It was, surely, one of the most eloquently written pleas for a pay rise ever composed.
On July 1, the Columbia Journalism Review carried an 1,800-word first-person piece by Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance journalist working in Syria, bemoaning her shabby treatment at the hands of editors who wanted only “the blood, the bang-bang” for their bucks – and a measly 70 bucks a pop at that.
When, in between contracting typhoid and getting shot in the knee, she tried to write about something more complex, “I am answered with: ‘What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?'”
The article went viral and provoked a storm of the usual polarised responses, from “No words to explain how deep your words reached my soul, Francesca … Fantastic, lyrical, brutal, honest article” to “No one is forcing you to remain in the hell that is Syria … This is one of the most self-absorbed, self-indulgent pity parties I’ve ever read”.
Since her article appeared, Borri has gone to ground, popping up once to write for The Guardian, to complain that “I want to talk about Syria, not just my role as a freelance journalist”. As one of her correspondents wrote, “More than 100,000 dead and the piece on Syria that went viral worldwide is a piece about journalists.”
But buried within her original article was a searing indictment of all the foreign journalists who have flocked to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria to feast on the high drama and vivid imagery of the Arab Spring.
“We pretend to be here so that nobody will be able to say, ‘But I didn’t know what was happening in Syria’,” she wrote. “The truth is, we are failures … nobody understands anything about Syria – only blood, blood, blood. And that’s why the Syrians cannot stand us now.”
When she first arrived in Syria, Borri said, “Syrians stopped me and said, ‘Thank you for showing the world the regime’s crimes’. Today, a man stopped me; he told me, ‘Shame on you’.”
Have western journalists really outstayed their welcome on the fault lines of the Arab Spring?
It all began so euphorically, and not exactly objectively, as was made clear by an independent analysis last year of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of 44 key days between December 2010 and January 2012.
“The voices of regime opponents, expressing their exhilaration and euphoria, predominated in the space of a few weeks in early 2011,” concluded the report, carried out by Loughborough University’s Communication Research Centre in the United Kingdom.
Some of the large number of western reporters in Tahrir Square, it concluded, had been swept up in the moment and some reporting had taken on “a euphoric character as it captured predominantly the reactions of regime critics rather than supporters … a narrative of revolutionary liberal protesters, ‘the people’, pitted against brutal dictators, was established.”
As the Arab Spring dragged on, of course, the multiple complexities inevitably began to filter through into western media coverage.
This, says Gene Policinski, the chief operating officer of the Newseum, the museum of journalism in Washington DC, is “a very common development in long-running news events”. When journalists arrive, “the stories that open tend to be … mixed in with a hope that ‘Now that you’re here, our message will get out’.
“What happens over time is everything from ‘Why are you talking to the other people, we’re the good guys?’, to exposing the natural rifts, disappointments and sometimes failures that occur within the side that you are covering.”
It is, says Policinski, a veteran print and broadcast journalist and one of the founding editors of USA Today, always a good idea “to make clear from the start if you are a journalist parachuting into an ongoing news story that you’re not there to tell one side.
“Western journalists come out of a culture where telling both sides is at least a goal [but] very often in most of the world you’re dealing with people who are familiar with a government-controlled or funded media, where they’re accustomed to only one side of the story being told. When you reach out to that other side it’s often very confusing – they’re not expecting that. ‘You’re here with me now, you must be politically aligned with me’.”
Ed Giles, an Australian photographer who has worked in the Middle East since 2006 and has been in Cairo for the past two years, says that such disappointed expectations lie behind the antagonism western journalists are currently experiencing in Cairo.
“Recently there was a brief campaign against CNN from the anti-Morsi, pro-military side of the spectrum, because CNN had been using the word ‘coup’ to describe what was happening,” he says, between assignments for a magazine. “As a side effect of that a lot of TV reporters in particular, but also other western journalists like myself, were hassled.”
But in his experience, there never really was a honeymoon period for western journalists covering the Arab Spring.
