A correspondent in the Middle East

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 23, 2006

Between 1998 and 2003, “Joris Luyendijk”:http://www.jorisluyendijk.nl/ worked for various Dutch media as their correspondent in the Middle East. He has now written a book about his experiences (as far as I know, it’s only available in Dutch).

Luyendijk, who studied political science and Arabic, lived as a correspondent in Egypt, Lebanon, and East-Jerusalem. One of the main themes of his book is the impossibility of being a correspondent in this region according to the standards that journalists are assumed to aspire to in Europe. With many anecdotes, he shows that the ‘news’ Dutch people are getting about the Middle Eastern countries in the mainstream media is heavily filtered, manipulated, and constrained. It seems plausible to think that if it really is so bad with the Middle East reporting in the Dutch media, it ain’t going to be any better for other countries. Despite that this book is written for a broad readership and therefore aspires to be as readable as possible, it does not offer one simple explanation for this problem. Rather, Luyendijk describes a number of factors.

The main problem a correspondent faces in the Middle East is to work under dictatorships. Obviously there is no free mainstream local press under a dictatorship. Whereas foreign correspondents enjoy protections which the citizens generally do not enjoy, nevertheless for them too it is also impossible to do their work properly. It may be very hard to interview people, since they are afraid to speak their mind. One never knows who works for the secret police. And if people do speak their mind, it is impossible to gather from surveys or polls how representative their views are within the wider population. And entirely anonymous views are generally not considered _fit to print_…

Second, every event could be described with many different stories, and the media back home seemed to be only interested in those stories that are confirming the already dominant views and representations about the Middle East. Luyendijk argues that often he should have said that there were many sides to a story, or that it was impossible to know what was happening due to lack of information, or that the situation was complicated and couldn’t be explained in 15 seconds, or that one first had to understand the history of the country or the region (and its relation to the US and European countries). But these were answers he could not give, since correspondents are expected to pretend that they do know what’s going on. Television imposes additional constraints, since only those stories that are accompanied with images can be reported — quite hard if some of the most interesting stories come from people who fear the police and only want to talk _off the record_.

Luyendijk also reports that few of his international colleagues (correspondents from other countries in the Middle East) master Arabic or another Middle Eastern language; they weren’t even able to read the local newspapers or understand the local television news.

The last part of the book is about his time in Jerusalem. He reports about the incredibly efficient Israeli PR machinery, which is very pro-active in getting the official Israeli views across to the correspondents. Press maps included entirely written stories, pictures, testimonies with the perfect quotes and anything else a correspondent would need to meet his evening deadline. He quotes an Israeli official saying: “It is not about what has happened, but how it has been shown on CNN.”

I really am not an expert on the Middle East, but know that several readers of CT are. If my summary of Luyendijk’s book is fair, what do you think of his arguments?



Clark 08.23.06 at 4:15 pm

Sounds true, although from what I saw of Hezbolla and the Lebanese war folks outside of Israel are learning. And arguably there is a bit of an anti-Israeli bias among some such that Israel feels they have to have the PR machine.


abb1 08.23.06 at 4:32 pm

Obviously there is no free mainstream local press under a dictatorship.

Anything is possible under dictatorship, including free mainstream local press. Qatar-based Al Jazeera, for example.


JR 08.23.06 at 4:51 pm

Reporters are not expected to report the facts. They report “the news” – that is, transitory events. Underlying trends and conditions are not “news,” unless some event – the release of a report, a parliamentary hearing – makes them so. In Western countries, the press takes its cues for what is “news” primarily from the government and the opposition, with a few additional sources for specialized reporting — notably large corporations and the entertainment industry. Other than events prompted by these cues, only a large number of deaths — as in a riot, a natural disaster, a plane crash, or a terrorist attack — or a remarkable death — as in a gruesome murder — will qualify an event as “news.”

