Al Arabiya and Gaza

Guest post by DaveM

Television is the single most effective way to learn any language. If you want to learn Arabic, it’s is an absolute necessity. It removes you from the whole “let’s pretend” artificial environment of the classroom.

More important you’re able to follow the real debates and issues, as opposed to the sanitised stuff said in English to the foreign media.

My channel of choice is Al Arabiya, as it’s one of the most liberal news stations in the Arab world. You can hear views outside the usual paranoid conspiracy theories and victim mentality.

You can occasionally find these views on Al Jazeera; but on that channel you’re just as likely to find overweight child killers being offered birthday cake.

Of course I’m under no illusions that I am representative of any Arab news station’s audience. No Arab station, no matter how liberal, was ever going to open its news bulletin with, “Today an internationally designated terrorist group, whose views are so extreme they make the UVF, in comparison, seem like the Fabian Society, started a war against its neighbour by launching Grad and Katusha rockets at its civilians. This act was preceded by a coup in which it threw members of opposition party Fatah from the top of high rise buildings.”

Yet there were some things I found very strange and discordant with what Al Arabiya normally broadcasts.

During the war, correspondent Hanan Al Masrii’s reports from Gaza resembled the sort of thing Al Jazeera would broadcast. She would talk in terms of martyrs rather than dead and would blur any distinction between Hamas fighters and civilians– though she’d mention civilians when women or children were killed. She’d emphasise that Israeli bullets don’t discriminate between fighter and civilian but there would be no mention of human shields. The impression you’d get from her reports were that all the victims were simply Palestinians who were martyred.

Here she is talking to Najwa Kasem about covering the war on Al Arabiya’s programme “End of the week”.

Najwa Kasem [Al Arabiya Studio Dubai]: “In regard to the difficulties in reporting from Gaza we’ll speak to our colleague Hanan Al Masrii who will tell us about what’s going on there. Due to the difficulties you’re dealing with how do you move around? Are you able to even visit your family there?”

Hanan Al Masrii [Al Arabiya office Gaza]: “You had to do deal with exactly the same thing during the July 2006 war in Lebanon. It’s extremely complicated, because in the end of the day, the Israeli danger or rather the danger from Israeli fire is that it doesn’t distinguish between journalists, citizens, or even resistance fighters.

“Practically everyone’s subject to danger from the Israeli fire and moving around is far from easy. Especially if someone has to go out to do a report on civilians who have been subjected to an Israeli strike, specifically if it took place in Gaza’s north or eastern regions, but also in the south too.

“After all, the south has also been subject to continuous Israeli strikes. So movement isn’t easy and my colleagues, especially the cameramen risk death when they go out to film. But if these pictures are not broadcast then how can the world know what’s going on in the Gaza strip? When it comes to conveying the distressing scenes and portraying the people’s pain there should be someone going out there to film it and then show it on the television.

“As for me, I cover the events from inside the office here. There’s less danger inside though that doesn’t mean that it’s totally safe. All Palestinians live with this threat of danger – the old, the young in fact wherever there is any group of people working together.”

Najwa Kasem: “This point, although we’re short of time now. This issue here which we always feel when covering it from the ground, especially when we’re working in the region, such as our country [Najwa Kasem is Lebanese and covered the 2006 War] or somewhere we know well. Is there the constant fear of, God forbid, hearing that something bad has happened to someone you know? How would you deal with this sort of thing?”

Hanan Al Masrii: “On that level, look, I’m a person. I live in the harbour area. So when there’s an air strike there I always find it’s as if I’m forced to look out the window behind me here [points at Gaza harbour]. And I have to endure this feeling [of anxiety] and it’s something anyone would feel. Now if you look directly behind me you’ll see that this area here, which has been hit by air raids targeting the harbour, is close to where I live. So I’ll immediately after any air strike I’ll phone, using mobile or land-line, to make sure my family’s OK.

“In addition to that, this also happens in the Shujaiah area because not only have I’ve got family there but my husband’s family live there too.

