Adam Shatz: Writers or Missionaries?

This is an important essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation, in which he reflects on how his own writing on the Middle East has developed over the years and, more broadly, how the region is written about: 

I still stand by most of the positions that I took when I was starting out. But when I re-read the articles I published then, I find the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect. I have the same reaction when I read a self-consciously committed journalist like Robert Fisk, who seems never to doubt his own thunderous convictions. I recently re-read Pity the Nation, his tome about the Lebanese civil war, and I was struck by how little Fisk tells us about the Lebanese, a people he has lived among since the mid-1970s. For all his emoting about the Lebanese, their voices are never allowed to interrupt his sermonizing. That I agree with parts of the sermon doesn’t mean I have the patience to sit through it. Fisk’s book, which once so impressed me, now strikes me as a wasted opportunity, unless journalism is understood as a narrowly prosecutorial endeavor, beginning and ending with the description of crimes and the naming (and shaming) of perpetrators. And yet Fisk’s example is instructive, in a cautionary way. It reminds us that immersion in the region isn’t enough: it’s how you process the experience, the traces that it leaves on the page. The Fiskian cri de coeur substitutes rage for understanding, hang-wringing for analysis.

A fascinating read, especially in how he explains his initial approach to the region was through the prism of Algeria – "Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism."

When a Kidnapped Journalist Is a Freelancer

Good piece on the risks freelancers take covering conflicts, by Jaron Gilinsky for Medium:

A dirty little secret of news publishing is that most of the pictures and videos we see on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines are taken by freelancers. The digital disruption of print news media has led to a staggering number of cuts in journalism jobs. With limited resources, publishers’ reliance on freelancers is at an all-time high. Working with freelancers has huge economic advantages, especially in conflict zones. Publishers don’t have to pay for salaries, travel expenses, insurance, lodging, safety equipment, first-aid or hostile environment training. On occasion, some publishers do pay for accommodations or expenses, but this is rare. Generally, they buy or license the content when they need it on an a-la-carte basis without any add-ons or advance commitment.

Publishers reap all the rewards of working with freelancers, but assume none of the risks. If something terrible happens at any point leading up to, or following the transaction, the publisher bears no responsibility.

Gilinsky gives tons of examples of journalists and especially photographers risking their lives, with little protection, under this system. This, regrettably, is the typical example of photographer Ali Mustafa, who died in Syria:

Nobody called Ali’s family to notify them of his death. His sister found out through a photo uploaded by an activist on Facebook. His face was charred, but unmistakably his. Ali had no liability or life insurance policy when he was killed. The Turkish and Qatari Red Crescents recovered the corpse and transported it back to Turkey. His mother, who runs a small cleaning service, paid the Canadian government 6500 Canadian dollars to coordinate the repatriation, plus another 8000 for a flight, and 7000 for the funeral. When all was said and done, Ali’s family was more than 20,000 dollars in debt. The photo agencies, on the other hand, incurred zero costs. They did not offer the Mustafa family a single penny. They did not offer their condolences or even acknowledge Ali’s death. Miraculously, Ali’s camera had survived the blast and was sent home with his body. It was covered with blood. The memory card was missing.

Another blow to independent Moroccan journalism

In late September, the Moroccan police arrested Ali Anouzla, the editor of the independent online Arabic-language site Lakome. His crime? Publishing a story that linked to a story in the Spanish paper El Pais that featured a jihadist video in which members of Al Qaida in the Maghreb threatened the Moroccan king, Mohamed the VI. Even though the Lakome story condemned the video, Anouzla may be charged with encouraging terrorism. 

This is from an Amnesty International statement:  

“We fear Ali Anouzla is being punished for Lakome’s editorial independence and criticism of government policies, in what signals a worrying setback for freedom of expression in Morocco. He is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

No kidding. Lakome is one of the only voices of serious critical journalism in Morocco. The  authorities of this supposedly liberal monarchy have systematically harassed the country's small independent press (the editors of the two best independent magazines of the last decade -- Le Journal and Tel Quel -- both live outside the country now, after being the targets of endless litigations, and Le Journal closed down).

Why I quit my job as an editor in Egypt

Very interesting interview by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with Hisham Allam, a former editor at El Watan newspaper.  

The situation in Egypt is very complicated, and the Western media sees the scene as a military coup against a democratically elected president who did not complete his presidential term. Meanwhile, the view within Egypt is completely different. The citizens do not care about the process of democracy as much as they care about how it will be implemented.

The president they voted for a year ago had committed numerous errors which created feuds between him and most of the state institutions. Consequently, both state owned and private local media volunteered to defend the new regime against the former.

In such a complicated situation, most of the local media have become unprofessional. They are biased against the ousted president and his supporters. They are deliberately avoiding the publication of any reports or news which condemn the ministries of interior and defense who led the coup.

It has become compulsory that events get covered from one angle, which condemns the ousted president's supporters and make them appear criminals, while local media ignore completely all the brutal killings and arbitrary arrests committed against the former regime supporters.Most respected journalists have decided to leave their media institutions temporarily for the fear of being exposed to pressure or being obligated to deceive the readers and audiences.

I quit my job as an investigation editor for this reason.

