Oct 12 2005

Article on Alouni

Published by at 1:16 pm under Articles,Media Activism

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Journalists and the plague of being identified with interviews

By Daoud Kuttab

It has always been a problem for journalists: how to carry on the profession of journalism without being accused of sympathizing with the person you are covering. Every journalist who covers a conflict can’t help but have some sympathies for his subject. Internationally famous New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once told me that a good journalist always shows his subject that he is genuinely interested in what he is saying. You have to give the person you are interviewing the feeling that you are hanging on every word he or she is saying, he explained.

Professional journalists of course have a responsibility to reflect what their subjects are saying and not what they themselves are thinking. Likewise, journalists covering a murder are not murderers, and those interviewing thieves are not criminals. We are simply messengers and therefore we should not be judged by the message, even if it is a very ugly one.

I read in detail the verdict of the Spanish court against Al-Jazeera journalist Tayser Allouni and it seems clear that the most important issue involved in the case is the exclusive interview he had with Osama bin Laden. True, the court also talked about a $4,000 cash transfer he made by hand to a fellow Arab. Anyone familiar with the cultural habits of the peoples of the Middle East would not consider such an action anything other than a normal, everyday act of helping someone out. Even the tightened security surrounding current travel has not materially abolished the habit of generations by which Arabs transport small gifts, and especially money, for others. And $4,000 is scarcely an amount to be equated with funding terrorism. In fact, the verdict gives so much importance to the issues connected to the interview that it is impossible for me to believe that he has been punished for seven years in jail for anything more that for appearing to be supportive of bin Laden.

Allouni is a journalist who seeks a scoop and for me his personal thoughts and sympathies are his right and are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such a punishment largely for his thoughts reminds us of the worst days of American McCarthyism or those under the Franco dictatorship.

The leading world organization, the International Press Institute (IPI), also agrees. In a statement issued following the conviction, IPI blasted the Spanish court. “Although acquitted of being a member of Al-Qaeda, Tayser was convicted for allegedly collaborating with Al-Qaeda. The arrest, detention, and conviction of Tayser are clear signs of the witch-hunt taking place against Muslims today, whereby even journalists are punished for simply doing their job,” the statement said.

In the 1980s, Abie Nathan, an Israeli peace activist who in 1973 had run the Voice of Peace radio station ship as close as possible to the fighting and broadcast appeals for both sides to lay down their arms, was jailed for six months because his interview with Yasser Arafat in Lebanon was declared a violation of an Israeli law that considered sympathy for the PLO equal to support of a terrorist organization. Peace supporters, including many in Spain, denounced this imprisonment.

As a Palestinian journalists I have often found myself having to defend why I am interviewing Israelis. Closed-minded Arab nationalists consider such interactions with Israelis tantamount to sleeping with the enemy and attacked me for what they considered “normalization of relations with the Zionists aggressors.”

Journalists are professionals whose main job is to seek the truth and to present all points of view. This is what we try to teach young Arab journalists who are trying to break out of the once-closed Arab media. Al-Jazeera was a breath of fresh air to supporters of independent media because it provided a badly needed outlet that had been denied to Arabs for many years. By presenting the points of views of both governments and opposition, Al-Jazeera and the other new media outlets greatly weakened Arab government media monopolies.

The verdict of the Spanish court must raise the blood pressure of every lover of independent media the world over. Supporters of freedom of expression and the right of all, including those whose opinions we might not like, must not let this judgment pass. If showing sympathy when interviewing bin Laden is a crime, one day mere sympathy with anyone opposed to the government’s point of view or that of the majority will become a crime. The model of a tolerant Spain and that of an enlightened Europe has been tainted in the eyes of many true Arab democrats. The sooner this cloud moves away, the sooner we can get back to the efforts of getting our governments to respect our rights to produce independent media that reflects the opinions and thoughts of all.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.

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