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An Analysis on Terms
By Joris Luyendijk
Le Monde Diplomatique of March 2007
When I started out as a Middle East correspondent I thought my job would be straightforward. I would figure out the what, where, when, who and how; and then hear all sides on the why, separating fact from opinion. Wasn't that how quality newspapers set themselves apart? What do those self-congratulatory clips on CNN, Fox News or Al Jazeera promise if not objectivity? "We report, you decide."
Not quite. After five years I have come to accept that western journalists cannot accurately, let alone objectively, represent the Middle East and the Arab world. The problem is not that journalists do not always adhere to their own professional codes and methods, though that does happen. It is that even if correspondents strictly obey all the rules, they still present a fundamentally biased and skewed picture of the Middle East.
The problem is threefold. It always goes back to the instruments with which journalists tell their stories: words. Some mean nothing to western audiences; others mean something very different; others carry an inherent bias.
The best examples of words unknown to western audiences, in the sense that people use these words without any first hand experience, are "dictatorship" and "occupation". Why, more than five years after 9/11, is there still no real debate among western intellectuals about whether it is in our interests to give diplomatic, technological, economical, military and intelligence support to major dictators in the Arab world? How can western intellectuals repeatedly call on Arab Muslims to start a free and open discussion about the modernisation of their religion when Arab dictators block such discussion - and remain in office partly because of western support?
Could it be that those western commentators write the word "dictators" in op-ed pieces but do not realise what dictatorship really means? Or that it can only survive by stifling all intellectual activity, including the vaunted "modernisation of Islamic thought"?
It is not only commentators who are ignorant of the nature of dictatorships. In my correspondent days I would sometimes get angry reprimands from my editor: what took me so long to get a visa for Iraq under Saddam? Why had I not yet gone to Libya? What do you mean, no visa? Just try harder! Or I would get a request for the telephone number of the Jordanian secret service. Or an auditor would demand that I produced receipts from all the people I had bribed when I was in Iraq.
How to explain?
My editor and auditor avidly followed the news. They read their paper, they watched the television news. But the news doesn't explain what a dictatorship really is.
Last summer I published a book in which the first 100 pages were based around a single idea: to explain what it means to live under a dictator - the fear, the distrust, the brainwashing, the corruption and the deliberate destruction of human resources, self-respect and public opinion. My publisher was personally involved in the production of the book and read it several times. He went to the Frankfurt book fair and came back in high spirits: he had talked about the book to an Egyptian publisher who was interested: my breakthrough in the Arab world was imminent. My publisher was beaming until I suggested that a dictatorship that would allow the publication of a book about the nature of that dictatorship was a contradiction in terms.
My publisher is an intelligent, well-read man but even after 100 pages about the culture of fear on which police states rely, the word "dictatorship" was still an abstraction.
Could the word "occupation" be equally empty for western readers and viewers? Perhaps that would help to explain why the Palestinian Authority is under constant pressure to prove that it does enough against violence whereas Israeli government spokesmen hardly ever get asked if they do the same.
The average westerner does know what the threat of terrorist violence means, if only because of the regular reminders provided by rightwing politicians. But who explains to mainstream western audiences the terror behind the word "occupation"? In any given year the number of Palestinian civilians killed as a result of the Israeli occupation is at least three times higher than the number of Israeli civilians killed as a result of terrorist attacks. Yet western reporters refer to the "bloody suicide bombings" and never to the "bloody occupation".
If these daily horrors remain mostly out of sight, news from countries with dictatorships does reach western papers and TV bulletins. But then another problem presents itself: when western journalists describe events in dictatorships they borrow their terms from democracies. They use words like "parliament" or "judge", they say President Mubarak rather than dictator Mubarak, and they talk about Egypt's National Democratic party when it is neither democratic nor a party. They quote a professor at a university somewhere in the Arab world but fail to add that he is vetted and monitored by the secret service. When television images appeared of angry young men who burned a Danish flag in a police state, they called it a demonstration rather than a public relations exercise.
Police states with parliaments
The odd thing is that Middle East correspondents know very well what occupation and dictatorship mean. They work and live in Arab countries or the Palestinian territories, they have local friends and colleagues or family members who cannot, when it really matters, rely on the rule of law. These people are not citizens but subjects, essentially defenceless, and they know it. How could audiences in the West really know how such a system works? Especially when our vocabulary suggests that democracies and police states are essentially the same, with a parliament, a president and "elections"?
There are also inherently biased words, as demonstrated by any 10 minutes with a remote control in front of a satellite television set. Should we say Israel or Zionist entity or occupied Palestine? Intifada or new holocaust or independence struggle? Is that piece of land "disputed" or "occupied" and should it be given "up" or "back"? Is it a "concession" when Israel fulfils an obligation under a signed treaty? Are these "negotiations" between Israelis and Palestinians, and if so, what trump cards do the Palestinians have - since the term negotiation implies give and take between two equal parties?
That is the trouble when you try to give an unbiased report about the Middle East: there are no unbiased words. So whose vocabulary to adopt? You cannot open your news item with a sentence that says: "Today in Judea and Samaria/the Palestinian territories/the occupied territories/the disputed territories/the liberated territories, three innocent Palestinians/Muslim terrorists/Arab newcomers were preemptively eliminated/brutally murdered/killed by the Zionist enemy/Israeli occupation troops/Israeli defence forces." You couldn't begin news from Iraq with: "Today Zionist crusaders/American occupation troops/coalition forces have attacked bases of the Muslim resistance/terrorists/terrorist cells."
Western culture is optimistic, so that when you identify a problem you are expected to present a solution. I see no way out of this morass, except more openness about the inescapable biases and filters in reporting, and an end to misleading marketing slogans ("We report, you decide"). Yes, but we decide what you see and how you see it.
There is a final category of words in which most western news media could do better. Why is a Jew who claims the land is given to him by God an "ultra-nationalist" whereas a Muslim who does the same is a "fundamentalist"? An Arab dictator who chooses a political course different from the West is "anti-western", yet that label is never used the other way around. Have you ever seen a US leader described as "staunchly anti-Arab"?
An Israeli politician who believes that only violent action can make his people safe is called a hawk. Ever spotted a Palestinian hawk? No, they are extremists or terrorists. Israeli politicians who say they believe in talks are doves. Palestinians with a equivalent political outlook are called "moderate", implying that deep inside every Palestinian there is a violent core but, Allah be praised, this one has moderated that core. While Hamas "hates" Israel, no Israeli party or leader ever hates Palestinians, even if those leaders use their parliamentary positions to call for the expulsion of Palestinians.
Or should that word be ethnic cleansing, or involuntary relocation, or transfer?
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