“I don’t know if attitudes have changed that much,” he says. “It’s always been a bit extreme – there are peaks and troughs. Whenever things are really tense, like they are right now here, and the rhetoric from the various powers-that-be cranks up against ‘foreign hands’, foreign journalists come under scrutiny.”
As a result, from time to time foreign journalists experience antagonism: “I’ve been yelled at and there have been occasions where I have had to leave a scene where the crowd are angry and they’ve taken the position that journalists and foreigners aren’t welcome, or that you’re a spy.” But “actually I’ve been quite fortunate. I know people who’ve had very much worse experiences than me, who’ve been surrounded by crowds and forced into buildings and had to hide”.
Matt Bradley, an American former National staffer who has been in Cairo for more than four years and now files from Egypt for The Wall Street Journal, knows all about that – and the curious way in which public opinion can shift suddenly and dangerously.
In the days before president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, “the xenophobia was intense and I was terrified”, he recalls. “I was chased down the street by guys with machetes and clubs because the Mubarak regime was broadcasting on television that America was behind the revolution, even though America had supported Mubarak for 30 years, and people believed this.”
Ester Meerman, a Dutch photojournalist who files words and pictures from Cairo for newspapers in the Netherlands, is well aware of the anti-American sentiment – and how to avoid it.
“To be honest, I do always make a huge point of people knowing I am not from the US,” she says, and people’s attitude “changes 100 per cent when I tell them I am from the Netherlands”.
Recently, says Bradley – a tall, blond-haired American who stands out in a crowd – The Wall Street Journal has despatched an Egyptian-American staff reporter from New York to mingle with the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square. “I’m not as excited by 200 people threatening to beat me up as I used to be,” says Bradley. But even his Egyptian-American colleague, with his far superior Arabic, is still hassled when people learn he works for an American paper: “They call him a sell-out, accuse him of being an agent.”
Conversely – and perversely – Bradley currently has no trouble when he visits the pro-Morsi protest camp in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, where the Islamists have become much more media-savvy than they used to be.
“I’m very popular down there,” he says, laughing. “When they see a foreigner, they are very welcoming and open. You’ll have 50 people coming up and wanting to talk and show you around, ‘We want to tell our story’. Whereas if you go to Tahrir, where the anti-Morsi march is – and these are secularists, people who I have an ideological affinity to – they want to see your ID, they suspect you’re a spy, and I’ve had people threaten me.”
It is, he says, “very strange to be welcomed by people whose thinking I totally disagree with, but who in fact I find to be quite like-minded”. Bradley is used to the swinging pendulum of public opinion in Egypt, but “in the four and a half years I’ve been here, I haven’t seen [it] shift so dramatically, in such a short period of time, against the Brotherhood and the media – really in a matter of less than a week”.
He, like many observers, is left puzzling over the anti-American fervour in the anti-Morsi camp, which has a direct bearing on how western journalists are perceived and treated.
America has declined to characterise the removal of Morsi by the army as a coup, and on Thursday John Kerry, the US secretary of state, told a CNN affiliate station in Pakistan that “the military was asked to intervene by millions of people … in effect they were restoring democracy”. Yet on the ground, says Bradley, “for the last month in Tahrir Square there’s been this overwhelming feeling that the United States is backing the Muslim Brotherhood, which is very strange and doesn’t make sense. … the whole memory of the fact that this country voted for Mohammed Morsi last year has been replaced by this idea that ‘Morsi was somehow imposed on us and we heroically threw him off’.”
Patrick Kingsley, Egypt correspondent for the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper since January, has also witnessed the effects of this curious case of mass double-think.
“There has definitely been a change in the way foreign journalists have been received in Egypt in the past month or two,” he says. Partly this is down to the “upsurge in xenophobia” caused by the new military-backed regime using nationalism to win support for its actions.
“But foreign journalists are also suddenly mistrusted by the millions of people who backed Morsi’s overthrow because many Egyptians resent the way foreign media has largely portrayed what happened as a coup, rather than a revolution,” he says.
