The myth of Middle East reporting

Salah Al-Nasrawi , Monday 19 Mar 2012

Why have Arab journalists at Western media failed to have a voice and make a difference in Middle East reporting?

 The tragic death of Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, two celebrated American reporters in chaotic Syria last month, has generated due tributes from colleagues and readers who admired their Middle East coverage over more than two decades.

Shadid, a New York Times reporter, who died of an apparent asthma attack, and Colvin of the Sunday Times, who was killed in shelling in Homs, were also praised for their sense of duty to go on secret assignments, braving Bashar Al-Assad's dictatorship and defying restrictions his regime imposed on covering the Syrian uprising.

Few other Western journalists also risked their lives by sneaking into the war-torn nation to get the news out, but luckily survived the bloodletting, thanks to Syrian volunteers, who protected them and smuggled them out to neighboring countries.

While the tributes were duly shared, the appraisals have struck a chord with some of their colleagues, who believe the narrative of their daring experiences at  these frontline hellholes have been superimposed on the narratives of the Syrian tragedy itself.

For example, Robert Fisk, a veteran Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, noted that the tributes have made the "war" correspondents, as Western media called them with all the romanticism associated with that term, "more important than the people about whom they report."

Fisk also observed a double standard by Western news organizations for lacking similar enthusiasm in getting their reporters into Gaza - as they did to get into Homs - during Israel's war on the Strip in 2008, leaving Palestinian reporters to cover their own people's suffering.

"There's something faintly colonialist about all this," he wrote.

Whether the appraisals are blown-out-of-proportion tales of heroism, or are a duly deserved honor to those few Western journalists who have risked, or lost, their lives to try to tell the world what was happening in Syria, the publicity surrounded the fatal experience of the dauntless reporters has unintentionally thrown light on one key aspect of Middle East reporting which has long been kept in the dark.

I am referring here to the case of the numerous Arab journalists at Western media who, like their Western colleagues, have been covering stories in one of the most complex and dangerous places in the world, but nevertheless remain unrecognized, unappreciated, while their sacrifices pass unnoticed.

I am not talking here of Western journalists of Arab descent, but about Arab journalists working at mainstream Western news organization in the Arab world. This distinction is necessary to underscore background culture, education, training and most importantly citizenship status which explains advantages, such as the level of protection journalists can have in a hostile environment.  

I am quite sure that this is a touchy terrain and many in the profession and outside, having drunk deeply of the notion of Western media impartiality, objectivity and accuracy, would prefer to gloss over this grim reality and avoid bringing it up in discussion. This is in spite of the fact that the level of representation and participation of local non-Western journalists at foreign media organizations has been a public, and on accasion an academic subject of debate in many parts of the world.

Indeed, in an area which has often been subject to misrepresentation, or even bias, in scholarship and reporting, the status of Arab writers at the Western media remains one of the core issues of Middle East reporting, and consequently its politics, which seems to underline the ideas of Edward Said and Michael Foucault's on the correlations between knowledge and power.

After a career of nearly forty years in journalism, including assignments and newsroom work for some 30 years with Western news organizations, I can say with a clear conscience that there is nothing to compare with the knowledge and courage of some Arab journalists who work with foreign media and whose input to the Middle East coverage has been invaluable.

Yet, these journalists have remained "unknown soldiers" in the raging battle for truth and accuracy, in a crude manifestation of denial and prejudice. Those who are familiar with what I am talking about know pretty well that this is a phenomenon which speaks volumes about the kind of reporting the Middle East receives in the Western media.

It tells us how humble have been all these locally hired reporters who face tremendous challenges and difficulties, brave wars, threats and intimidation by brutal Middle East dictatorships and their security apparatus, in order to tell the story of their own societies to the whole world with the in-depth knowledge they possess.

Such courage I have seen year after year in many Arab countries in reporters who are shinning symbols of true commitment and strength. The courage that dares without recognition and without the protection of any kind, is a courage that humbles and inspires and reaffirms one's faith in the profession.

These local reporters have been the backbone of foreign media operations in the Middle East for decades. Their devotion, talent, knowledge and journalistic "meta" skills have been indispensible for both regional bureaus and newsrooms at the organizations' headquarters.

Through their commitment, endurance, context building ability, perceptives, analysis and the major stories they have been able to break, these local reporters have managed to give true meanings to events unfolding in the Middle East and even help to reshape the world's awareness of the region in a way not influenced or framed by foreign agendas or Western strategies.

Yet again, they remain vulnerable, if not discriminated against, in terms of professional descriptions, job opportunities and salary levels. There is a tendency to consider local reporters as mainly interlocutors, stringers, fixers, translators and gatherers of information to help their Western "bosses" in their jobs and not as equal partners.

In fact, the most worrying aspect of the dilemma of these Arab reporters today is their inability to express freely their versions of reality and opinions, whether through editorial interference, manipulation or omission, especially on critical topics such as the Arab Israeli conflict, Islam and now the Arab uprisings.

Under the notion of teamwork, or even the deplorable and racist pretext of markets' demand for "Western" names on the story, local reporters have in recent years been increasingly forced to share bylines with their Western colleagues, a practice that denies them writing freedom and independent editorial identity and turns them into ghost writers.

This policy, which has been resisted by many veteran local journalists, has led some news organizations to hire non-professional or untrained persons, and in some cases office-boys or chauffeurs, to work as reporters in a clear manifestation of power and subordination through control and hegemony.

Under these circumstances local reporters who refuse to be taken for granted are unfortunately in no position to make this press system a pluralistic one, in which they can provide critical alternatives and diversified voices to the Western audience.

In his article "Critique of Reporting on the Middle East", in Jadaliyya, (an independent web based journal) American journalist Nir Rosen has rightly diagnosed the predicament of faltering objectivity and neutrality in covering the Middle by the Western media as "fundamental problems at the epistemological and methodological level."

Nothing could illustrate this failure than keeping Arab journalists, with their vast knowledge and experience, from news production and reporting positions at mainstream Western media outlets and depriving them of their right to explain to the world their own countries, societies and people.

It would be irresponsible to dismiss, or belittle the great talent and contribution of some distinguished Western writers and Middle East correspondents who have helped shape the image of the region for decades.

But if it is true that fluency in Arabic, anthropological research, communication skills, connections with people in power and zeal have been the essential assets for Middle East reporting, then Arab reporters are in possession of even greater assets with their roots in the region.

One key to have a balanced Middle East reporting is to allow the voice of the region be heard by people in the West, and no persons are more suited for such a critical engagement than native journalists at Western media.

Thanks to massive changes in the media environment and its technologies, Arab journalists and writers have now an option to break that cycle of monopoly and pretention of neutrality in news making and make their voices heard without filtering.

Indeed, a quick look into the Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and websites of national media outlets will show us that most of the important and effective news and analyses are now being made through the internet and what foreign media are doing is just recycling.

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