In dictatorships, reporters are shorn of their cues for determining what is news. The problem is not so much that they cannot report; it is that they have no idea what to report. There are no committee meetings, no commissions of inquiry, no unexpected judicial decisions, no politicians on the campaign trail trying to “make news” or attracting the attacks of opponents who themselves are trying to “make news.” Since even in their own country, reporters have little experience in deciding what is important as opposed to what is “news,” they have no clue what to report when they are shorn of their cues. And, since the reporters do not speak the local language and have no understanding of the economy or culture, they could not penetrate the society deeply enough to understand what is important even if they had the ability to do so in their own society. Further, the dictatorships of these countries are not interested in the domestic opinion of the reporters’ readers, and would rather that they know little or nothing of their country. They prefer to operate on the level of diplomacy. Lastly, because Arabic and other middle Eastern languages are so difficult to learn and so little understood by the world press, anything printed in a newspaper might as well be in code for all the good it does the reporters.

Since they need to report something, the reporters must take their cues from somewhere. That somewhere is from the Western press itself, which they continue to read. This gives us a self-referential loop, in which Western political activity as reported in the press generates the cues taken up by reporters and guides their reporting. They also take cues from good visuals- demonstrations, riots, gun battles, and the like. The only way that the reporter can put these visuals into understandable context is the use the shared context that the reporter and the readership already understand – the “dominant representation.”

It would certainly be possible for news organizations to hire and train reporters who can actually report something useful from these countries. But to do so would mean that they would have to learn to do something other than report “the news.”

Israel is a different story. It has a Western press – a very competitive press- and a Western-style political system, complete with “newsmakers” who “make news” every day. Much of this “news” is available in English in real time. The “newsmakers” are usually bilingual. And, because Israel undertakes to influence US political opinion, and does not work only on the level of diplomacy, Israeli “newsmakers” and their PR people are eager to work with and shape the reporting of foreign reporters.

On the one hand, this does mean that the Israeli PR system influences coverage. On the other hand, it gives reporters the ability to do Western-style reporting – positive but also frequently negative – that is absent for any Arab or other Muslim country.


Theron 08.23.06 at 6:10 pm

The greatest difficulty interviewing in a dictatorship is the uncertainty. I don’t work on the ME, but rather Cuba, and I find the arbitrary and often mysterious nature of the rules in a dictatorship to be a constant source of frustration and, at times, worry. No one tells you anything close to the complete truth, but what they obscure, and on what day they obscure it, is often difficult to understand and impossible to predict. A source who is wide open on Monday is quiet on Tuesday, and may be talkative again tomorrow, next week, next year or never. Everybody gets conspiratorial with you at some point, confessing this, that or the other transgression – of course, they may be just making it up to entertain you or themselves. And how much you are better protected than the locals depends how much trouble you make, how much trouble that country’s government is willing to make with your home government, and the mood and intelligence of the local chief of police. There is at least little violence in Cuba – I greatly admire the journalists and academics who choose to work in the ME, and am glad it’s not my job.


ingrid 08.23.06 at 11:58 pm

jr, you’ve very eloquently summarizes the problems and how they interrelate — all the things you mention are prominent in the Luyendijk book too. Do you think it is at all a realistic prospect that the Western media would train journalist to do their work properly in the ME by not covering the transitional event but rather what is relevant to understand events in the ME? I’d think that as long as the media consumers don’t realise _en masse_ what the problems are and create some sort of pressure, there will be no incentives for the media corporations to invest in such correspondents.


David Sucher 08.24.06 at 12:19 am

“Anything is possible under dictatorship, including free mainstream local press…”

Well then, if there can be (or is) “free mainstream local press” under dictatorship why would anyone call it dictatorship?

Or is the writer of that statement merely offering a witticism?


brooksfoe 08.24.06 at 1:58 am

jr —

that is the most insightful and comprehensive description of the dilemma of journalism in non-Western dictatorships that I have ever seen. Thanks.


abb1 08.24.06 at 2:00 am

#6, anyone would call it ‘dictatorship’ because the ruler has absolute power. Having the absolute power he can easily institute a free press and let it function. Conversely, a democratic government might significantly limit freedom of the press (directly or indirectly) and they often do.


