The Arab world, a killing field for journalists

Abdallah Schleifer
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The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 70 journalists were killed for their work in 2013. Two-thirds of those killings occurred in the Middle East.

It hasn’t always been that way. I covered the first year of the civil war in Lebanon and there were some scary moments—a hand grenade rolled into a café favoured by foreign correspondents staying at the nearby Hotel Commodore; a drunken militiaman wondering into the lobby of that hotel and firing his Kalashnikov into the air until subdued; an NBC correspondent shot in the knee because he got salty with a militiaman. But no one died.


No bulls eye on our back

In part that was because of a golden rule among the foreign press, or at least an axiom I personally passed on whenever a new crew or correspondent was cycled into Beirut by NBC: “always smile at a man with a gun.” But it was more than our demeanour – no one was targeting journalists then.

Almost the entire foreign press corps was based in West Beirut, the predominantly Muslim part of city -- because that was where the ministry of information, the best hotels, the best restaurants and the leading Lebanese newspapers were, as well as the offices of the major Palestinian Fedayeen organizations.

So within a month or so of fighting all of West Beirut came under the control of a broad alliance of predominantly Muslim Lebanese leftist and Arab nationalist forces reinforced by seasoned Palestinian Fedayeen, which did most of the serious fighting on behalf of their Lebanese Muslim allies.

Nearly all of these groups considered the West –and in particular America -- to be supporters of Israel, but nearly all had civil, and in some cases warm relations with the foreign correspondents and photojournalists.

The NBC News team was so confident that we were not anybody’s conscious targets that we produced a t-shirt with the NBC logo on the front, and on the back of the T-shirt across the shoulders, the word sahafi – Arabic for journalist. We were confident that if snipers on either side of no-man land saw that word through their sniper-scope, they would not fire.

Times are changing

If anyone were to wear that t-shirt only a decade later, he would be abducted by Hezbollah, beaten up a bit and held onto for ransom. In the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, a journalist could literally lose one’s head at the hands of extremist Sunni groups participating in the resistance to the occupation.

Part of the reason for the escalation of violence against journalists has been the escalation of civil strife in the Arab world. The only rival to Lebanon in the 1970s and far surpassing it in casualties among combatants was the Iraqi-Iranian War. However, that quickly became trench warfare with clearly defined battle zones in which journalists could not simply wander around and get into trouble, which is far different from civil strife or resistance to occupations.

The invasion of Iraq first sparked violence in resistance to the American occupation. Over time, sectarian warfare increased between Sunni groups, either led by or in alliance with Al-Qaeda, fighting Shi’a forces first as party militias and in the most recent years, the predominantly Shi’a Iraqi national army. Now, there is even more volatile civil strife.

Syria has become a killing field for journalists. 29 died in 2013. 10 journalists died in Iraq and six in Egypt.

The NBC News team was so confident that we were not anybody’s conscious targets that we produced a t-shirt with the NBC logo on the front, and on the back of the T-shirt across the shoulders, the word sahafi – Arabic for journalist.

Abdallah Schleifer

Because of the increasing danger, many foreign news organizations hesitate to send their own nationals in to cover and increasingly rely on local journalists employed either as staff or contracted free lancers; a category, combined with local journalists working for local media, constitutes the largest number of victims.

But I think another factor is that increasing civil strife in the Arab world which has taken on a religious sectarian nature. In Beirut back in the 1970s, the civil war was strictly communal rather than sectarian in nature. Two communities, identified by religion were fighting for political and economic predominance; not, in their minds, for God.

Those first years of civil war in Lebanon were nasty but not characterized by that religious extremism in which the self- righteousness of one’s cause trumps all the simple decencies, like not going out of one’s way to kill non-combatants, including journalists.


Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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