of that letter. I asked the Sotloffs this last weekend would you mind if I read that close? So here is how he closed off his penultimate letter to his family: ‘I wish I knew how to conclude this letter properly, but I don’t. So I’ll write what is evident. I love you, miss you, pray for you and hope to see you soon. If God wills it, I will be home soon and get the restart I need and we’ll be together again. If not, perhaps He will be merciful enough to reunite us in heaven. I never meant to cause you pain. I’m sorry. I love you.’”

Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.




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