“The Shujaiah area in Gaza’s east is where most of the Israeli attacks take place. Three days ago I was covering news on the death of a mother and her four children in that area and I discovered afterwards that she was a relative of my husband. She was his cousin’s wife and was killed, martyred in fact, along with her four children, with the fifth child suffering from critical injuries. So he was transported to Egypt for to be treated

Najwa: “How are you able to stay in control of yourself? Does this sort of tragedy not grab you by the throat? How are you able to keep it together and how are you even able speak to people?”

Hanan: “Najwa, at the end of the day you end up with very strong feelings indeed and especially if want to speak to someone who, let’s say, she is unable to come and speak to you about herself. Sometimes we journalists, medics or even ambulance crew, at the end of the day we’re unable to reach her….

[This is probably a very euphemistic way of talking about how she feels when trying to speak to survivors immediately after an air raid In Arabic when talking about a tragic hypothetical situation the language becomes extremely vague and euphemistic so as not to tempt fate.]

“However the biggest feeling of helplessness is when speaking to Palestinians who live in the front line. They feel that we journalists are somehow distinct or separate from them, but in truth, no, no we’re not. Nobody is separate from anyone else when they’re in front of an Israeli bomb or Israeli bullets. You feel most impotent and helpless when, for example, if I phone you for example to try and get help for someone and I can’t….”

Najwa: “The first time you try to do that, yes I know that feeling well. It’s horrible.”

“Exactly! When you’re not able to do anything for them….”

Najwa: “Hanan, unfortunately we’re out of time. I’d love to talk to you a lot more about this very issue but we have no time. I hope that you continue to give us a picture of what’s going on there. Thank you very much Hanan Al-Masrii”.

I put her style of reporting down to a combination of the restrictions placed on her and other correspondents by Hamas, the fact that she lives there, and a general closing of ranks by the Arab media during this war. The introspection and questioning would wait until after the war ended.

When the Press Tower housing Al Arabiya’s office in Gaza was attacked by an Israeli strike, it was filmed and subsequently used in Arabiya’s promos. You see the building hit by a strike voiced-over with newsreader Muhammad Abu Abeed imploring her to leave the building because it’s under attack. The promo ended with Al Arabiya’s slogan “So that you know more”. This ran constantly heavily and then suddenly just stopped.

Immediately after the war Al Arabiya reported that footage of Hanan Al Masrii, speaking off air, was being circulated by Israeli websites. They emphasised that this proved Israel was spying on their correspondents and monitoring their communications. This was unacceptable and a breach of ethics and professional codes of conduct.

Yet the tone of this report on their website was slightly less forceful.

Pirated footage of Al Arabiya, taken to prior to a live stand up, in which correspondent talks about a Hamas rocket which has just been launched.

Israel, using stolen footage of Al Arabiya’s Gaza correspondent, accuses Al Arabiya of “hiding the truth”.

In a new exchange of accusations, Israeli press and propaganda sites have attacked Al Arabiya, accusing it of covering-up news about the launching of a rocket from its office in the Press Tower in Gaza.

The info the Israeli website uses is what the Al Arabiya Gaza correspondent said prior to her live broadcast. It’s pretty straightforward for anyone working in the field of television broadcast to record [pre-broadcast] footage via the satellite link [from the office to studio].

It was claimed that the building which houses the Al Arabiya offices in Gaza was being used as a hiding place for Grad missiles which Hamas have been launching. At the same time other Israeli sites have been criticizing Al Arabiya claiming that it has been “hiding the truth from its viewers”, despite the fact that correspondent Hanan Al-Masrii knew exactly what happened in the minutes before her live television broadcast.

The Israeli sites show a video recording of her speaking off air prior to her live report from Gaza, yet she didn’t mention in her report – as the Israeli sites claim – that she knew about the Hamas rocket.

The footage shows the correspondent surprised by the intensity of the sound of an explosion nearby. She inquires about it wondering if it was the result of a rocket launched by Hamas.