Slithy Tove 08.24.06 at 5:32 am

[E]very event could be described with many different stories, and the media back home seemed to be only interested in those stories that are confirming the already dominant views and representations…

This is, of course, true of all news media, everywhere.


ajay 08.24.06 at 5:54 am

jr has never worked as a journalist in any country.


ingrid robeyns 08.24.06 at 6:26 am

ajay: whether or not jr has worked as a journalist, his analysis of the situation is remarkable similar to the one in Luyendijk’s book, who worked in the ME for 5 years. Also, the fact that someone has not performed a certain role does not necessarily disqualifies him or her from analysing the problems of performing that role.


tribald ozgevir 08.24.06 at 6:38 am

Well, I do work as a journalist, in an authoritarian country no less; and for my money, jr is on the ball.


abb1 08.24.06 at 6:49 am

Now, the fact that there’s no meaningless noise like committees, endless press-conferences and election campaigns – so that you’re forced to report the real-life events; and the fact that everyone is sufficiently cynical about the government and the press – are these bad things?


koshem 08.24.06 at 8:09 am

Luyendijk seems to make the most important point that is seldom made about the Middle East. There are many aspects to every event or, in my language, both sides have strong arguments to make.

What the post does discuss and, therefore, it is unclear whether Luyendijk does is the European context he and his colleagues bring. This is a built in bias that every reporter will have to live with, but may cause a huge distortion in reporting.

Israel is not a dictatorship; as a matter of fact it has a much more open media than the USA. Furthermore, Luyendijk doesn’t seem to speak Hebrew although the main Israeli papers have an English edition. (The Hebrew and English version are not identical.)

I would like to hear Arab comments on the next issue. The Arabic culture, if this generality make any sense at all, is rich, based on standard and spoken languages, with a long tradition and based quite heavily on Islam. (There is even a unique Arabic music including musical instruments.) Is knowledge of Arabic sufficient to capture that huge context?


ajay 08.24.06 at 8:21 am

jr’s analysis is basically a rewording of the summary of Luyendijk’s argument about the difficulties of reporting in the ME which you gave in the post – which sounds plausible to me, for what that’s worth.

jr then works in his/her own weird and erroneous beliefs on How All Journalists Are Bad, Wherever They Are, which seems to be based on a complete lack of knowledge about how journalists work. Hence my deduction that jr has never been a journalist – or, at least, that jr has only been a very bad journalist.


John Emerson 08.24.06 at 8:28 am

The sort of journalism Lujendijk can’t do for the newspapers and TV is normally done in magazines and books. The problems with distatorship remain, though.

And arguably there is a bit of an anti-Israeli bias among some such that Israel feels they have to have the PR machine.

There’s always adequate motive for PR. The American media have no anti-Israel bias, though they sometimes do fail to give Israel absolute support.

[cue 300-post flame thread]


Maynard Handley 08.24.06 at 8:52 am

Well then, if there can be (or is) “free mainstream local press” under dictatorship why would anyone call it dictatorship?

Oh don’t be silly.
One can offer at least two immediate rejoinders:

(1) Someone somewhere, like the US government, finds it convenient to call something a dictatorship regardless of the facts. Is Iran a dictatorship? Is the current Russia?

(2) Dictatorship is not unitary. There was a somewhat free press under apartheid South Africa. That probably met the standards for dictatorship at least as much as such US boogiemen as Cuba. And, of course, their is the US itself. If dictatorship consists of unlimited power arbitrarily exercised, ask those in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib if they consider the US to be a dictatorship.


C. L. Ball 08.24.06 at 8:58 am

I don’t think jr is saying “all journalists are bad” — there is a long tradition of all the criticisms that jr makes from professional journalists about both domestic coverage in western societies and international coverage abroad. Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion in 1922:

The press is no substitute for institutions. It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision. Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone. They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and eruptions. It is only when they work by a steady light of their own, that the press, when it is turned upon them, reveals a situation intelligible enough for a popular decision. The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy.

Television has only made this worse because the time for the reporter’s narrative is more compressed. Many of Luyendijk’s points are similar to ones made about reporting under any dictatorship (e.g., the Soviet Union, Maoist China) or about the inability of the media in the US to capture complexity, as James Fallows argued in Breaking the News (Vintage, 1997).


abb1 08.24.06 at 9:13 am

Nah, in the Soviet Union you had a two-page Pravda. You would read the front page editorial and – knowing how to decipher it – figure out more about the current internal government politics than most Americans from reading the whole Sunday NYT. Of course you would need to be an expert in the language, culture and politics. Doh – of course. What did you expect?


tribald ozgevir 08.24.06 at 9:39 am

abb1: when the right speaks of left-wing moral relativists who are incapable of recognizing the moral distinctions between the United States and the USSR, it is usually attacking a straw man. You appear to have climbed inside this straw man and are making him hop about. He looks as ridiculous and as irritating as one might expect.

