Journalism is going through an architectonic change. I remember vividly when the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 was happening I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Listening to local news coverage or reading the New York Times and Washington Post or else watching the three dominant networks of ABC, CBS, and NBS, were all an exercise in mental torture.
My mind and my heart were in Tehran, my body trapped in Philadelphia. I finally drove from University of Pennsylvania campus all the way to a vast shopping mall in King of Prussia suburb where I was told there was a Radio Shack outlet that sold short wave radio. I purchased one such radio and tried to tune in to Tehran radio and follow the news of the unfolding dramatic events.
Today almost forty years later I wake up very early in the morning with my iPhone on my bedside-table and start reading the news in Persian in Iran or in Arabic in the larger Arab and Muslim world while my friends, family, and colleagues in these countries are still haggling their roads in their morning rush hour commute to work. I go to sleep in New York catching the news that those very friends in the Arab world will read when they wake up in their following morning. In short in New York I am ahead of their headlines. I am not a news junky, but with a quick scroll down my newsfeed on my iPhone I feel I have my hands on the pulse of the global news. This dramatic shift, predicated on mind boggling technological changes, has happened in the span of one lifetime - from my early twenties when the Iranian revolution happened in the mid 1970s to my early sixties when the Arab revolutions mesmerized the globe.
The focus of this edited volume on journalism in some of the most protracted wartime/conflict zones in the Arab and Muslim world stages the current state of journalism today on a global scale. In the age of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “post-truth” still the question is how do we know what we know about the world? The particular angle of this volume that is “from the Arab world and on the Arab world” gives it its unique political and epistemic twists. Here in this volume you will read how theoretical and conceptual frameworks interface with real-life examples and experiences, a feat that will engage generations of journalists and scholars for generations to come.
When in the course of one of her typically verbose charlatanism, Donald Trump’s spin doctor Kellyanne Conway blurted out the bizarre phrase “alternative facts” those of us historically at the receiving end of the Euro-American newspeak were amused that their brand of news actually has a name they did not know before. The New York Times coverage of the propaganda phase of the Iraq war under President Bush, with Judith Miller’s fraudulent reporting on the weapons of mass destruction at the disposal of Saddam Hussein, was the epitome of alternative facts and fake news. We did not have these words yet when New York Times was practicing them at the heavy toll of aiding and abetting in the destruction of an entire country.
Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? Why does it matter? The Arab and Muslim world are going through seismic changes. State-controlled outlets are no longer the sole or even the primary source of information about the world. Although that fact does not prevent the intentional blindness that self-interest imposes on what people choose to believe. Social media has altered the landscape of the news industry. If the assumption that the rise of the Arab Spring was something of a Facebook revolution was and remains a technological exaggeration, still the fact of social mobilization through cyberspace networks remains even truer today than ever before. Those of us who have grown up under one form of dictatorship or another have a healthy dose of scepticism about the news in general, from any news media. That does not mean we are suspicious in nature or conspiratorially minded. That means we have a sculpted view of truth, having grown up looking at facts from multiple perspectives.
Can Arabs accurately report their own affairs? Can Muslims be reliable sources of objective information about their daily lives and historic changes? Today the news coming out of the Arab world is not “objective”, for it is reported by those who are morally and politically invested in the outcome of what they report. “For the native,” Fanon observed in his Wretched of the Earth (1961), “objectivity is always directed against him.” Add that to his other precious words: “It so happens that when the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife - or at least he makes sure it is within reach.” We from the Arab and Muslim world are rethinking the news. We are not offering alternative facts. We are living alternative realities historically distorted by those who have ruled over us - from the colonial condition of the birth of our nations to the postcolonial circumstances of the tyrants who have inherited those states.
What the two editors of this volume, Awad Joumaa and Khaled Ramadan, have brought together is a potpourri of critical reflections on the very volatile conditions of media and reporting. Their concerns with International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights, and Freedom of Expression reflect the dire circumstances in which they and their concerns live today. Journalists are at the forefront of attacks, of accusations, of arrests and incarcerations when what they report does not gel with the state policies they live. There is no free press in much of the Arab world. Israel specifically targets Al Jazeera as inimical to its colonial domination of Palestine. What we read here is urgent, for the major voices that share their experiences with us in this volume have something significant to say to the world at large.