There have, he says, been “several reports of western journalists getting escorted out of protests by anti-Morsi protesters because of their newspaper’s reporting on events”, but that fate has also befallen journalists working for Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, based in Qatar and seen as “Brotherhood-friendly”.
“In my reporting,” says Kingsley, “I have avoided using words that imply a judgement on what is a very complex and nuanced issue – but I have still been criticised for reporting on recent army abuses.”
Meanwhile, “Morsi supporters have been very hostile to local journalists, because they believe locals will not give them a fair wrap” – as witnessed by protests last week at a media centre in 6th of October City, home to a number of private Arabic satellite TV stations – while they have been welcoming to their western counterparts, “as they think a good international write-up may help persuade diplomats to pressure the army into treating them better.
“This marks a change from the previous six months, when it was hard to get hold of Brotherhood spokespeople, particularly if they thought your coverage was unfavourable to them.”
Doubtless, perceptions of journalists, wherever they are from, are shaped by geopolitical events. “Journalists,” says John Downey, professor of comparative media at Loughborough University’s Communication Research Centre, which analysed the BBC’s Arab Spring coverage, “are often seen as appendages to states.”
For example, in the UK the BBC is, by and large, regarded as an independent, unbiased source of information. In the occupied territories, however, it is not.
“The BBC’s coverage of Israel’s occupation differs so markedly from the reality on the ground, that it is difficult to see how it can be viewed as a trusted news source on this subject,” says Ameena Saleem, who monitors media coverage in the UK for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
The corporation’s coverage “is focused on rockets fired from Gaza and what it likes to call ‘clashes between Palestinian youth and the Israeli army’. Background and context do not make an appearance.”
That’s not an uncommon complaint about western journalism in the Middle East.
In March this year, Atiaf Zaid Alwazir, co-founder of the media advocacy group SupportYemen, wrote a telling opinion article for the Yemen Times. Thanks to a lack of meaningful engagement, she said, “the media narrative on Yemen is completely flawed”. The parachute journalists who were dropped in and out of the country knew very little about it and, as a result, a nation of 24 million people, “from different backgrounds, regions, sects, dialects and landscapes, has been reduced to [stories about] Al Qaeda, wars, poverty, qat, tribalism, or the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden”.
Distrust in the western media is nothing new – nor is it exclusively an Arab phenomenon. A Gallup poll in the States last September found that a record 60 per cent of Americans had “little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly”.
And, sometimes, that distrust is well-founded.
Confidence in the impartiality of the western media in the Middle East was surely shaken in 2004 when The New York Times admitted that many of its articles that had wrongly reported the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion had “depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change'”.
The newspaper, and other media outlets, had been fed juicy bits of misinformation by anti-Saddam groups, and had not sought to verify them independently.
“Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper,” read the subsequent mea culpa from the paper.
“Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”
Some attribute the disconnect between protestors of the Arab Spring and the traditional western media to the rise of citizen journalism, which initially drove global coverage of events. The report commissioned by the BBC Trust into the corporation’s coverage throughout the fast-moving days of 2011 noted that among the jubilant protesters journalists encountered, and to some extent relied upon, “young, liberal, western-facing and technologically adept demonstrators”.
Certainly, social media was to play a central part as western news organisations scrambled to get reporters, photographers and camera teams on the ground. User-generated content (UGC) – footage taken on video phones, chiefly – came into its own, despite the fact that “it was not clear … who the authors of a significant proportion of UGC were”.
The report found that some 46 UGC clips used by the BBC had no clear authorship. Among those whose origin was known, only 12 were attributable to government sources while 86 came from opposition activists, demonstrators and other members of “The People”.
The dangers of reliance on such citizen journalism became apparent in the middle of June 2011, when many news organisations, including the BBC, fell for the hoax that was the “Gay girl in Damascus” blog.
The author, “Amina Arraf”, had written critically about President Bashar Al Assad’s regime and had been written about by western journalists at length – but interviewed only by email. When a blog entry supposedly written by her cousin reported that Amina had been abducted by armed men, activists launched a much-reported campaign to free her – until the real blogger, one Tom MacMaster, revealed he was a 40-year-old American studying at Edinburgh University.