I knew how to read Pravda in the old days. You didn’t learn as much as you do from reading the New York Times. It’s also important, of course, to know how to read the New York Times, but the user’s guide is nowhere near as ornery, and a newbie can pick it up without any instructions at all and still make it work pretty well.


abb1 08.24.06 at 10:29 am

Well, if you agree that knowing how to read Pravda one could learn a lot about the local politics, then what’s whith the rant about straw men and moral relativists? I don’t understand.


geoff 08.24.06 at 10:45 am


I think the comment you cite was referring to the European media, not the American media – from what I’ve seen, the situation is essentially the reverse in many parts of Europe, with all of the attendant problems that it brings on both sides.


tribald ozgevir 08.24.06 at 12:30 pm

abb1: it was possible to learn something, with great effort and much yawning, from reading Pravda. Your comment implied that this meant there was little difference between Pravda and the NY Times, or that most of those who read the NYT are not better informed about the world than those who read Pravda. That is false and silly. As ignorant as most Americans are, they are far better off intellectually and far less susceptible to ludicrous misperceptions about the state of the world than were Russians in the pre-glasnost era, due to the ideological subervience, politically mandated silence, and rampant lying of the Soviet media.


tribald ozgevir 08.24.06 at 12:32 pm

And, incidentally, it is important to remember that those whose approach to the USSR consisted of trying to read between the lines of Pravda – the Kremlinologists – were largely completely wrong about what was happening in the country in the mid to late ’80s, while those whose approach consisted of going there and talking to people were more often right.


abb1 08.24.06 at 12:57 pm

As ignorant as most Americans are, they are far better off intellectually and far less susceptible to ludicrous misperceptions about the state of the world than were Russians in the pre-glasnost era, due to the ideological subervience, politically mandated silence, and rampant lying of the Soviet media.

I think that’s arguable. Listen to any AM talk-show for a couple of days and I’m sure you will realize that it’s not obvious at all. I suspect that most of the Soviets were much more cynical about the official claims and therefore more realistic than the Americans. But we won’t be able to settle this one, we will never know for sure.

But that wasn’t my point. My point was that a foreign correspondent in a dictatorship can indeed find a lot of important stuff if he/she has a deep knowledge of the language, culture, etc.


David Sucher 08.24.06 at 4:34 pm

“My point was that a foreign correspondent in a dictatorship can indeed find a lot of important stuff if he/she has a deep knowledge of the language, culture, etc.”

But that’s not what you wrote. I don’t see where you were restricting the issue to foreign correspondent — (and btw, “finding things out” does not mean that there is a free press.)

You said that a dictatorship can have a free press, which I believe destroys the meaning/usage of the term “dictatorship.” By definition, dictatorships cannot have a free press — it’s one of their essential characteristics, unless you wants to make up new definitions of commonly-used terms to suit your own purpose.

As to the suggestion that the USA is tantamount to a dictatorship, stop fantasizing.


Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 9:01 pm

abb1, tribald, david

I think abb1 is basically saying that the Soviet public was better informed than the American, since they at least knew that their media was unreliable. The problem is that that bit of metadata still does not tell you what to believe. On any specific event, there are a vast number of theories compatible with the notion that Pravda is lying; how do you arbitrate between them? People in our society who disbelieve the NYT – on a specific matter, or in general – differ greatly in what they believe instead.

I agree that the NYT (for example) is not as good a source as it is regarded, and we’ve seen proof over the past few years. However, it tries to retain credibility and is still not nearly as bad as Pravda was.

I believe that one practical problem the Soviets had is that they could not tell how well their propaganda was working, because people’s responses were intimidated. The free speech in America gives the elite an accurate feedback loop, which enables much more sophisticated and effective propaganda.


David Sucher 08.24.06 at 11:08 pm

Abbi wrote: “Anything is possible under dictatorship, including free mainstream local press.”

