Western news organisations have been keen to point out the “lessons to be learned” by their governments in light of the tumultuous events in the Middle East over the last six weeks. The popular admonition doing the rounds relates to U.S., British and EU military and political support for “dictators” and “repressive regimes” in the Arab world, deemed immoral (left-wing publications) and ill-advised (right-wing publications).
All of which is true to an extent. But journalists might want to look closer to home on the issue of hypocritical conduct regarding the Arab world.
With the explosion of media coverage of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and now Libya, it would be easy to be misled into thinking that news organizations have always given the time of day to the topics of repressive governance and human rights violations in the region.
This is simply not the case. Whilst sporadic references to autocratic rule across the Middle East can certainly be found over the years, it cannot be denied that there has been precious little focused and ongoing reportage on the sorry state of affairs to be found there.
Western consumers of print, online and broadcast media were more likely to come across the Arab world in the context of its collective outrage over alleged human rights violations perpetrated against civilians not on their own home turf but, conveniently, over the road in Palestine at the hands of the vicious Israelis.
Before these seismic events, no correspondents were documenting, week on week, the injustices faced by millions living in these closed societies, where basic freedoms are the exception rather than the rule, dissenters are jailed or murdered and leaders are simply not accountable to their people.
The Guardian’s response to the revolution in Tunisia in January is a classic case in point. Its editorial following the fleeing of President Ben Ali in January cited “a brutal dictator and his venal family,” a “police state” and “torture and human rights violations.” It also awarded “the prize for brazen hypocrisy” to France for its role in propping up the regime, with the U.S. and EU following “close behind.”
All quite accurate, but since when did The Guardian care about this brutal dictator and the poor people living in the grip of his police state? By the publication’s own calculations, in 2010, Tunisia was one of their least reported countries – 114th out of a possible 194 – with only 18 “content items” in 2010. To put this in context, there were 1008 pieces on Israel.
The hitherto lack of journalistic interest in what goes on in the 21 Arab countries is illustrated starkly by how few foreign correspondents are based there. Take the five British broadsheets: The Times, Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent. Each has two or three correspondents permanently based in the Middle East. In all five cases, at least one of those correspondents is in Jerusalem. The Independent and The Times devote two of their three people to Israel.
Those not in Israel live in and report from Lebanon and Dubai; in one case, Iraq. Hence, the lack of reportage (before now) about the terrible police states and autocracies that are (or were) Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen etc: the British broadsheets had all their resources in the West Bank reporting on Israeli settlements, which, as a result, everybody knows a great deal about.
The New York Times, too, might want to reconsider the wisdom of granting op-eds to dictators like Muammar Gadhafi to pontificate about how to bring justice to Israel-Palestine, when they preside over one of the most repressive and unjust regimes in the world; not least because they end up looking silly when two years later, that same leader is holed up in Tripoli vowing to kill all his citizens for having the audacity to voice their disapproval of his rule.
Nevertheless, media focus on the real Middle East is welcome. But it will be interesting to see whether this newly discovered passion for the events and realities in the region will translate into a reprioritisation of resources.
Hopefully, for example, The Times and The Independent will sacrifice one of their two Jerusalem reporters in the name of a more diverse and realistic portrayal of a region which, it now seems has more going on than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Carmel Gould is the Editorial Manager of Just Journalism, a non-profit think tank focusing on British media coverage of Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East.
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