Western reporting from the Middle East
Echoes of colonialism often affect how foreign news agencies report on the region, from the misuse of stringers in the street to arrogant editors in the newsroom, writes Salah Nasrawi
The participation of local reporters in international media operations dates back to the period following World War I when most of the Levant was colonised by the two European victors, Britain and France. In this period, major Western media organisations set up permanent or long-term operations in the Middle East, ushering in, I argue, a new form of Orientalism in the post-colonialist world.
These early media operations had to resort to local journalists, mainly English and French-speaking helpers, who were recruited for their expertise in needed specialisations such as translation, guidance and connections with local, non-English-speaking officials and communities. With the passage of time these “helpers” increased in number and became a new breed of professional reporters. Many of them, having graduated from Western journalism schools, returned to the region bringing with them a liberal education and up-to-date journalistic and writing techniques. Today, there are hundreds of native journalists employed at various Western media organisations across the Middle East, covering some of the most complex stories in the world of news and politics and working under some of the most difficult circumstances in one of the most unfriendly and dangerous regions in the world.
Yet, after nearly 100 years of active participation, the contributions of these reporters have not received sufficient critical attention or academic research. Arab local reporters can be called “forgotten heroes” in the ongoing battle for truth and accuracy in Middle East reporting, in a blatant manifestation of Orientalist power, denial and prejudice.
Foreign media need native reporters because they rely heavily on local sources for news and information gathering. They hire them because of their contacts, their connections, mobility, knowledge of local languages and culture, and most important, for their ability to convey a sense of place and add perspective and background to a story. These native reporters posses the natural “meta skills” that make them best suited to provide insight, context and analysis, unfiltered by foreign perspectives, agendas or political strategies. While Western journalists can, and often do, possess the editorial, writing and language skills to shape the story, there is no replacement for the kind of granular knowledge that local Arab journalists bring to news production.
In this capacity, native Arab journalists are actually working as a cultural bridge to connect the West and Arab world, two worlds that have been traditionally separated by a geopolitical gap, historical and cultural distortion, misunderstanding and stereotypes. They are best suited to be the link that facilitates better understanding of their region by Western audiences.
While the practice of hiring local Arab journalists to support Western news production is standard, the problems faced by these journalists remain largely unrecognised, and are mounting along with the pressures of digital media and the 24-hour news cycle. For example, while hundreds of these journalists struggle to provide reporting under stressful conditions and in dangerous zones, sometimes even risking their lives in perilous situations, they themselves have little or no legal protection. The issue of the safety and well-being of local Arab journalists is rarely and inadequately addressed by the organisations that hire them. For example, many of these reporters are working as “stringers” with no contracts and are not provided any kind of insurance, even when they work in war zones.
Local journalists are generally not represented in international journalist unions or even in their own organisation’s guilds. The News Media Guild, which represents Associated Press workers (as well as UPI, and employees of the Spanish EFE News Service), for example, does not take complaints or support requests from non-American journalists working at AP’s offices worldwide. This is in spite of the fact that its website states that it is “a labour union dedicated to quality journalism through fair working conditions for the men and women who provide the news.”
Based on personal experience, even the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) fails to address grievances or complaints from local reporters working for international media. This is in contradiction to its self-definition as a confederation “created to deal with matters related to trade unionism and the practice of the profession of journalism” among whose “aims and objectives areâê¦ to protect and strengthen the rights and freedoms of journalists [and] to improve and defend the social and working conditions of all journalists.” Furthermore, groups like IFJ tend to focus mainly on problems in state-owned media, largely ignoring problems occurring in private media organisations. Finally, national press syndicates in home countries who accept the membership of local reporters working for international agencies do not have adequate programmes to assist them, and they rarely advocate on their behalf in work-related and other disputes.
Some international media groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, maintain programmes to help journalists through a combination of financial and non-financial assistance, but they too have no programmes specifically dedicated to local journalists working with international media. The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a UK-registered charity, runs skills building programmes in several countries, including the Middle East, to help local reporters seeking careers with international media.
The absence of formal protection and advocacy support from international, regional and national unions comes at a high price and makes these journalists uniquely vulnerable. For example, it is customary for local reporters who work for international media to be hindered by authorities or local protocol in doing their work properly and safely. They are often intimidated and even threatened by authoritarian regimes for various reasons, but mostly to pressure them to collaborate with the government security apparatus. The lack of legal and other kinds of protections makes them easy targets for police brutality, terrorists or radical groups, especially during episodes of street violence and conflicts.
Another dilemma these journalists face is the suspicion that they are working as spies, either for foreign countries or for their own governments. The notion that journalism is a cover for spying is as old as the profession itself and the two fields “have historically played off each other,” as noted by Murray Seeger, the late veteran Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent who was based in Moscow in the 1970s. This suspicion is one of the most persistent conspiracy theories in the Arab world, found not only in popular culture, but also among the political elite and even academic circles. The fact that there is a long history of American, British and Soviet journalists working for intelligence agencies naturally reinforces such suspicions.
