Darfur: Covering the forgotten story
Issue 2, Summer 2007
The burning village of Um Zeifa. Image by Brian Steidle courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
There is no issue in Arab journalism today that is more controversial than how the region’s media cover Darfur. Not Iraq, where, according to a new report from the Arab Archives Institute, 52 Arab journalists have lost their lives since 2001; not Palestine, where journalists are caught between Israel and the Palestinians and between Fatah and Hamas; nor Lebanon, where reporters have been in the cross-hairs of rival factions and governments.
Darfur is a hot-button issue in the newsroom not because of the physical danger but because the issue bores right to the heart of the mission of Arab journalism and the self-identity of those who practice it.
That was vividly apparent at a one-day workshop on the crisis organized by the International Crisis Group and hosted by the Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo in April this year and it was evident again, two weeks later, at the 2007 Arab Broadcast Forum, the annual gathering of Arab television executives.
The central issue: “The Arabs see the victims are not Arabs, and we don’t care,” Khaled Ewais, Al Arabiya’s political producer, told the Cairo gathering, which brought together reporters and editors from across the Arab world. Fayez el Sheikh Saleik, Khartoum correspondent of Al-Hayat, concurred: “Sudan is a marginal country when it comes to the Arab region.”
Darfur “not a popular topic” in the Arab World
Some pointed to an even more insidious issue: In other regional conflicts, Arabs are the victims. In Darfur, Arab militias are the perpetrators. That’s not a popular topic.
“The media are directly responsible for this crisis,” an angry representative of the Liberation Front of Darfur told those assembled in Cairo. While few of the journalists were willing to go quite that far, there was widespread acknowledgement that Darfur has been the biggest untold story of the Arab world.
“Arab journalists are working within non-democratic systems, so you can’t expect them to talk about Darfur,” said Saleik of Al-Hayat. The Arab media is “ultimately very interconnected with the ruling system” according to Ahmed Hissou, a Syrian journalist working for the Arabic service of Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio, and Arab governments “do not accept any internal crises, whether religious or ethnic.” As a result, said Kamal al-Gizouli of the Sudanese writer’s union, when they do report on Darfur, Arab media “are talking only about sovereignty when the real issue is the rights of people to live in peace.”
The numbers are grim. More than 250,000 dead; 2.5 million refugees; four million in need of relief assistance. “Why is there no debate in the Arab mass media?” asked Nadim Hasbani, Arab media officer for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Dr. Amani Tawil of the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies offered one explanation: “Selective information.” Television, she said, “reflects the special agenda of each government in the Arab region,” while newspapers “have a tendency to marginalize stories about other Arab governments.” Until the recent Saudi initiative on Darfur, Arab regimes—and thus most Arab media—had a hands-off approach to Sudan.
Non-journalists like Roland Marchal of the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales in Paris and Khaled Mansour, spokesman for the World Food Program, praised some Western coverage—including that of the BBC and the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—for putting a human face on the Darfur conflict by focusing on the plight of individuals. Al-Hayat was also singled out as “indefatigable in its continuous coverage of the events in Darfur.” But the overwhelming message was that when most Arab media bother to report on the crisis, they focus on political machinations, not human impact. “Arab media coverage is like a person on a plane looking down,” said Sudanese Member of Parliament and political activist Salih Mahmoud Osman, while Western coverage portrays the pain of the victims.
Arab journalists express unprecedented self-criticism
But it wasn’t the “experts” alone who were critical. This writer has never heard a group of Arab journalists so brutally frank in public about the pressures and pitfalls of their own coverage.
“We Arab journalists, sorry to say, deal with Darfur as governments do,” said Tahir el-Mardi, Khartoum correspondent for Al Jazeera. “We have 22 agendas on Darfur and the West has one. Arab journalists, to say the truth, are entangled in political issues.” Mohamed Barakat, political editor at the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar, said that in the Arab world, all politics truly are local: “There is an agenda which is local according to the country in which it takes place.”
Others pointed to the constant talk of Zionist plots and Western conspiracies in Arab coverage of Darfur, the preoccupation with “strategic Arab interests,” and what one political editor called the “fantasies” about a Western oil grab, all of which came at the cost of reporting on the human toll.
Al-Gizouli of the Sudanese writer’s union said the history of Arab journalism is to blame. An entire generation of journalists and intellectuals were weaned on the notions of Arab mobilization and confrontation in the face of the imperialist and colonialist aggressor. That legacy is heard in the Darfur coverage. “There is no voice but the battle with Israel and the imperialists. That is what has been fed to the Arab intellectuals. If there is no role for Zionists, [the Arab reporter] creates it from his own imagination and Zionism means conspiracy, the main gallows on which hangs the conscience of the journalists.”
“The Arab journalist is an offspring of his environment,” agreed Hissou of Deutsche Welle. “We had imperialism and Zionism with double-standards. Arab officials say Bush is jeopardizing Sudan, so Arab journalists must accept this conspiracy.” He read a series of excerpts from Arab coverage that, he claimed, demonstrated that the reporting “is heavily freighted with ideological and political assumptions that … imperil our journalistic neutrality.” Hissou quoted Al-Hayat’s influential columnist Jihad Khazen as writing that the Bush administration and the Israel lobby are using Darfur “as a smokescreen to hide other crimes, from Palestine to Iraq” and Hissou claimed that while Al Jazeera has given substantial coverage to Darfur, “it has invited Arab analysts, writers, and physicians to ridicule all reports transmitted by the global television networks on the various acts of murder, rape, and forced displacement.” El-Mardi of Al Jazeera’s Khartoum bureau countered by saying that the channel covers the crisis “in an objective manner” and “any topic concerning policy in Sudan has the opinion, the facts and the counter-opinion. If it does not, it does not go to air.” However, he added, “Darfur is a political issue in the first instance” and “there is a very thin line between the professional journalist and the political person.”