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Ever hear of Anwar al-Bunni? It wouldn't be surprising if you hadn't. Syria's top civil-rights activist has received precious little media attention over the years - even after being sentenced to five years imprisonment last month for promoting a declaration that called on Damascus to improve ties with neighboring Lebanon and respect its independence.
Although his conviction was dutifully protested by the US State Department, several European nations and Amnesty International, Bunni's case still didn't attract much journalistic notice.
(It might have helped had Condoleezza Rice mentioned his case in her encounter with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem last week, but apparently the Bush administration's policy of pushing democracy throughout the Arab world has taken a back seat to realpolitik diplomacy aimed at salvaging its Iraq policy.)
One reason Bunni's case has gotten such little coverage is undoubtedly the success Bashar Assad has had in intimidating foreign journalists and keeping them from properly covering his nation's internal affairs. Although the Syrian dictator made some noises in his early days of rule about reforming his country's notoriously rigid restrictions on free speech, he has in reality just followed his father's policy of severely restricting any genuine open expression by his subjects.
Even if Syria had a less repressive regime, though, one wonders if someone like Bunni would ever get the foreign press exposure he deserves. The international media, so interested in just about every detail of the Israeli-Arab conflict, demonstrates remarkably less interest when a story involves only the latter. What Israelis (or Americans in Iraq, for that matter) do to Arabs makes headlines; what Arabs do to Arabs, well, maybe AP will do a brief story on it.
Last spring, bothered by the seeming lack of press interest in Lebanon despite the potentially explosive situation created by the Cedar Revolution, I asked the representative of a major British media outlet why its coverage from Beirut had become so scanty. "Well, Lebanon isn't really an area of primary interest for the British," was the reply.
It certainly became so when Israel entered the picture a few months later. But without knowing what was happening in Lebanon in the months leading up to Hizbullah's attack-kidnapping across Israel's border on July 12 - how the Iran-directed Islamic militia was being pressured by the new Beirut government to put its forces under governmental authority - the public would find it difficult to understand why Hassan Nasrallah felt so compelled to create a provocation with Israel.
The international media failed in large part to give the proper background behind the causes for the outbreak of the war because it wasn't all that interested in reporting on those growing internal tensions in Lebanon.
THAT WAS a mistake - just like it is to ignore the Bunni case, part of a growing crackdown in Syria on any internal opposition to Assad's despotic regime, a policy in line with its expanding links to Iran's radical Islamic leadership and its continued shipping of arms across the Lebanese border to Hizbullah. These crucial developments, which could well be major factors in the next regional conflict, get fairly little play in comparison to what are largely meaningless stories about even the most minor efforts to get Syria and Israel back to the negotiating table. And that's not just because it's easier for journalists to report from Jerusalem than from Damascus; it's also because the international media has developed a mind-set that stories about Syria only count for much if somehow they're directly connected to stories about Israel.
That's a major misconception, one the international press should have learned to discard following the 9/11 attacks. Prior to that, the rise of al-Qaida didn't get nearly the media attention it should have, barely a fraction of what was devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's the same with most internal Arab-Islamic issues until they finally impact directly in some way on Israel or the West; indeed, how much serious reportage of Sunni-Shi'ite divisions was there prior to 9/11 and the subsequent American occupation of Iraq? Journalists often realize the importance of these stories and play catch-up on them only after it's too late - sometimes even for themselves.
FOR EXAMPLE, ever hear of the Dagmoush clan? They're a large Palestinian tribal unit, estimated at 15,000 strong, some of whose members are suspected of conducting criminal operations in Gaza for many years now. Media coverage of their activities has been almost nonexistent. Two months ago, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin gave a rare interview to The New York Times about the radicalizing situation in Gaza, noting that "elements of what he called 'global jihad' are creating 'ties' and 'connections' to local Gaza groups, especially to Mumtaz Dagmoush of the powerful Dagmoush clan."
Although you'd think that statement would make some headlines, the story didn't move much beyond the original Times piece. But if the media preferred not paying too much attention to the Dagmoush clan, the opposite is certainly not the case: Already believed to be behind the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists last summer, members of the Dagmoush clan are now the leading suspects in the abduction of BBC reporter Alan Johnston.
Intimidating journalists is clearly one of its goals, and to a large degree it has succeeded - the courageous Johnston was the last Western journalist based full-time in an increasingly dangerous Gaza. However, the foreign press also hasn't paid sufficient attention to the story of the Dagmoush clan until now in large part because it doesn't fit easily into the standard script of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No one is suggesting that the latter still isn't the major drama of this region. Unfortunately, so many other important stories in the region aren't getting their due attention because of varying degrees of difficulty, disinterest and a disinclination to break from old reporting habits. And it's only when an Anwar al-Bunni or the Dagmoush clan get the attention they deserve that the public will get a firmer grip on what is really happening in this troubled corner of the world.
The writer is the director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project. www.theisraelproject.org
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