behind the news

Blogging in the Middle East: Not Necessarily Journalistic

The new threat to Middle East journalism: made in the USA
August 17, 2009

CAIRO – What is a journalist? In Western media circles these days, the boundaries are blurring between online newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor and, “blogs” such as, YouTube’s “citizen journalism,” and the rantings of political attack-dogs of all political stripes. Sure, HuffPost has a White House press pass, but beyond that, it’s all semantics, right?

Not so in the Middle East. Here, the distinction can be a matter of life and death. Lately, well-meaning Western journalism rights groups have been invoking “freedom of the press” to defend Arab and Iranian online activists who have been jailed or harassed by the authorities. By doing so, they are undermining journalism.

Let’s be clear. Everyone should be free to express his/her opinion. No one should be detained or sent to jail for something s/he said or wrote. Free speech and human rights groups should defend those people as aggressively as possible, no matter what they said or who they insulted–assuming it meets the test of truth. But just because you put words on paper–or a computer screen–does not make you a journalist. After all, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is one of an estimated 100,000 Iranian and Arab bloggers. For journalism rights groups to defend anyone with a keyboard or cell phone camera on the basis of press freedom dangerously muddies the waters.

“At the time of my arrest I was protesting the siege on Gaza,” German-Egyptian activist Philip Rizk wrote on his blog, Tabula Gaza, after being held by Egyptian authorities for four days this spring. Rizk was one of six Egyptian bloggers featured in a March letter to Egypt’s president by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) protesting “the relentless campaign of persecution against Internet journalists and bloggers,” which, it said, was part of “an overall decline in press freedom in Egypt.”

But wait a minute. Rizk, a former NGO worker in Gaza, was arrested for taking part in a caravan of protesters drumming up support for Palestinians. What exactly does that have to do with “press freedom”? His blog does contain first-hand eyewitness accounts–what could be termed “reportage”– from Gaza, but it is heavy with messages of protest. “The time has come to react: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” says one post. And while the Egyptian government briefly pulled the plug, the blog was back up by the time of the CPJ letter (and Rizk had long since been released).

In fact, every one of the people named in the CPJ letter can best be described as an activist. Only one, Kareem Amer, was actually jailed for something he wrote, and that was a posting sarcastically headlined, ‘Swear Allegiance to President Mubarak, the Emir of the Faithful,” a title used by the successors of the Prophet Muhammad. Around here, that kind of rhetoric is associated with those stirring up confessional conflict, not journalism. He was convicted of libeling Mubarak and insulting Islam. Even fellow blogger Sandmonkey, who, in a Washington Post op-ed, condemned the conviction, says Amer’s postings were “pretty much hate speech.”

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Two of the others were arrested for membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization; one is a Sinai Bedouin activist picked up for alleged involvement in an anti-Egyptian demonstration; and the fourth was taken the same day as Rizk for the same reason.

Again, we are not saying the jailing of any of these individuals is justified; free speech and human rights groups should vigorously defend them. Our point is that none of it involves journalism. This is a job for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, not CPJ.

Other Western free-press groups also conflate the persecution of online activists and political Twitterati with the persecution of journalists. “Three more journalists have been arrested since early on 20 June 2009, bringing the number of journalists and cyberdissidents detained in Iran to 33,” Reporters sans Frontiers said in a June 22nd release. If RSF equates the two groups, can the Iranian government be blamed for doing the same?

Make no mistake: Arab and Iranian bloggers and e-activists play a vital role in their respective societies. From their electronic bully pulpits, they shout the kind of things that in the past people only whispered behind closed doors.

But to lump them in with brave journalists who are being jailed, harassed, and even murdered for reporting facts–not rumor or innuendo–about government corruption, official malfeasance, and corporate misdeeds undermines efforts to bolster a free and professional media in the Arab world and Iran. And it’s an insult to those who are sacrificing themselves for that goal.