A quick look at the titles and contents of the essays collected in this volume reveals the major concerns and preoccupations that inform the condition of journalism in the Arab and Muslim world. Paramount in these essays is the safety of journalists. In “Protection of Journalists under Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law,” Abou Abass draws our attention to the peril of journalism as a profession. Peter Greste’s “Professional Integrity: The Cornerstone of Protection” has similar concerns. Then comes the issue of journalistic responsibilities under dire circumstance. In “Closing the Door on Inciting Violence: How to Avoid Hate Speech,” Ibrahim Saber takes us all the way to the thorny issue of how to make a distinction between freedom of the press and hate speech. This is not an easy distinction. But addressing it is a clear indication of the volatile environment in which the question is raised.
This volume brings together some seasoned journalists from war zones. A preoccupation with how journalists struggle with the veracity of their reporting while (literally) under fire is evident in the essay “Reporting Under Occupation in Palestine”, where Tamer Al-Meshal tests the boundaries of reporting in dire circumstances. The crucial question of gender in journalism is evident in the essay “Despite Barriers and Hazards: A Woman’s Experience Working in Gaza” by Ameera Ahmad Harouda, as well as in “War on Your Doorsteps: Journalism and Activism” by Zaina Erhaim. The all too difficult issue of modern technology is tackled by Christiaan Triebert and Hadi Al-Khatib in their essay “Digital Sherlocks: Open Source Investigation and News Verification During Wartime.” “War Stories Through Social Media: Audience Engagement and Ethical Hiring Practices,” by Sakhr Al-Makhadhi has similar concerns, as does Khalid Faheem’s “Beyond Bystanders: Citizen Journalism During the Egyptian Revolution.” This, in short, is the state of art, reporters and their editors and their handlers taking time to reflect and meditate on their profession and vocation as competent and caring journalists.
The single most crippling defect of the European and US coverage of events in the Arab and Muslim world is of course their endemic and pathological monolingualism. Their inability to communicate in Arabic or any other regional language is not merely linguistic. It translates into a contorted view of time and space, of culture and circumstance. Imagine an Egyptian or Iranian or Turkish journalist trying to write convincingly about the UK or US without knowing English or France without knowing French, etcetera. Until very recently most US and UK news venues scarcely had foreign correspondents in these countries who could not even grasp a daily conversation in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Urdu, and to this day many still do not. The opposite of this malady is of course not an equally flawed nativism, which is equally troubling and blindsided. A crucial fusion of clear headed thinking and critical intimacy with the languages and cultures of regions is indispensable to have an inroad into the dynamism of an emerging region of concern. There is still a colonial divide violently separating the modus operandi of journalism as it is practiced by Eurocentric and Indo-European practitioners of the profession.
The global media has neither a centre nor perforce any periphery. In the fortunately decentred world we live, any source of news is just one democratically located click away from the other. The debates and conversations do not happen in the US or Europe - for they are critically pulled and pushed into their global consequences - and as such they happen everywhere and anywhere. From old fashioned networks like ABC, NBC, and CBS, to cable TV outlets like Fox News and CNN, to corporate printed media like New York Times and Washington Post to bastions of bourgeois liberalism like the New Yorker, to the liberal greasing of Zionist theft of Palestine in Haaretz … we swing sideways to state controlled media like BBC and its counterparts in the Arab and Muslim world. BBC is an extension of the critical intelligence at the service of British foreign policy and by extension a belated Euro-Universalism that no African or South Asian employee of the BBC can conceal.
They criticize Al Jazeera for being quiet on the Qatari royal family and disregard their own sycophantic services to the British royalty. I have never read a single word on Al Jazeera so blatantly obsequious to the Qatar royal family as the BBC royal correspondents shower on the royal groins of their ruling family with unabashed adulation. This is not to say much more critical thinking is not required in any and all media, including and perhaps in particular on Al Jazeera. It is simply to say long after Fanon is gone we no longer need to reach for our knife when Europeans or Americans speak of objectivity. We just change the channel or click off to the next website.
* This article was the introduction of the "Journalism in Times of War" Book