The rise of new media may have helped to alter perceptions among the protesters of the Arab Spring of the need for an elite class of professional journalists, no longer seen as the sole conduit through which messages can be broadcast to the world.
“New media,” says the Newseum’s Gene Policinski, “gives them an opportunity to tell their side much more easily to the large community. And then again, when a discordant story appears written by someone else, perhaps entirely accurate – let’s say about a rift in the leadership of a particular group – that’s often seen as an antagonistic story, contrary to the message they are trying to put out. By reporting on news that’s not flattering, you are contrary to the message that people feel much more empowered to deliver ‘unsullied’.”
And for this, says Rosie Garthwaite, a former producer-presenter for Al Jazeera in Doha, traditional news organisations may have only themselves to blame.
Garthwaite, who now runs Media Dante, her own TV production company in Doha, believes a “pullback of investment in the Middle East [by international news organisations] has led to a lower standard and general understanding in journalism, which has been evidenced in the Arab Spring”.
This has both encouraged and provoked the spread of “citizen journalism”, often seen as a cheap alternative to maintaining expensive staffers on the ground, “but the problem is that you need to have a proper investment in and understanding of a country if you’re going to get to grips with the story”.
Certainly, media outlets everywhere are struggling to manage – and monetise – the phenomenon, with some big players effectively institutionalising the exploitation of citizen journalism. The Guardian’s Witness project, billed as “Your chance to have videos, photos and stories featured on The Guardian“, grants the paper the right to use contributors’ material in any way it sees fit, without payment. CNN’s iReport – “Share your story, discuss the issues” – likewise grants the organisation a “perpetual, worldwide licence … without payment to you or any third party”.
Reporters, too, now tweet and blog about the news they are covering (though they, at least, are being paid to do so). Blake Hounshell, now deputy editor of Politico magazine, began tweeting about the Arab unrest in January 2011. In July that year he wrote an article for Foreign Policy, headlined “The revolution will be tweeted”, after watching young protesters tweeting from a demonstration against Hosni Mubarak.
“These weren’t revolutionaries so much as they were reporters, translating their struggle for the rest of us,” he wrote. Twitter had become “the essential tool for following and understanding the momentous changes sweeping the Arab region”.
And, in the same way that those momentous changes impact most directly on the people living through them, so the journalists who face the greatest dangers and obstacles in reporting the Arab Spring are not westerners but natives of the countries undergoing upheaval.
Being a foreign correspondent in a time of war has always been a risky business, as the towering engraved-glass memorial gallery at Washington’s Newseum vividly attests – and particularly so if you happened to be working for The Times of London in the turbulent second half of the 19th century. The first three names etched into the glass panels were all Times correspondents who lost their lives overseas in the line of duty between 1855 and 1870.
But fast-forward 160 years, and 2,244 lives, to the past four years of the Arab Spring and the two-storey glass offers a sobering insight that puts the concerns of an underpaid Italian stringer in Syria into context.
The memorial is re-dedicated, and updated, every year, and on May 13 the freshly engraved names of 82 journalists who died covering the news around the world during 2012 were unveiled.
Thirty of them were killed in Syria, but only four of the 30 journalists who died covering events in Syria in 2012 will resonate with western readers. They are Marie Colvin, the veteran American journalist killed in Homs in February last year while on assignment for the Sunday Times, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik, and Anthony Shadid, the two-times Pulitzer-prize-winning Lebanese-American who was working for The New York Times and suffered a fatal asthma attack the same month while trying to flee Syria, and Mika Yamamoto, a reporter for Japan Press, shot dead in August while travelling with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo.
Few in the West will have heard of any of the remaining 26 who died in Syria. All were Syrian journalists, of whom 18 were caught in the crossfire and eight were singled out for assassination by one side or the other.
Their deaths, memorialised on frosted panes of glass in Washington DC, serve as a brutal reminder that in journalism, as in everyday life, the vagaries of covering the Arab Spring should be seen not so much as a western difficulty, as an Arab tragedy.
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