Media: When the truth is unprintable: Objectivity is a dangerous luxury for many Arab journalists. Robert Fisk hears untold stories

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Objectivity is an ambiguous concept. I was often a passionate, sometimes angry, sometimes terrified witness of events in my country, but I always tried to stay ethical. . . . But now merely to be a journalist in my country can be fatal.

The other journalists - from Lebanon and Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, Spain and France - listened to the young Algerian woman in the high-ceilinged conference room of the Palais du Pharo in Marseilles last month in complete and sometimes horrified silence.

For her own safety, she must remain anonymous (we shall call her Djamila), but her story is no less moving. 'In my paper,' she said, 'I wrote about women, about new laws which forbade divorce. My articles were objectively feminist. The Islamists were already taking over the schools - they were terrifying children in school with stories of hell and divine punishment. I wrote about this lack of humanism, but, after my article, I was denounced in a mosque.'

Djamila's story did not end there. She covered the 1990 municipal elections in Algeria and worked on numerous articles to explain the apparent popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front. 'In those days, some of our colleagues considered that merely talking to the FIS was an act of treachery. They accused us of supporting the FIS. Should we have been 'objective' and censored the views of the largest party?' When her paper supported what she called 'a campaign of misinformation' after the 1991 parliamentary elections - which the FIS won - Djamila changed papers.

'People were dying every day. There was a bomb at Algiers airport. I went to report on that terrible event, trying to be an objective witness. Then I covered the trial of those accused of the bombing. It was horrible. All the accused denied their confessions. They said they had been tortured. My own colleagues laughed when torture was mentioned . . . . Later, all the defendants were condemned to death and executed.

''In such a situation, I didn't feel capable of reporting such daily horrors. The last interview I published was with a brave feminist who lives among the Islamists. One of her sentences was the title of my article: 'Today in Algiers, to choose your side is to choose the side of your victims.' I wrote this article in exile in Paris and I no longer know what or for whom to write. My husband has been threatened with death. So have my sisters.'

It would be pleasant to record that Djamila's colleagues in other Arab countries had been able to fulfil their professional lives. But as journalists at the Med-Media conference, funded by the European Union, learnt all too quickly, this was not the case. Speaker after speaker deplored his or her inability to write objectively about their countries.

A Lebanese writer working for a Saudi-owned newspaper admitted that no criticism of Saudi Arabia - or any ally of Saudi Arabia - could ever find its way into his editorial columns. 'The problem is that there is not a single journalist who writes investigative stories,' he said. 'Maybe this is because they are lazy or maybe, in an undemocratic society, they don't know how to do it. Of course, there's no problem with huge interviews and massive editorials, the super-ego of Arab journalists is terrific.'

Another Lebanese journalist spoke passionately about the self-censorship that he and his colleagues are forced to employ to get their copy into print, and about the problems of reporting foreign occupation. 'Our press has two different attitudes towards the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon,' he said. 'The first reports events there in the normal way, with the name of the correspondent at the top of the story and a straightforward account of the incidents that take place there; the second (group of papers) carries no reporters' names on the stories and uses the word 'collaborator' for all the militiamen in the (Israeli-paid) 'South Lebanon Army'.'

The former editor-in-chief of a government newspaper in another Arab nation, but one that will have to remain anonymous for his own safety, talked of the 'double orientation' of Arab journalists.

'We would receive mysterious instructions to talk about Arab unity in our editorials,' he said. 'We were instructed to explain and defend Arab unity. Then, suddenly, Arab unity would retreat and we would have to defend what is called 'regional security', which is something completely different.

'How can we explain this to our readers? How are we supposed to replace 'revolutionary solidarity' with 'regional security'? For years, we preached socialism. Then we received instructions to say that the 'market economy' was good for the people.

'When we asked a journalist to write a commentary, the editor would change it, alter it to ensure it represented the point of view of the party. The journalist would complain that it was no longer what he wrote. He was right, of course. A journalist is a journalist, he has a personality. But we wanted just a 'commentary', who wrote it was irrelevant. A journalist on my paper can have no personal dignity.'

At least this Arab editor did not fear assassination. Ten of Djamila's colleagues have been murdered - several of them at the hands of Islamists, who cut their throats outside their own homes. But the dark mood of the reporters in Marseilles was eloquently summed up after the disgruntled editor had finished speaking. 'He'd better make sure no one prints his name,' one of the journalists muttered. 'If his government finds out what he's been telling us, he'll never be able to go home.'