Why the media muddle the Middle East

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

Review by Mat Ward

Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East
By Joris Luyendijk
Scribe Publications, 250 pages, $29.95

If you've ever felt like shaking your fist in anger at some of the reporting that comes out of the Middle East, this very honest book by a disillusioned Middle East correspondent will make you shake your head in wonder.

Joris Luyendijk says he had no journalistic experience when he was hired by a newspaper in his native Netherlands to report on the Middle East. He was taken on solely because he could speak Arabic.

But Arabic is made up of three different languages: the classical Arabic of the Koran in which no one can hold a normal conversation; modern standard Arabic, which is used in literature and understood by the 50% of Arabic speaking people who can read and write; and dialects, which are so varied that people from different areas cannot understand each other.

“It was probably just as well that my bosses didn't know that, outside of the Cairo city limits, I could hardly understand a word of the various dialects”, says Luyendijk.

His newspaper would receive reports from news agencies of an event happening in the Middle East and ask Luyendijk to report back on it. But Middle East correspondents are up against more than a language barrier. There is also the fact that most of the region is ruled by dictators.

Under a dictatorship, hardly anyone will speak on record, and there are therefore no opinion polls to give any context to the statements from the few people who will talk.

Just like his fellow correspondents, Luyendijk found himself in the absurd situation of simply rearranging the words of the agency reports that his bosses had read and repeating them back to them.

“My editors found it more important that I could be reached in the place itself than that I knew what was going on”, he says. The fact he was "there" and "had the story" was all that mattered.

He recalls the first time he made his newspaper's front page. "I could have just as easily written it in Amsterdam. But I'd scored the headline. And my colleagues were congratulating me!"

Luyendijk reflects that, if you want to stay on the front page as a Middle East correspondent, it's best to stay dishonest.

“When you're asked what's going on in your area, it's not a good idea if you reply, ‘It's hard to know.’ You run the risk of the editor-in-chief looking at you during the next round of cutbacks. Why should we invest in you if you never know anything?”

On the rare occasion that he had to give an account of what ordinary Arabs were thinking, he would ask the waiter in his hotel.

So the West builds up a distorted picture of the Middle East, not only because the few correspondents who can actually speak Arabic have little idea of what is going on, but also because the few things that can be reported — violent incidents, typically — are the exception, rather than the rule.

Realising this, Luyendijk tried to humanise his subjects. In his reports, he would include a translation of the Arabic terms seen most often in Western media, such as Al-Jazeera (The Peninsular), Hamas (Devotion), Hezbollah (Party of God), and Al-Qaeda (The Base). But his translations were removed by his bosses, who said they were confusing.

He suggested introducing a “Jokes from the Middle East” section in the newspaper, to show that people in the region were having a laugh too. Many such jokes, included in the book, are laugh-out-loud funny. But his bosses didn't go for that, either.

The main thrust of the book is that, under dictatorships, “good journalism” is a contradiction in terms. When Luyendijk started reporting on the Palestine/Israel conflict in 2001, he found that the media manipulation in Israel —“the only democracy in the Middle East” — was even worse.

He recalls arriving in Israel as it started bombarding cities with air strikes for the first time since 1967: “Wide-eyed, I walked around the astonishingly quickly erected, yet superbly equipped, press centre in the five-star Isrotel in the Jewish part of Jerusalem. As I hesitated over free coffee, tea in eight different flavours, three types of fruit juice, and piles of bread-roll sandwiches, young Israeli men and women walked round in olive green army uniforms handing out sheets of great quotes.”

They also supplied photos, rights-free film footage, dossiers full of information, phone numbers for press offices with ready-made, exclusive feature stories, and translators who could explain the government's perspective in any major language and in the required number of words.

The Palestinians' media manipulation was not so sophisticated. After a bombing in Gaza, says Luyendijk, “I saw someone laying brand-new babies' clothes under the debris, for the camera crews who were on their way.”

He found that Palestinians would put on a show of defiance for the media, but would usually mourn only at home, away from the cameras.

“[In Ramallah] there was no press centre, and journalists didn't need to register their presence. If you called the Ministry of Information no one picked up, or you finally got an engaged signal after a long wait … News happens too quickly for that; and if a ready-made Palestinian version of events isn't to hand, the Israeli version will dominate.”

Palestinians who prove media-savvy, are often seen as a threat by the dictatorial Palestinian Authority.

“This was why the charismatic Hanan Ashrawi — a woman who had been able to eloquently defend the Palestinian perspective in the early nineties — was sidelined."

Luyendijk widened his repertoire from newspapers and radio to television, but was again frustrated. The Palestinians' suicide attacks generated dramatic images, but he found he could not illustrate so vividly the loss of self-respect that came with the Israelis' occupation. That could be done only in words. In a report for his newspaper, he wrote: “I was kneeling before a full toilet bowl when a hand passed me a fork and I had to pick turds out of the water and eat them, to much hilarity.

"I'd had this nightmare last year and I'd forgotten it, as is typical with dreams, but yesterday I was at a roadblock and the dream came back in full detail. I understood what those feelings had been and how my unconscious had translated them — humiliation.”

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Luyendijk took it as his cue to quit his job, and wrote this book instead.

It became a bestseller in the Netherlands, and Luyendijk was awarded the Journalist of the Year prize by De Journalist, selected from the top 40 most influential journalists by the Dutch Association of Journalists.

The Australian release, out now, includes an updated afterword with recommendations for the media. It deserves to become a bestseller here.

Jokes from the Middle East

From Fit to print: Misrepresenting the Middle East by Joris Luyendijk.

One evening, Osama Al-Baz, the Egyptian president’s advisor, walks past the most famous bridge over the Nile. On the other side of the bridge, two giant bronze lionesses are parading. Just imagine Al-Baz’s surprise when one of the lionesses suddenly says to him, “Bring me a lion and I’ll tell you the secret of Egypt.”

Al -Baz rushes to Mubarak and says, “Mr President, hurry! I’ve witnessed a miracle, a talking bronze lioness!” So Mubarak accompanies Al-Baz to the bridge.

“No, you moron”, the lioness shouts to Al-Baz when she catches sight of the two of them. “I said a lion, not an ass.”

* * *

Burglars break into the safe at Egypt’s central bank. There’s a big panic until the governor comes out and says in relief, ‘False alarm. Nothing important was stolen. Only the results of the 2015 election.’