Apparently Allam is one of the reporters who covered Hamas' role in the prison break-outs (including of Mohammed Morsi) during the uprising against Mubarak. I always thought that story wasn't serious. But Allam also reported on other important stories, like the fatalities in a terrible train crash under Mubarak (and apparently faced harassment for it). He has good advice for young journalists in Egypt:

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
Don’t follow the mainstream. It is safe to follow, but it takes courage to lead.
What advice would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Doubt what you hear, analyze and respect the intelligence of your opponents. Last advice: don’t trust anybody.

 

Support independent journalism in Egypt

Almost every morning I read half a dozen articles in Egypt Independent, the English-language, online (and now weekly print) offshoot of Al Masry Al Youm. (Today, for example, I read this and this.) We link to their stories regularly.

I think the publication had gotten off the ground shortly before the revolution, and I remember their entire staff -- a dozen people at least -- sharing a room in the Semiramis hotel (which at the time had one of the only working internet connections in the city) to cover Tahrir. I don't think anyone in that room slept for a week. 

Since then, the publication has grown, cultivating talented local voices and reporters; becoming largely independent of its Arabic sister publication; and offering long-form investigative pieces like this that are rare. It features great photo slide shows and original columns from some of my favorite Cairo-based writers (Maria Golia, Sarah Carr), and from Egypt experts like Robert Springborg, Khalil Al Anani and Michael Hannah. 

At the moment, the entire private media in Egypt is suffering from the economic crisis, and EI is encouraging readers to subscribe. Please do -- you can see a message from them after the jump.

Have you benefitted from Egypt Independent over the past few years in getting news from Egypt? Has it been a regular source of information for you? Do you value their contribution to English language journalism in/on Egypt? Do you appreciate their writers, columnists, cartoonists, and staffers that strive to bring you top-notch work day-in and day-out? If you answered yes to any of these questions, and you are keen on making sure independent and free-wheeling journalism in Egypt continues to flourish, then you should subscribe to the weekly print edition for 300 LE a year. To do so fill in this form: 

http://goo.gl/pDSfU

I started out in journalism in Cairo many years ago at what was then the only independent English-language news publication in town, the Cairo Times. I was grevously underpaid, stupendously ignorant, and almost immediately hooked. English-language media in Egypt can get away with publishing stories that the Arabic media is pressured to squelch; it is a window on Egypt for the whole world; and it is often a great place for local and foreign journalists to learn from each other and combine their strengths. 

As media censorship and intimidation in Egypt increases, and the economic crisis makes it harder for alternative voices to thrive, it's more important than ever to support publications like Egypt Independent. 

Dining with al-Qaeda

I've just started reading Hugh Pope's journalistic memoirs, Dining with al-Qaeda. It's really good fun so far, and the second chapter — covering Pope's first job with UPI in Beirut — has a great story of his disenchantment with Robert Fisk, who always magically had more exciting stories than anyone else. His secret: he made them up. Pope went to great length later on to investigate claims by Fisk, in his Independent reporting and in his magnum opus, about Turkish "starving" of Kurds that nearly got the Independent banned there and caused Turkish authorities to blow a gasket, almost kicking Pope (a lowly stringer for the Indie) out of the country. He's calls all this "Fiskery" — others call it Fisking, especially when Fisk goes after individuals — and while he's not bitter about it there's a real sense of disappointment that Fisk jeopardizes his position of authority and emotional power on these made-up stories. He writes:

Fisk's writings, more than almost anyone else's, manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of U.S. policies  But facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agents of readers' emotional and political responses. 

The thing is, Fisk's over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting, for instance when Fisk refers to getting onboard an Apache helicopter even though they don't have passenger seats. If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It's a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.

In any case, do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest either in foreign correspondents in the Middle East. I'll do a proper review later, but I see that the Economist loved it (and if you read the review, you'll note a mea culpa about the paper's support for the Iraq war at the bottom).

Links for 07.14.09 to 07.18.09

Why is Saudi Arabia buying up African farmland? | FP Passport | More Arab landgrabs in sub-Saharan Africa. Will NBC's The Wanted Endanger Foreign Correspondents? | The New York Observer | This looks like a really stupid idea. WPR Article | The End of Political Islam? | No, it's not. A good passage from this story:
The basic goal of all Islamists, from Salafis to the Muslim Brotherhood, is the revival of Muslim society, and the reversal of the perceived decline it has been experiencing for several centuries. All Islamists agree that this decline occurred because of a shift from the original foundations of its greatness, Islam. Thus, they agree that revival means the re-Islamicization of society through ridding it of what they consider corrupting Western ideas, such as secularization.
Hamas makes feature film about slain militant - Yahoo! News | "the screenplay was penned by Mahmoud Zahar, the Gaza strongman seen as one of the architects of the group's violent takeover of Gaza two years ago." It'd be nice if Zahar was referred to as Hamas' foreign minister, and also if wasn't such an idiot for spending money on this at this time. Who does he think he is, Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi? BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saudi 'genie' sued for harassment | About time that genies learn that they are not beyond the law. Boston Review — Helena Cobban: Peace Out | The decline of Israel's progressive movement, by Helena Cobban.
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Links December 19th and January 5th

Automatically posted links for December 19th through January 5th:

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