Coverage by omission: The dilemma of foreign correspondence

Fatemah Farag
Saturday 1 Oct 2016

Does the narrative of Western media coverage of Egypt contribute to the sense that the country is being maligned intentionally? Politics aside, the answer also lies in the way foreign coverage comes to being

“Going native” is the blight of any foreign correspondent reporting to his Western media outlet from a “foreign land”. And yet “non-native” foreign coverage rarely provides the kind of complex and nuanced understanding of the highly complex and nuanced foreign realities it seeks to cover. Which raises the question: is the “foreign correspondent” the right way to go in a profoundly interconnected world of complex, global stories, or has the time come to move on towards a new realm of cross country/region conceived and executed journalism?

Heading the long-term agenda items that pre-occupy the West and the Western media are issues of a global nature: think the environment, refugee crises, terrorism and the rise of religious extremism. There could be no stronger argument for powerful, nuanced and truly informative foreign reporting, and yet newsrooms continue to cut back on their foreign coverage for budgetary and security concerns and perhaps, for the fact that it is all rather unwieldy in such a turbulent world.

Which is why the work of such giant, global-oriented news organizations as The New York Times is so important. Despite drastic cutbacks over the past decade, NYT continues to be able to provide its readers – not only in the US (let alone New York), but around the world – with long form stories such as Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.

They break the mold of limited space and interest, expending time, effort and expertise in trying to present an understanding of a complex region, the twists and turns of which are of an increasingly global far-reaching nature.

Related by novelist and Middle East war correspondent Scott Anderson and captured in the photographs of Paolo Pellegrin, this exceptionally hefty feature – set out in five parts: Origins, The Iraq War, Arab Spring, ISIS Rising and Exodus – was the first ever stab by NYT to devote its Sunday magazine to a ‘single narrative’, rendering it, in the words of the newspaper’s Public Editor, Liz Spayd, “a history making issue”. The local protagonists tell heart-rending stories and the narrative is easily accessible even to those who know very little of the region.

Accolades were in order, and neither did NYT shy from blowing its own trumpet. But let me beg to differ, after all, an Egyptian American, born to an American mother and an Egyptian father, I didn’t need to “go native”, I was so, already.

You might think that perhaps the bar was set impossibly high. According to NYT Magazine Chief Editor Jake Silverstein “It is unprecedented for us to focus so much energy and attention on a single story [..] We would not do so were we not convinced that what follows is one of the most clear-eyed, powerful and human explanations of what has gone wrong in this region that you will ever read.”

And yet, what unfolds in the story is in to my mind a highly opinionated narrative which in proving its point glaringly omits a great many facts – facts, which when added to the mix might contribute to a different perception and understanding of the Arab world today, which is where the “clear-eyed” nature of the piece comes into question.

It starts with the framing. The current “ruin” of the Arab world begins, according to Scott, in many of its constituent states being ‘unreal’, products of an artificial edifice of nationhood created by western powers after WWI. And yet, while he makes the effort of going so far back in history to set the stage, never once is the creating of the nation state of Israel – again by foreign powers – mentioned as a destructive and arbitrary division of Arab lands wreaking havoc in its wake.

In the same breath, Arab leaders that stoked the fear of Zionism and Imperialism among their peoples are scoffed at by Scott as having created fictitious “enemies”, yet irrespective of one’s views on these “leaders”, it would be difficult to argue that imperialism, the Zionist movement and the creation of the state of Israel were good for the Arab people.

And how is Egypt – a unified state for thousands of years – supposed to fit the mold of arbitrary, artificial nationhood? And deeply troubled as it is, today’s Egypt can hardly be described as a state in ruin.

Which brings to what in fact was a highly arbitrary, dare I say “manufactured” selection of states covered by Scott’s gargantuan feature. No less arbitrary, it seem to me, was a time-line that sets the foiled process of democratic change in the region a decade before the Arab Spring, and not – as almost everybody in the world recognizes – the Arab Spring itself.

And why Iraq, which was never part of the Arab spring? Unless Scott would have us believe – along with George Bush Jr. and his circle – that the American invasion of Iraq launched a revolutionary process towards democratization in the region. A hard pill to swallow if you consider the multi-faceted evidence of the enormous human cost of the patently illegal invasion (acknowledged years ago by NYT itself) and the occupation that followed it, what with Abu Ghraib or the cancer toll among Iraqi children caused by the use of depleted uranium in the weaponry of the US and its allies in Iraqi warzones.

Indeed, if there is a causality to be drawn here, it is that many of the young people who triggered the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, began their political activism by rallying against the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Yemen is mentioned in passing, but never revisited, begging the question of whether such an omission had anything to do with the counter-revolutionary role played by Saudi Arabia in that country? Bahrain, the revolution of which was repressed and ignored, is not even mentioned. Tunisia, which set it all in motion, and is generally held to have been a success story, is never visited in the lengthy narrative.

