Tunisian journalist courts controversy by kissing Syrian soldier’s shoe
Kawthar al-Bashrawi was telling the presenter about her encounter with a Syrian soldier outside Damascus
A video of a onetime famous Tunisian news presenter kissing the shoe of a Syrian soldier during a live interview on a pro-Assad television channel has caused controversy in Arab media, with questions being raised over impartiality and objectivity after her actions.
Kawthar al-Bashrawi, a former Al Jazeera and MBC presenter, was being interviewed recently on Syrian state-owned television when she kissed the boot, which she said belonged to a Syrian soldier she met outside Damascus.
“I told one of the soldiers, I swear to God, I am not leaving until I get one of your boots,” Bashrawi, who is often criticized for her public pro-Assad regime stance, recounted.
Holding the boot in her hand, she added: “This is what I craved from the whole of Syria... This military boot is what is going to impose peace… People are wearing this boot and are dying for the sake of the whole Ummah.”
“As long as this [the shoe] is here, rest assured that God will preserve our leaders His Grace The Sayed [Hassan Nasrallah], our brother Bashar [al-Assad] and this army and this people.”
“It is the most precious gift in my life,” she continued.
“These are the real men,” she said while pointing at the boot, in a reference to pro-Assad soldiers. “The men who sacrifice their lives and leave their mothers in agony - and leave their pregnant wives carrying their unborn children.”
Peaceful Syrian pro-democracy protests started in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa, but were met by a violent crackdown by security forces, killing many. The uprising spread nationwide with protests demanding the ouster of President Assad’s regime. This quickly escalated into a full-fledged civil war that has claimed at least 220,000 lives - as of March 2015 - according to the United Nations. Almost four million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict, 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and an estimated 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian aid inside Syria, including 5.6 million children, according to U.N. figures.
Speaking to Al Arabiya News, Joe Khalil, associate professor in residence of communications at Northwestern University, said Bashrawi had used the boot “as a symbol to reveal her admiration for the Syrian army’s ability to quash its opponents.”
“The Western press spent days talking about the meaning of shoes in Arab and Muslim culture after Iraqi Journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi threw his shoes at the then U.S. President George Bush,” said Khalil, in reference to the widely reported incident in 2008, which saw an Iraqi journalist throw his shoes at Bush during a Baghdad press conference.
“With Bashrawi, the army boot is elevated to a symbol of heroism,” said Khalil, referring to the video below.
Dima Dabbous, an expert on media laws and ethics, explained that Bashrawi’s act is opposite to that of al-Zaidi’s in their symbolism.
“Throwing a shoe is the biggest insult ever. Kissing a shoe is very unusual but it is the biggest [act of] respect ever,” said Dabbous.
“A son could kiss their father’s, mother’s, or grandfather’s shoe. It is a kind of submission,” explained Mahmoud Tarabay, a journalism expert, adding that for someone with such solid television background, Bashrawi had gone to the extreme to convey a specific message to viewers.
Bashrawi began her career at the Tunisian state television before joining MBC for a few years. She then joined the Qatari-owned Arabic Al Jazeera news channel before quitting for “personal reasons.”
“For her to kiss the soldier’s shoe on television, she is conveying a kind of submission to this nation,” he added.
“Being this kind of celebrity, and to behave this way in front of millions; what did you leave for others?” said Tarabay.
“It is disgusting. There are more decent ways to deliver your message,” he said, adding that even some of her supporters could start questioning her “extreme behavior.”
But Bashrawi is not the only Arab journalist to be put under the spotlight for her public stance. Libyan female presenter, Hala Misrati rose to fame during the 2011 Libyan civil war after she flashed her pistol on live television while pledging allegiance to deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi.
“The engagement of journalists in such acts that are political and military in nature should be re-examined,” said Khalil.
“While rookies can be excused for making these mistakes. Bashrawi should have known better than to disrespect the program and its viewers. While the show goes on, her ability to convince viewers will be heavily tarnished,” added Khalil.
Such behavior is not uncommon, because some journalists in the Arab world disregard the profession’s “code of ethics,” said Dabbous.
“Journalists choose camps. And if they are star journalists, they use their star-journalism status to support the camp they are part of. And when we like their camps, we don’t question that,” continued Dabbous.
“I should be disturbed either way. When the journalist is acting in a way that is not at a distance from all parties that he or she is covering, I should be troubled. ‘Please, I want you to tell me what is happening I don’t want to know what you think and I don’t want you to skew [my view]’.”
“This idea of journalism being an observer from outside trying to give you balance is not part of our culture,” she said.
Bashrawi’s case is “an extreme case,” said Dabbous.
“But even with that extreme case, I don’t find us as a society understanding what journalism should be about as a profession. We are just about what sides we are on,” she added.