When the BBC first reported that one of its news teams had been apprehended and brutally beaten in Libya, most people probably conjured up John Simpson, Jeremy Bowen, Wyre Davies, or one of the other faces already so familiar from this accelerating civil war. But no, it turned out – mercifully – that they were all safe and well, and still doggedly reporting against the odds.
The three who had been hauled off by thuggish security men to barracks near the battered town of Zawiya were from the BBC's three-year old Arabic television channel. Feras Killani, a Palestinian with a Syrian passport, was singled out for the most ferocious abuse. He, Goktay Koraltan, a Turk, and Chris Cobb-Smith, who is British, were subject to mock executions. Another BBC news team in a following car had been stopped and turned back at an earlier checkpoint. Is there an issue here? I think there is – and one that goes beyond journalism.
No one who heard the accounts of Killani and Koraltan can be in any doubt about the harrowing nature of their experience. Killani is described by the BBC as a tough and experienced reporter. The long sigh he interjected as he spoke of the screams he heard from elsewhere in the barracks complex said everything there was to be said about the horror. Koraltan, the cameraman, said they had been convinced they would not come out alive.
Tellingly, though, Killani also said something else. He said that several of his abusers had told him they did not like his coverage of events in Libya. "They accused me of being a spy – of working for British intelligence... They wanted to know why I was carrying dollars and pounds."
Now it is nothing new for journalists in a war zone or other hostile territory to be accused of being spies. It was standard practice for Western reporters in the communist bloc to be so branded during the Cold War – and in some ways we do similar things. Nor should it surprise anyone that war zones, even embryonic ones, are dangerous places. Zawiya in western Libya may have switched overnight from euphoric peace to all-out war, but there is no suggestion that this news team was unprepared. The BBC is highly responsible in the way it trains and equips its reporters for places where there is even a hint of violence.
What seems to be different here is that Killani, and to a lesser extent perhaps Koraltan, too, was very quickly identified by his tormentors as "one of them" – someone who in their view should, by virtue of his ethnicity, culture or religion, be on their side. Reporters who are clearly "foreign" can be forgiven for making "mistakes". "Locals" who take the other side are seen as traitors. Recognised as an Arab, for all his BBC credentials, Killani was in particular danger. A combination of BBC and Foreign Office intervention secured the team's release, and an apology, but the result for an individual reporter might have been different.
There are implications here, both for media organisations and for others. Anyone who looks or sounds Arab may well find themselves treated as such, even if they carry Western credentials – and those credentials might well be turned against them if they are seen as a badge of treachery. This puts all international broadcasters in a difficult position, but it becomes even more complicated if they are targeting a regional, in this case, an Arabic-speaking audience.
In the Cold War, émigré journalists rarely reported from their home countries; they worked from the comparative safety of exile. That clear division between safety and danger has now pretty much vanished. International news organisations are seeking out foreign audiences in many places, and the Arabic-speaking world was a priority even before the events of recent weeks. Native speakers and those with local knowledge are much in demand, but on-air reporters – such as Killani – are in a riskier situation than most.
The BBC had faced a similar dilemma in Libya only a couple of weeks before. Its local correspondent, a Libyan national, reported from Tripoli in English in the early days of the anti-Gaddafi protests. Very soon, though, it was judged too dangerous for her to continue, so she became anonymous, then her voice was disguised, then she was evacuated. Thus was the whole purpose of retaining a local reporter negated – at the very time when Libyan expertise was needed most.
Where locally recruited staff are concerned, many will weigh the possible physical risks against the money or interest from the job, and they will do so in an informed way. As for BBC Arabic Television, editors may not have appreciated that Killani's team could face particular difficulties in Libya – though they surely do now. But it is not only journalism where foreigners who employ local staff expose them, wittingly or not, to risks.
One way in which the Foreign Office proposes to make its required budget cuts is to increase the number of "local hires" in embassies around the world. The cost is lower than for staff sent from London – no need to pay for housing or school fees or flights home – and they bring valuable local knowledge. But there are two potentially costly downsides. The first is the possibility, in some countries, that key functions, such as the processing of visas, will be contaminated by endemic local corruption.
The second was illustrated during the unrest in Iran after the 2009 elections. The political counsellor at the British embassy was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for "fomenting violence" for a foreign power. As an Iranian national, Hossein Rassam had no diplomatic immunity and it is not hard to see how his job – to read the runes of Iranian politics for his British employers – might have been seen in a different light by a fearful regime. Russia is another country that has in the past used pressure on locally recruited staff as a way of expressing irritation with Britain.
On the face of it, everything looks simple. It should make sense for embassies and the international media to recruit natives, or near-natives. Take money and employment into account, and clearly the advantages do not only flow one way. What Feras Killani and his team have just been through, however, suggests that the ethical side is more problematical.
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