Bloggers take pride in shock value; societies long locked in fear need to be jolted awake. The explicative-laced personal attacks on, and unproven allegations about, politicians, journalists and other figures in “official” circles–what Americans in another era would have called “the man”–common on Middle East blogs are meant as an electronic slap in the face for regimes that have long kept the media in chains to keep themselves in power.

“Yes, I’m biased. And I like it this way,” says Mahmoud Saber, a prominent Egyptian blogger. For bloggers, that’s fine. Not so for journalists.

Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas has rightly been honored by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the BBC for uploading videos about torture by the Egyptian police and other scandals. Such postings play in important role in creating safe space for journalists to cover stories that would otherwise have been off-limits – and goading them into more aggressive reporting of their own. But Abbas, who was recently detained for several hours by Egyptian state security on his return from European trip, makes no pretense about his job. “We are not inverting the roles. Bloggers are not journalists. We are about promoting freedom of speech,” he told an interviewer.

“I don’t believe in detachment … or making sure that I am balanced,” writes “Zeinab,” another Egyptian blogger. “[But]I do try to be fair. I do try to check my facts and make sure that I am not citing make-believe figures. I try not to accuse anyone of anything too outlandish without proof and I generally attempt to stay away from unfounded hypotheses or offensive content.”

But not all online writers share that goal. The world is rightly transfixed by events in Iran. Lost in the cheerleading is the fact that Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and the like have created a vast electronic rumor mill. Unchecked, unverified, endlessly-forwarded “eyewitness” accounts create a propagandist’s dream. At a Congressional hearing during the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, a tearful, anonymous fifteen-year old Kuwaiti girl described how Saddam Hussein’s soldiers tore babies out of incubators and left them to die. It was a lie: she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador and it was all facilitated by a PR company. Does anyone doubt the same kind of thing is now happening in real time through blogs and tweets?

A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of Arab journalists believe a lack of professionalism is the greatest threat to their profession–greater even than government control. In that kind of environment, blurring the line between journalistic professionalism and political activism is, to say the least, counter-productive.

Let’s be clear: some bloggers are journalists who use the Internet to get around official censorship. For Libyan anti-corruption journalist Dhaif Al-Ghazaly, the Internet was the only way to avoid his country’s draconian media controls. He paid the ultimate price in 2006; the first Arab online writer to be killed. The murderers cut off his fingers before stabbing and shooting him as a chilling message to the rest.

Internet journalism holds a huge potential for fostering reform. Online news organizations like Kalima in Tunisia fill an important gap in countries where traditional print media and broadcasting is circumscribed. Their struggle should be bolstered, not undermined. They need training, funding and psychological support. Not a slap in the face. And that’s what happens when you send the message that there is no difference between professional journalists and those who spout vitriol, flog a cause or simply see media as a means to an end.

“This a country where barbers used to do the job of doctors,” says Abdelmonem Said, head of Egypt’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, who writes a newspaper column but does not consider himself a journalist. “We should not refer to [bloggers] as journalists unless they are qualified to perform the job of a journalist. Defending an activist in the name of journalism further complicates an already complicated situation.”

Professionalism is the best defense for Arab and Iranian journalists; facts their ultimate ally.

If everything written on the Web is equal, governments have an excuse to crack down on it all. And if journalist rights groups throw in their lot with political activists, it will be hard to make a case that jailed Iranian and Arab journalists shouldn’t be tried right alongside “cyberdissidents” advocating revolution and militants who throw bombs.

Read CPJ’s response here.

Lawrence Pintak and Yosri Fouda are the organizers of a recent lessons-learned summit in Cairo for bloggers from around the world, held as part of a year-long USAID-funded project that sent Egyptian bloggers to the U.S. for the presidential election. Pintak was was recently appointed founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. Fouda formerly chief investigative correspondent for Al-Jazeera, now hosts a talk show on the Cairo-based pan-Arab satellite channel ON-TV.