Northwestern Qatar's new SPJ chapter looks to fight for a free press

    Medill freshmen Saif Al Nuweiri and Jassim Kunji listen to the presentation announcing the start of the first overseas SPJ chapter. Photo courtesy of Omer Mohammed.

    Zeena Kanaan dreams of being a journalism professor. A native of Palestine, the sophomore at Northwestern in Qatar says change in her country is possible, if only the people were heard.

    “In my country, journalism is lacking and people do not have a voice, people have no outlet to reveal the truth of what is actually happening in Palestine,” she says. “I really wish to give those people a voice and to go and use new technology and forms of multimedia to actually expose what is happening there and show the world so change could take place.”

    Now she is the newly elected vice president of the NU-Q chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. This month, the university welcomed the first international chapter of the SPJ onto its campus. It took just a few hours for the chapter in NU-Q to be inaugurated, but it took years for the idea to capture SPJ’s interest.

    “In my country, journalism is lacking and people do not have a voice, people have no outlet to reveal the truth of what is actually happening in Palestine.”

    The SPJ is the largest journalism organization in the United States. Though it has been around since 1909, it wasn’t until a year ago that the international committee worked on forming an international chapter. SPJ President Kevin Smith, after years of working with international journalists in Asia, revamped the international committee and toyed with the idea of introducing the organization to other countries.

    The idea then piqued the interest of NU-Q’s Senior Associate Dean Richard Roth, a longtime friend of Smith. Roth was on board immediately, starting talks with Smith about the possibility of an international chapter at the end of 2009. The two exchanged emails, honing the proposal for their plan.

    “When he said he was interested in starting a chapter, I thought that was a great idea,” Smith says. “So I told him to work on it and see how many students he could get and I would make an appeal to the SPJ’s board.”

    In January, the executive board approved the proposal. Then, after months of promoting by Smith and recruiting of NU-Q students by Roth, the duo presented their proposal to the entire national board’s meeting in early April. The board voted, approved, and with that, the first international chapter of SPJ was born.

    * * *

    Of all places, SPJ chose Qatar. For an organization that focuses on the American way of journalism, planting a chapter in a Middle Eastern country made for an unusual choice. Qatar, a nation roughly the area of Connecticut, is ruled by an absolute monarchy under the al-Thani royal family. Just three years ago, the National Human Rights Committee called for laws safeguarding press freedom.

    But Roth says the location is an advantage. “These students will graduate and be involved in the media here,” he says. “They’ll slowly begin to infiltrate the media here. They will be infecting and be part of the fabric of the media.”

    Having SPJ, a large organization from the US, help the NU-Q journalism program is a big step. Around the Middle East, there are few journalism schools to support each other and even fewer organizations to back NU-Q’s mission of educating students and raising awareness for journalism.

    NU-Q has steadily grown since it was established in Education City in 2008. “It’s all changed in the direction of progress,” says John Margolis, the dean of NU-Q. “Its impact in the area for journalism will grow as well, year by year.” The campus has moved to newer facilities, added faculty and staff and reached out to the Qatari community with lectures and programs for local high school students.

    Still, the Qatar campus is small, consisting of only 105 students with about 35 in each class, providing a tough challenge for journalism students who hope to impact the media in the nation. For Kanaan, the task of changing the future of journalism can be daunting.

    “We understand first amendment rights, we understand the laws and conditions and we can advocate that. That is not the same thing that happens in most of the world.”

    “As an Arab woman reporting in a society where journalism is just a newly accepted idea, I sometimes get intimidated to approach men,” she explains. “I feel like they think, ‘who is this woman who is going to talk to me and feels like she has enough power to affect me?’” Kanaan says being a member of SPJ encourages students to overcome society’s barriers.

    * * *

    The new chapter has plenty left to do. Shannon Farhoud, the newly-elected president of the NU-Q chapter, says she hopes to recruit enough members in the coming week to have a good number of student journalists consistently helping the organization. So far, there are 55 students interested in joining.

    Since the creation of the chapter, the three members of the executive board have been pooling ideas and resources, meeting with Roth and discussing what their chapter can do. “Whenever we have a meeting, it’s like, ‘Oh, we can do this and this,’” Farhoud says. “When we see Dean Roth, we go, ‘Oh, we have another idea.’ It’s not just about having another group or club. We’re actually getting people involved and having something come out of it.”

    Smith says that this just a first step for the SPJ, which will have to assess what it can do internationally.

    “We have to know what we want to do because for the last one hundred years, we have been pretty good with dealing with press rights in the United States,” he says. “We understand first amendment rights, we understand the laws and conditions and we can advocate that. That is not the same thing that happens in most of the world.”

    Whether the SPJ succeeds or fails in expanding overseas, its members at NU-Q are optimistic pioneers. “I just hope to see it grow,” Kanaan says. “Hopefully this will be the first step to strengthen and to encourage journalists to pursue their careers in the Middle East, and hopefully reach a larger audience which could then create a change.”


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