The biggest challenge to the freedom of press in the Middle East is self-censorship.
By ERAN TZIDKIYAHU
In recent years, a media revolution has been taking place in the Arab world, so that the media now reflect to a great extent the atmosphere of the Arab street as well as the consensus in the Arab regimes. Criticism against the crimes committed by the Zionist occupier in Palestine receives substantial resonance, whereas other horrors that take place in the region get little coverage, especially when they are the work of local players and not of Europeans, Americans or Jews. The regional condemnation of Israel doesn't reflect global humanitarian standards but is reserved especially for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The criticism against Israel, by its volume and severity, overshadows the coverage of the ongoing conflict in Darfur, for example, which in the past few years has already claimed a quarter of a million victims and created millions of refugees. The ethnic cleansing taking place in Darfur is far worse than any other regional crisis and cannot be compared to the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict, neither in volume nor in essence.
The silence of the Arab media regarding the humanitarian side of the conflict in Darfur is reinforced by the fact that Sudan is an active member of the Arab League. Moreover, some voices in the local press claim that the Western coverage of the Darfur crisis is part of a Zionist-Western conspiracy to divert attention from Iraq and Palestine and bring foreign involvement to Sudan to take control of its natural resources.
In 2007 THE INTERNATIONAL Crisis Group and the American University in Cairo held a workshop on media coverage of the Darfur crisis. The participants - leading journalists and academics from the Arab world - claimed that Arab media do not give enough attention to the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, compared both to Western media and to the attention that Arab media dedicate to other conflicts in the Middle East. Their report argues that due to lack of resources, but also lack of interest and racism, political aspects of the Darfur crisis are generally given priority over humanitarian ones, their coverage being shallow and inaccurate.
Criticism of Israel from the likes of Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Syria appears loaded with hypocrisy when all of these countries oppress minorities and bluntly violate human rights.
In Sudan, the Arab Janjaweed tribal militia is backed by president Omar al-Bashir, himself accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide. Immediately after his indictment by the ICC in July 2008, the Arab League, many of whose members accuse Israel of war crimes, issued a statement in support of the Sudanese president. Still, some voices in the Arab world backed the ICC decision and condemned the Arab League statements, among them that of Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, director-general of Al-Arabiya TV and former Al-Sharq al-Awsat editor.
THE ARAB WORLD was silent in the 1960s when Egypt used mustard gas in northern Yemen, in the '70s when Jordan killed Palestinians, in the '80s when Syria massacred tens of thousands of its own citizens who were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the '90s when Saddam Hussein slaughtered Kurds in the north and Shi'ites in the south of Iraq. Severe discrimination is being practiced against ethnic and religious minorities in countries throughout the Middle East.
Since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked of on camera at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkey has become the flag-carrier for criticism against Israel in the Middle East. Turkey, while accusing Israel of war crimes, cannot confront its own past regarding the Armenian genocide and pressures academic and diplomatic bodies to prevent any serious public debate on the subject. Today, Turkey uses cultural and military oppression to deny the right of the Kurdish minority to self-determination.
According to Reporters without Boundaries, the biggest challenge to the freedom of press in the Middle East is the self-censorship that reporters exert on sensitive issues. Due to these restrictions, the Arab reporters channel their criticism toward Israel, which remains the regional punching bag and the target of Arab and Muslim rage against every illness in the world. Arab countries would certainly benefit more from looking inward to their own societies' problems.
ALL THESE EXAMPLES do not acquit Israel from criticism. Whether Israel is conceived as a country fighting for its existence or as an aggressive occupier, external criticism is a necessary factor in balancing the conflict. An advanced dialogue is already taking place within Israel itself, and many organizations enjoy their freedom to harshly criticize the state. Similarly, crimes taking place in other countries do not exempt the IDF from its obligation to seriously investigate the reasons for the high number of civilian casualties during the last operation in Gaza.
Nonetheless, the regional media should report proportionally, since one-dimensional coverage of the conflict is misleading, demonizing and creates intense hate toward Israel and the Jews in the Arab street. This atmosphere will in turn make it difficult for the moderate Arab states to explain to their people the peace initiatives that they promote. While Arabs widely cover any Western or Israeli aggression against Arabs or Muslims around the world, they ignore Arabs or Muslims hurting other Arabs, Muslims or Africans. This gap in coverage suggests that Arabs require much higher moral standards from Israel and the West than from themselves.
Regional criticism against Israel must be made within international relationships of proportional political and international interests. Higher questions of morality and justice must be left to philosophers, or to a just and balanced media that is ready to criticize all sides without bias and in accordance to global humanitarian standards.
The writer is a Legacy Heritage Fellow working on Jerusalem and a MA student in the Middle East and Islamic studies department at the Hebrew University.
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