Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Journalists - Forum or against 'em

I was at the opening day of the Arab Broadcast Forum on Sunday (I know this is hardly real-time blogging) and there were two fascinating sessions – on the dangers of reporting the Iraq war and on Arab blogging.


So far 144 journos have died in Iraq, 22 of them non-Arabs. This makes it the “bloodiest war in history” for reporters, according to Aidan White of the IFJ.

It is literally so dangerous now that few of the news organisations venture out of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

Sky News’s Tim Marshall said: “We get out of the Green Zone when we can, which isn’t very often. We can know what is going on in Baghdad and sometimes in Basra. But the rest of the country – no.”

Sky uses a half-Sunni half-Shia Iraqi “hero” to do jobs outside the Green Zone and the team have “sleepless nights” worrying for his safety.

He said other news organisations outside the Green Zone were in “mini Green Zones of their own”, which turned out to be a bit of sniping at the BBC.

The BBC’s Fran Unsworth returned fire, retorting that the Beeb was not in a mini Green Zone and had managed 60+ sorties last month.

She said many news organisations were being priced out of covering the war because they can’t afford to provide security for reporters. Iraq uses half the BBC’s entire budget for foreign reporting, she said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari sparked it all off by declaring: “Journalists are not being deliberately targeted in Iraq.”

Former spokesman for the Iraqi Governing Council Hamid Alkifaey said later that that was rubbish – insurgents love reporters because their news organisations will release huge amounts of personal info about them and they will therefore be high-profile cases, which insurgents need to keep their profile high and maintain themselves.

He added that Al Arabiya – the event’s sponsors – had not provided murdered Iraqi reporter Atwar Bahjat with enough security for a hotspot. Three bodyguards is simply not enough – you need 10, maybe more, he said.

The Sky guy and a Reuters producer also accused US forces of targeting reporters – two died when a US tank shelled Baghdad’s Hotel Palestine. The IFJ’s Aidan White said these accusations might not be bandied around if the US actually had a policy of investigating incidents where its forces have killed reporters, although a CenComm guy there said they did investigate such cases.

One organisation that would have been able to offer some pretty pointed comment at this juncture is Al-Jazeera, whose offices have been bombed by the US and whose cameraman Sami Al-Hajj is in Guantanamo.

But they were conspicuous by their absence – apparently Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera are big rivals. The ruling Sheikh of Qatar apparently doesn’t get on with the Saudi rulers while Al Arabiya is apparently partly Saudi-financed and is even accused of pro-US bias.

It seems to me that Iraq could herald a new era where journalists are as much of a target as US forces (or whoever is invading). Why not? Guaranteed headlines and it makes it much more difficult and expensive to report what’s actually going on so many won’t bother, making it easier for anyone with an aim (ethnic cleansing/massacres etc) to do whatever they want without getting found out.

Another recent ‘conflict’ that saw journalists targeted was the French riots, I guess because the media are seen as part of authority and thus part of the problem. Camera crews were ‘embedded’ with the CRS riot police.


The Arab Harry Hill – Hosam El Sokkari, Head of BBC World’s Arabic Service – hosted this and it was a cracker.

There are about 30million Arab internet users – about 10 per cent, although it’s up to 80 per cent among groups of young people – and about 5,000 Arab bloggers.

The majority of these blog in English or another foreign language rather than Arabic.

El Sokkari reckoned that was because many were educated abroad, or because they had learned the words and concepts they wanted to use in English or they did not feel they had a satisfactory Arabic equivalent. Someone else said it was easier to blog in English on existing blogging platforms.

But El Sokkari said they would develop an Arabic political vocab – “maybe even in my lifetime” – rather than following the German lead and holding some meetings in English.

We had three Egyptian bloggers live from Cairo – Egypt is the Arab blogging leader, although it’s some way behind Iran.

Bint Misria (apparently Bint – girl – is also a bit rude in Egyptian Arabic, as it is in English. Can't find her blog) said she had written that Egypt is Egyptian rather than Arabic.

She said: “It was controversial. Some people agreed and some didn’t. But that’s healthy. And that’s just what we are not allowed to do in our lives.”

Malik, a political activist who had been imprisoned after being arrested in a demo supporting some Egyptian judges, went nuts at Harry Hill for suggesting bloggers might not present a real image of the Arab world.

He raved: “So being thrown into prison for demonstrating and getting tortured – that presents a real image of the Arab world, does it?”

A guy called Khaldoon Tabaza said blogging was catching on because people were bored with the lies in traditional media. I could get away with sticking that in my traditional newspaper because of the prestige of the event. Lots of lies in the UAE media.

Perhaps the Al Arabiya guy was stung by that. At any rate he responded to a blogger called SandMonkey by sneering that even if you don’t reveal your identity the authorities still know who you are becoz they can track your IP address. So there.

The Forum was held in Emirates Palace. It really was a palace. Anything that looked gold – most of it – actually was gold. There was mother of pearl in the toilet. The befountained garden at the back gave directly onto the beach. Most hotels pretend at grandeur and luxe. This was a palace pretending to be a hotel.


There are lies in the UAE press – but Gulf News is bucking the trend over labour, the most sensitive issue in the UAE at the moment.

They have so far run three editorials (that I have seen) telling the government to lay off the press for reporting the way migrant labourers are ruthlessly exploited and instead to sort out the mess for which it is ultimately responsible.

Associate editor Nicholas Coates has written two (this and this) under his own name and there has also been one full-scale Gulf News editorial (can’t find it). Awesome.


i've always been confused about the name Bethlehem - Beit Al-Lehm or House of Meat. It's not so poetic in English, but in Arabic it is a way of describing the body. And I thought there had simply been a well-known butcher there.