The Israeli sites accuse the Al Arabiya correspondent of broadcasting her television report “without mentioning anything about the rocket.”

The channel’s administration commented on this controversy and considers that the broadcast of this video clip as piracy & inadmissible, and that the use of this clip is a violation of professional guidelines.

Al Arabiya administration clarified that anything said which isn’t part of the actual broadcast isn’t valid and it’s not permissible to use or exploit it.

Regarding the Israeli demands to “hold Al Arabiya to account” the Al Arabiya administration said, “We will not respond to them”.

These Israeli sites had previously attacked Al Arabiya claiming that it repeatedly covered up information “proving that Hamas were launching rockets from civilian areas”.

They also claimed that Al Arabiya abstained from re-broadcasting a report from a Palestinian eyewitness, bleeding heavily from his head, who told Al Arabiya correspondent Wa’il ‘Asam that Hamas were launching rockets prior to an Israeli bombardment.

However security guards forcefully dragged the eyewitness away from the camera.

The same thing also happened with the Al Jazeera correspondent in Gaza where an eye witness was talking about a Hamas missile preceding an Israeli attack. However he was prevented from finishing speaking.

Here’s the clip in question, subtitled in English:

I’m torn in two directions here.

My initial reactions were one of anger and dismay. The whole point of being a journalist is to cover a story, which means showing exactly what happens. You can’t on one hand show graphic pictures of dead women and children but on the other hand omit footage and not even mention that it was the very spot where Hamas were launching their rockets– let alone not show any of the Hamas fighters who were killed.

At that point you stop being a journalist and become a Hamas PR officer and may as well work for Al Aqsa TV, which at least doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. (Warning: Contains disturbing footage.)

Being a journalist means that you have to show all that difficult, nasty, uncomfortable stuff even if it undermines everything you hold dear and makes you extremely unpopular. That’s your job. Either show everything and let the viewers make up their minds. Or show nothing. You cannot have it both ways.

A few days later my feelings changed to resignation. To understand the Middle East you need to acknowledge that there is a culture of denial and lies which permeates pretty much everything. This isn’t due to any moral weakness among Arabs. It’s a survival technique, a defence mechanism. We did the same thing in Northern Ireland. It kept us alive.

Expecting the Arab news media, no matter how liberal (and Arabiya is one of the most liberal channels there is), to operate outside this framework, especially from a correspondent in a war zone, is extremely naïve.

At the end of the day Hanan Al Masrii’s first and last responsibility is the protection of herself and her family; everything else is way down the list of priorities. Having a Gazan report on a war in Gaza probably isn’t the best way to ensure any sort objective reporting.

Yet I can’t quite understand are why Al Arabiya would even draw attention to this story instead of just brushing it under the carpet.

The tone of the report is actually comparatively restrained. The Al Arabiya administration gave a “no comment” response and there are no lawyers involved, or face-saving threats of legal action, unlike for example in this instance.

And of course who could forget this?

Their website also mentions that Hamas dragged eyewitnesses away from the camera, though I didn’t hear this mentioned on their television reporting.

Yet it’s only because Al Arabiya broadcast the story about this clip that I was made aware of it. And it also regularly gets criticized for being too pro-Israel (in Arabic).

So I actually don’t have an answer. I’m totally baffled.

The most difficult thing when it comes to learning Arabic isn’t the pronunciation, the words, or even the grammar. It’s that the Arab-speaking world operates on a completely different set of rules, values, expectations and reference points than the West.

You need to know what they are in order to understand the language. You can’t separate the two as they don’t exist independently of each other. But nobody will tell you what they are; if you ask, a lot of people get defensive.

When I find out what they are, I’ll let you know. It may take quite a while. Three years of this and I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. Or maybe it’s like as we say in Northern Ireland about our conflict: “If you understand what’s going on, it hasn’t been properly explained to you.”

(Hat Tip: Al Arabiya)