Although there have been no “known” cases of native Arab journalists employed by international media who have been officially charged for intelligence work, the suspicion and mistrust associated with their employment haunts these journalists throughout their careers, sometimes leaving psychic wounds. These suspicions stem from the fact that working with foreign companies often requires holding security clearance, which makes them exploitable by the home country’s secret services or information ministries. Among the consequences of these suspicions is that journalists are particularly vulnerable during wars and in conflict zones where the roles of reporting and spying are most likely to be blurred.
Another serious consequence is that local reporters live under constant surveillance by their own countries’ intelligence and security services, and are sometimes even spied upon by foreign clandestine agencies. They are followed, their phones are tapped, their e-mails are intercepted and their houses and work places are wired. Attempts to recruit them or enlist their cooperation are not unusual. Ironically, native journalists working for international media are sometimes seen by their employers as intelligence agents for their own countries’ security and intelligence apparatus or government officials.
Another kind of prejudice faced by native journalists is that officials usually prefer to talk to foreign reporters rather than local reporters working for the same media outlet, especially when there is major breaking news. They are often treated by local newsmakers and news sources as second-class reporters or mere apprentices working under the direction of their foreign bosses. This behaviour can be attributed to the inferiority complex known as the “foreigner complex”, or simply to the lure of making friends with the foreign media. While it is demoralising to local journalists it is also humiliating for local officials who, upon publication of articles, often complain of misrepresentation or misquoting due to language or other differences.
Yet another problem that local Arab journalists face comes largely from within their own newsrooms where Western colleagues often doubt their professional ability to fact-check, make good editorial judgements and to be independent, fair and balanced. This lack of trust can lead to frustrating, phobia-like caution and nagging on the part of the Western reporters or editors, which in turn, poisons the work environment and creates unnecessary contention.
The contentious atmosphere in the newsroom is also exacerbated by the fact that Western news media often assign to Middle East bureaus editorial staff who lack basic skills in local languages and an understanding of local culture, not to mention the intrigues and complexities of national and regional politics. Major dilemmas can arise if self-assured editors with minimal knowledge fail to interact with their local colleagues in a collaborative fashion and choose instead to dictate from a position of power and isolation. Middle East newsrooms in particular can ill afford to prioritise seniority over collaboration and information sharing because of the sensitivity of the issues and a dire need for balance. Failure to truly and actively involve locally hired reporters in editorial processes causes resentment and suspicion of hidden agendas.
People working in newsrooms in the era of the 24-hour news cycle know that one of the daily challenges for journalists is generating new story ideas. And while it is true that the Middle East is one of the most eventful and active regions for news, it is still the case that good story ideas remain a precious commodity. This leads to another problem found in Middle East reporting: the stealing of ideas from native reporters, either for the purpose of writing a full story or to give depth and detail to someone else’s story.
In some Western media offices in the Middle East, this practice takes the form of a supposedly collegial “picking the brains” of native reporters, often done in a way that makes them feel this exchange of ideas is a compliment. Indeed, some of these organisations hire natives simply because they need them as “ideas” people. This is often done without informing the local hires in advance of that purpose. Needless to say, this bizarre brainstorming relationship does not promote creative thinking, and it narrows and subordinates the professional experience of native journalists.
Under the pretext of market demand for “Western” names on a story, local reporters are made to share by-lines with their Western colleagues, a practice that effectively turns them into ghostwriters. The message implicit in these newsroom behaviours is that while local journalists may have ideas, they cannot objectively analyse them, let alone execute them in printable stories, and therefore, it is better to give these ideas to people who can.
While I have focussed on the day-to-day ways native journalists at foreign media organisations are denied opportunities to work and develop professionally, it is important to emphasise the wider context that enables and permits these practices, namely persistent structures of post-colonial power relations and subordination that permeate Western media operations in the Middle East. These are deep rooted and multi-faceted problems with cultural, psychological and political ramifications and for which there are no easy or readymade solutions. However, awareness and public discussion are important first steps.
Finally, with online journalism growing and economic conditions worsening, conventional international media business models are collapsing. And as mainstream Western media increasingly rely on digital news portals and social networking for news sources, the function and role of local reporters is drastically changing, partially for the better. The opportunities today for native reporters and writers to make their independent voices heard on a global platform have never been greater. There are hundreds of news websites that originate from the Middle East, many of them in foreign languages, and it is my hope that local reporters and writers take advantage of them in order to connect to other journalists and to create a new Middle East news network.
The writer is an Iraqi journalist who worked with AP for 25 years. A full-length version of this article appeared in the fall issue of Arab Media and Society, a journal published by the American University in Cairo