And if you’re going to bring in Iraq, why not Saudi Arabia, which is arguably the most “manufactured” and “unreal” of the lot. The same could be said of all the oil rich Arabian Peninsula’s monarchies and princedoms, with the exception perhaps of the republic of Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman, which are short on oil but very long on history. There is little doubt that enormous oil wealth has been an element of stability for these states (notwithstanding Osama Bin Laden), but what happens then to the basic premise of “unreal”, “manufactured” states as a fundamental source of fracture and ruin.

By the end part 1 of the narrative we find ourselves faced with a region made up predominantly of unstable, mostly unreal Arab countries. We have the US forces moving into Baghdad with the selective images of a dictator being brought down – the very dictator strongly bolstered by the US and its allies when his guns were turned towards Iran. Through Mr. Scott’s Iraqi protagonists we see a country that the invasion found in ruins, but no mention is made of the effects of a brutal 13-year economic and trade blockade that devastated – among a great many components of Iraqi life – the country’s health and education systems, which had been considered among the best in the region. The invasion brought the devastation to massive proportions.

The Anglo-American US occupation of Iraq is described by Scott’s two Iraqi protagonists in the most innocuous of terms. “Friendly aliens” is one description, and his only nod to the brutality of that occupation are in the words of his other protagonist, who acknowledges: “I know others had problems with the Americans but my family no … they were quite respectful.”

And while these are doubtlessly the experiences of these particular two Iraqis, one might well wonder of their twin stories and perspectives make for a narrative that in anyway offers a “clear-eyed” and “human” understanding of Iraq during the past 13 years? How clear eyed could we be when we ignore or gloss over the enormous toll in human lives, the Abu Ghraib human rights abuses, the corporate plunder of the beleaguered country’s wealth? And how could we explain ISIS while ignoring the wealth of evidence of the deliberate playing of the sectarian card by the British rulers of Iraq in pre-independence times, and by Anglo-American occupation after 2003?

Scott sums up all of this as “missteps”, citing mainly the disbanding of the Iraqi army.

In Egypt Mohamed Morsi, 'the elected Muslim Brotherhood president' is portrayed as a beleaguered force for democratic change. Not once does the narrative mention the collusion of the MB and the MB-dominated parliament with Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) prior to Morsi’s election. The brutality of the Muslim Brotherhood’s militia attacks on peaceful protestors in Tahrir in Accountability Friday (October, 2012) and before the Presidential Palace (December, 2012) is not mentioned. Neither is the fact that the MB-drawn constitution annulled Egypt’s adherence to the ‘Convention Against Human Trafficking’, which is seen by many as a move aimed to support legalizing girl child marriage – arguments in support of which were then being aired on prime time TV.

Most notably he neglects to mention that under Morsi human rights violations by the police forces continued unchecked while the “democratically electected president” continued to laud the security forces going to the extent of raising them as “an integral force” of the Egyptian Revolution.

Scott claims that it was the “secular” forces that were getting nervous with MB rule. In fact it was a much wider constituency who were increasingly alarmed by the MBs voracious appetite for power. It was the average Egyptian father and mother who did not feel comfortable with religious pundits talking on television about what sexual practices are acceptable for a girl as young as 8 and 9 years old.

Also ignored in Scott’s account are such facts as that people in Egypt were increasingly anti-Morsi because whenever he made a public address he addressed himself to “ashiraty” – my clan – a usage which implied he spoke to the MB and not the wider constituency of the Egyptian people. Also ignored were the deep economic recession, the near collapse of public services, the lack of security and the daily disruption of daily life.

Scott seems unaware that the a great many of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who rallied against Muslim Brotherhood rule did so because they believed their revolutionary struggle for “freedom, social justice and human dignity” had been betrayed, and that many others simply wanted a return to normalcy and stability. Instead, Scott expresses his disdain for the brutality of the public response in favor of the massacre at Raba’.

I could go on but this is not the point. The point I’m trying to make here is that the “truth” of the Arab world can’t be brought down to one narrative, and may not be reduced to mere “ruin”. Not in a single image nor in one of the multitude of stories recounted in this “historic” full magazine-size feature do we glimpse the albeit short-lived moments of victory and joy, heroism and hope that were so much a feature of the Arab Spring, and at the time acknowledged with wonder by all, including NYT.

The real point I would like to make here is that stories of a globalized nature will only be true when they are executed by a new form of journalism, one that not only brings together the collaboration of journalists across countries and regions, but also ensures that the very setting of the story and the editorial process that brings it to being is made “native”.

We see this happening increasingly in the sphere of data journalism. A prominent example is the Panama Papers with their far reaching impact in uncovering corruption and speaking truth to power. These were the product of the work of 370 journalists from across the world.

Maybe the time has come to see this model applied to how foreign coverage is conceived and implemented: not via a foreign correspondent – no matter how proficient – coming into a region for any amount of time; not via fixers, translators or co-reporters/researchers, but through a journalistic process that brings it all together.

The way journalism is done has changed in so many ways and yet the conversation about foreign correspondents remains to a great extent focused on personal security and budgets. While these are serious concerns there is also the matter that we may need to reformat the genre.

Fatemah Farag is a Nieman Felllow, Board Member of the World Editors Forum and CEO of Welad ElBalad Media 


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