The weaponization of news media in the Middle East
Issue 1, Spring 2007
This is an edited version of a keynote speech given at the Weaponization of the Media Conference, Amsterdam, February 2007.
I am honoured, I am happy and I am slightly apprehensive to speak to you here about the Weaponization of the Media. I am honoured because gathered in this room are some of my finest Dutch colleagues, people with an intimidating portfolio and far greater experience than me.
I am happy to be allowed to speak here because we have here a meeting between journalists and social scientists. Driven on by deadlines, journalists often lack time and energy for reflection and self-analysis, while social scientists are just as often remarkably ignorant of what actually happens in the real world, for example in newsrooms. I was trained as a social scientist and now work as a journalist and in my experience journalists and social scientists have a lot to learn from one another.
Finally, speaking here makes me feel slightly apprehensive because I am compelled to problematize one of the premises of this conference. This premise, as I understand it, is that news media can be weaponized. In other words, you have neutral, objective, unweaponized reporting, and then on the other hand biased, subjective, weaponized reporting. The question then becomes: how do we keep news media unweaponized?
Well, it is my conviction that journalists can never fully unweaponize themselves and never have. In conflicts there is no such thing as objective value-free reporting that serves none of the parties, be it directly on indirectly.
I agree with Lawrence Pintak when he writes that the news media have become weaponized in new and unprecedented ways. His book lists distressing examples, some of which have been severely underreported, at least in the Dutch press. I also agree with this conference when it claims on its website: “Especially during times of conflict it is essential for the functioning of a democratic system that the audience can rely on trustworthy and reliable news coverage.”
Yes, to deserve its name news must be trustworthy and reliable in the sense that journalists must never report things they know to be untrue or they know to be manipulated. And yes, parties to the conflict abuse and use journalists and news media in increasingly violent ways.
All of that is patently true but the idea that, opposed to untrue and manipulated news, there could be such a thing as objective and unweaponized information is I think flawed, if not to say naive.
Weaponization takes many forms, sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, from Al Qaida propaganda on Al Jazeera to the presentation of statements by the White House about Saddam Hussein's supposed connection to 9/11 or his weapons of mass destruction. From the choice to give no coverage to, say, Darfur, Congo or North Korea, to the choice to cover a story on a daily basis. In the end every kind of representation and thus reporting involves a set of choices, and these choices inevitably empower some while disenfranchising others.
Let me elaborate on those choices by relating an experience I had when I lived in Lebanon.
It was the year 2000 and I wanted to write a piece about the traumas of the civil war. Because there was something funny about the civil war in Lebanon: no one talked about it and no one called it by that name. Lebanese called the civil war al ahdath, the events.
I started doing interviews and in the process I met a Druze lady whose experiences have taught me a valuable lesson, not only about Lebanon and the civil war but also about objectivity, or rather the impossibility of giving an account of a conflict that serves no political party to that conflict.
The Druze lady had tried to organize a seminar on the civil war. The idea was to invite representatives from all segments of Lebanese society to discuss past events and openings for reconciliation, perhaps even the establishment of a Truth Commission South African style.
So the Druze lady began inviting prominent Lebanese as co-organisers and immediately a huge row ensued. The first problem was the name of the conference. Some wanted to call it the ‘Civil War’ but many others objected. In their view it had been a war principally fought by outside powers—Kurdish factions fighting alongside Palestinians, invading armies from Israel and Syria, Iran arming Hizbullah, Israel arming the Maronite Christians, Saudi Arabia arming some Palestinians and Syria arming others. This had been a ‘war for Lebanon’, not a civil war.
But the ‘War for Lebanon' was not on option for the title either, if only because the Arab nationalists objected to the term ‘Lebanon’. They viewed Lebanon as a colonial construct, carved out of Syria after World War One by France with the goal of establishing a Francophone and predominantly Christian foothold in the Middle-East. As the Arab nationalists saw it, the events in Lebanon had been part of a larger struggle to reunite the Arab world and should be viewed as such. Perhaps they should call it not the ‘Civil War’ or the ‘War for Lebanon,’ but the ‘War in Lebanon’?