Objectivity Overruled

What happens when an Arab news network refuses to call dead Palestinians martyrs?

Monday’s Jerusalem Post reported that the Palestinian Authority has demanded that Arab satellite-TV journalists refer to any Palestinian killed by the Israeli Defense Forces as “martyred.” The instructions targeted the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network, which until now had been using the politically and religiously neutral, though still adequately descriptive, adjective “dead.” A PA spokesman suggested that “the Ministry of Information should be entrusted with educating these correspondents by telling them which phrases are used in our political life.” (In other words: Use our terminology, or else.) To help drive the lesson home, gunmen who identified themselves as members of Yasser Arafat’s ruling Fatah Party beat Al-Arabiya’s Ramallah-based Palestinian correspondent Seif al-Din Shahin with their rifle butts.

The concept of martyrdom has gotten a fair amount of scrutiny in the region, but usually in reference to suicide bombings, often called “martyrdom operations” in the Arab press. One former mufti of Egypt lost his job when he came down on the wrong side of the fine line and said it was just plain suicide. Hezbollah’s spiritual mentor, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, thought attacks were permissible in Islam if they did sufficient damage to the enemy. But to the Palestinian Authority, even those who weren’t actively seeking their own death are “martyrs.” It would be something like the White House requiring that in the interests of the war on terror, the press henceforth refer to Sept. 11 victims, future terrorism victims, and all U.S. military casualties as “angels.”

Al-Arabiya, the self-styled moderate alternative to Al Jazeera, is the year-old all-news satellite affiliate of the Middle East Broadcasting Co., which is owned predominantly by Saudis. In the jihadist mind-set, the Saudis are an infidel regime and are therefore legitimate targets of violence just like American crusader forces and Jews. The Palestinian Authority, maybe showing more of its jihadist colors than it intended, thus concludes that recent terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia have led Al-Arabiya to avoid language about Palestinians that might in any way be construed to glorify armed attacks on the Saudi kingdom. It’s hardly surprising that the Palestinian Authority, accustomed to controlling its own press, sees state interference where there isn’t any.

Recall that last month, before Saddam Hussein’s capture, Iraq’s Governing Council, with the United States’ blessing, shut down Al-Arabiya’s Iraq bureau after the network aired a tape made by Saddam. To have made enemies at different ends of the political spectrum suggests that this Arab media outlet must be doing something right.

Recently I spoke with Al-Arabiya News Director Salah Nigm in MBC’s offices at Dubai Media City, a sprawling industrial park with a waterfront view of the Persian Gulf.

“It’s difficult to be a political journalist in a region like ours,” Nigm told me. Recruiting talent turned out to be one of the most trying aspects of starting up the network. There simply aren’t enough independent Arab media, so Al-Arabiya hired a number of journalists from the government-controlled presses across the region. Still, even those with very polished professional skills had to be retrained.

“We had to break them of some habits,” explained Nigm. “Like self-censorship dealing with certain topics that are always treated sensitively—some of them political issues, some religious issues.”

Many of those issues are related to the Palestinians’ ongoing conflict with Israel. “We had to break people of using some terminology, like the phrase ‘the Zionist entity’ instead of Israel.” Or like the word “martyred” to describe anyone killed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Rhetoric is purged from news reports for the sake of objectivity, often a difficult quality to measure. What seems objective to CNN viewers may not to Al Jazeera’s audience. Al-Arabiya has found that the first, and easiest, step is to avoid introducing emotionalism into news stories—even if certain figures in the news, like the Palestinian Authority, and the audience have come to expect an emotional response to stories.

“In the Palestinian intifada, in Afghanistan and Iraq, we give the facts as they are on the ground. We describe who is winning the military victory, even if this goes against public opinion.”

With regard to the Saddam tape, some Al-Arabiya journalists were sensitive to the feelings of Iraqis, many of whom believe the rest of the Arab world can’t or won’t sympathize with what they suffered under the Arab hero who challenged America. Iraqis don’t see any justification for giving Saddam a platform. Still, Nigm explains that if a tape has news value, Al-Arabiya will broadcast it.

“We didn’t show every tape we got from Saddam,” Nigm said. “Some of the stuff we got from Osama Bin Laden was just him talking to prove he was still there. It wasn’t newsworthy, so we didn’t show it.”

Indeed, Al-Arabiya’s growing reputation for rhetoric-wary reporting may be one reason why Saddam Hussein chose—and Osama Bin Laden still chooses—to send his messages to Al-Arabiya. “They go to who’s most influential,” says Nigm. “I don’t know if it’s their gut feeling or if someone’s advising them. But the old media is tarnished. Maybe they want media known for being objective.”