Truth proves elusive in a confusing trouble spot

My following book review appears in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum section:

Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East
By Joris Luyendijk
Scribe, 241pp, $29.95

“A journalist who limits himself to the role of middleman,” writes Dutch reporter Joris Luyendijk, “is actually siding with the team that is best able to influence the news cycle.”

It’s an attitude that haunts this entire work, a kind of mea culpa from a senior foreign correspondent for the newspaper De Volkskrant who arrived in the Middle East in 1998 for five years and soon saw the profound limitations of corporate journalism. The truth, he discovers, is far less interesting to editors than conforming to Western stereotypes about Arabs, Islam, Palestine and terrorism. Who really are the good guys in the region, Luyendijk wonders: US-backed dictatorships and a brutal Israeli occupying force?

He travels across the region but the book focuses on Egypt, Iraq and Israel/Palestine. In his second week in Cairo a veteran colleague says that if he wants to write a book about the Middle East, he’d “better do it in the first week. The longer you hang around here, the less you understand.”

Confusion sets in quickly. He realises, largely in a world before ubiquitous internet news, that he exists in a bubble with the wire services always far ahead of him. His role is therefore adding colour and depth behind the headlines, a task he argues is counterproductive to injecting nuance. His editors often want little more than reworked press releases. “I’d imagined correspondents to be historians-of-the-moment,” Luyendijk writes, but he is sorely disappointed.

Instead, he finds himself writing about Egyptian “President Mubarak” – who never won a free vote – and “elections … but can you call them elections if you’re not allowed to set up a party?”

Such literary dishonesty appears in our media on a regular basis. I remember Egyptians telling me in 2007 that they resented Western journalists calling their head “a moderate Arab leader” when he tortured and murdered his citizens with US and Israeli support.

After six months in the job, Luyendijk realises that he hasn’t addressed the key issue of poverty in Egypt. Instead, he obsesses over summits, peace treaties and violence. “I was contributing to the image of Arabs as exotic, bad and dangerous,” he laments. “I didn’t have the space to tell readers what was happening out of shot.” A fellow journalist reminds him of the unspoken rule: “Jews are news” but dead Arabs are less important.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, hit like a bullet but Luyendijk convincingly argues that Western journalists were looking in the wrong direction. “We didn’t address properly the … big question after the attacks: why do they hate us? This is the role that fundamentalism is often assigned in the big Western media; they hate us, and we have to get rid of them. And how exactly are we going to do that? Watch Inside the Middle East tonight, here on CNN.”

Non-violent, political Islam was lumped together with violent Islamism, a key mistake of the media and political elite since 2001. Hamas is not al-Qaeda and Hezbollah is not similar to Jemaah Islamiah. The Muslim Brotherhood, one example given by Luyendijk, is the largest Islamist group in the world, made up of lawyers, scientists and engineers, yet the silence of many Western human rights activists during sham trials of Brotherhood members in Egypt indicated selective outrage after September 11.

When Luyendijk lands in Israel, he is immediately impressed with the “openness with which media manipulation was discussed”. “The Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem allowed camera crews to visit victims of terrorism,” he writes, “so they could ‘show as much blood, pain and tears as possible’, to use the words of an Israeli spokesperson.” The Palestinians could never compete.

“Asymmetrical word use” was rampant in the Holy Land and the author seemed helpless to avoid it. “Palestinians who use violence against Israeli citizens are ‘terrorists’; Israelis who use violence against Palestinian citizens are ‘hawks’ or ‘hardliners’.”

During my recent reporting trip to the West Bank and Gaza, I shared Luyendijk’s observations. Western media rules dictate condemning any resistance to Israeli occupation as terrorism, whereas the picture is complex. I found life, hope and desperation for Gazans living under Hamas, not simply dictatorship.

In his final year in the region, Luyendijk moves to “occupied East Jerusalem” despite most of his colleagues, nearly all living in Israel, saying he would never cope. Although there is relative freedom there compared with the West Bank and Gaza – both areas where virtually no Western journalists are permanently based – “I hadn’t really understood what living under occupation was like.” After spending more time understanding the realities of Israeli repression, he concludes: “Occupation is tantamount to terrorism – only it’s permanent and enforced by soldiers and secret services rather than terrorists.”

Luyendijk’s reflections make for uncomfortable and contradictory reading; the best journalism should be nothing less.