I have read Abbi’s comments on this blog lo these many many months and rarely have I ever agreed with her. But the majority of her comments had at least the color of reason….some shred of rationality and of a respect for our common language.

Her comment (above) is so far beyond the reasonable, so oblivious to our social agreement about words and so cavalier about the history of human behavior that that she must be pulling our collective leg to see if anyone is paying attention. Her example of Orwellian doubletalk — “dictatorship allows freedom” — is just terrific.


abb1 08.25.06 at 1:37 am

David, you may be confusing ‘dictatorship’ with ‘tyranny’. ‘Dictatorship’ is merely a method, a form of government; it’s not a characteristic of the degree of oppression.

Under my enlightened dictatorship you’ll be freer than ever. And we’ll have a free press too; I’ll dictate that the press is not subjected to any undue influence – any attempt to do that will be punishible by death.


abb1 08.25.06 at 2:08 am

I don’t see where you were restricting the issue to foreign correspondent

The post says: it’s difficult to be a foreign correspondent because there’s no meaningful local press.
I say: yes, there is, if you know how to read it.


Cirkux 08.25.06 at 6:17 am

“As to the suggestion that the USA is tantamount to a dictatorship, stop fantasizing.”

To an outsider it’s so close as to be almost indistinguishable. When you take into consideration what seem to be rigged elections, a head of state who has repeatedly been caught lying outright and the wars of aggression I’d say you’re pretty damn close.


jayann 08.25.06 at 11:46 am

and so cavalier about the history of human behaviour

oh yes? Enlightened Despots


abb1 08.25.06 at 12:07 pm


Martin Bento 08.25.06 at 12:41 pm

A dictator is someone who holds power by force. Such a person can set the rules they like, so, yes, in principle, they could leave the press alone and even have laws protecting it. So abb1 is right. In principle. I wonder if it has ever actually happened though. It is strongly contrary to the self-interest of dictators.


ingrid robeyns 08.25.06 at 3:32 pm

abb1, I agree with martin bento — isn’t what you are suggesting mainly a theoretical possibility which will be of interest to social choice theorists or highly analytical philosophers who can make any kind of assumptions they like? I can’t think of an example of a real existing contemporary enlightened dictatorship with genuinly free press and people who are not afraid to speak their minds.


abb1 08.25.06 at 5:24 pm

Any government holds power by force. There are no pure democracies in the world and a typical representative democracy is not that different from a typical mild dictatorship, the difference is only in the details. Like the difference between a 2005 Chevrolet and 1955 Chevrolet.

Al Jazeera in Qatar is an example.


The Lounsbury 08.27.06 at 11:14 am

Always I am entertained by the strong opinions of commentators who clearly don’t have first hand experience. As a finance professional in the region who speaks the language(s), it amuses me at the same time it depresses me.

First, the comment supra to the effect there is no free media and that Western-style reporting – positive but also frequently negative – that is absent for any Arab or other Muslim country is a gross exageration. A visit to Muslim countries such as Mali and Senegal (taking two dirt poor African Muslim countries that have been democratic since long before the average American’s interest in Muslims and democracy emerged) reveals plenty of free-wheeling press. In the Arab region, Morocco and Lebanon spring to mind as having local journalism that with some exceptions is moving towards substantially Western standards. I am sure were I familiar with Asia I might have further direct personal observation. And the two core Arab Sats, Arabiyah and Jazeerah have certainly moved critical reporting miles forward.

But that gets me to my core observation, in agreement with the neglected obs re language:
Whatever one’s business, any kind of information intensive activity (reporting, direct investments in private firms, etc) is going to require – for real success – having at least a good working knowledge if not perfect fluency in the core language of the country.

My experience meeting western Journos in the various watering holes is that they are largely condemnded by lack of language skills to be parrots for the English (or French) speaking elite – business or intellectual, and rather rapidly lap up what’s fed to them as insight, and parrot it as “insight” into society, etc. See Michael Totten and his model, The Moustache Friedman.

With good langauge skills one can compensate and substantially mitigate (although not make go away) the issues of information transparency found in authoritarian and traditional societies. Without, you just get spin.

Comments on this entry are closed.