A journalist can choose to work courageously in the Middle East in several different ways, given the many dangers that define the news business in this region, including dangers from active wars, guerrilla and militia groups, state violence, terrorism, foreign military occupations and armies, political intimidation, and the power of mass public opinion. While there is heroism in working in the face of all these threats, my 35 years of experience lead me to believe that the greatest form of courage that a journalist can display in his or her work is to affirm universal standards of human rights and dignity by confronting and challenging the power of the government and its security services. Honest journalism in the face of authoritarian regimes and police states is the highest form of courage, and the most dangerous, in the Middle East.
Speaking truth to power, the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said noted, was the intellectual’s responsibility in the modern world. Doing the same thing in the news media is the defining characteristic of courageous journalism in the contemporary Middle East, most of which is characterized by a deadly combination: authoritarian or autocratic governments and public opinions defined often by mass anger and emotionalism.
The journalists I respect most in the Middle East, especially the Arab world but also in Iran, Turkey, Israel and other countries in the region, are those who confront the control mechanisms of their ruling power structure. They defy existing rules, run against the grain of prevailing public opinion, raise unpleasant issues for public discussion, and demand that public or official power be exercised equitably and humanely, according to internationally accepted standards of democratic pluralism and human rights. Hundreds of journalists who have acted with such courage have been jailed, threatened, intimidated and even killed during the past several decades. Several prominent journalists have recently been killed or injured in bomb attacks in Lebanon. Their courage and sacrifice continue to inspire many of us in the news media who are committed to the quest for balance, accuracy, integrity, fairness, relevance and truth in our daily work.
In contexts such as the modern Middle East, journalism is not only a vocation for conveying information and providing entertainment; it is a critical tool for promoting coherent statehood, sensible governance, and basic decency in the lives of all men and women in our societies. In most cases the news media provide the only possible means of challenging official narratives, and those journalists who make use of that opportunity, at great risk usually, can often inspire other citizens to mobilize for the well-being of their entire country.
At its simplest level, courageous journalism may mean offering an opinion that differs from the government’s, or proposing ideas that run counter to the dominant trend in public opinion. At its most complex and dangerous, it means challenging security systems and ruling oligarchies to be accountable, transparent and equitable in their monopolistic exercise of power. These are universal values, not particularly Middle Eastern: It was as difficult for an American journalist in late 2001 to suggest that American society needed to explore the full reasons for the 9/11 attacks, including backlash against U.S. foreign policy, as it was for journalists in the Middle East to suggest that our societies needed to appreciate the many reasons why American public opinion enthusiastically supported military action after 9/11.
Another word for courage is the less flamboyant "integrity," a word that comprises professional, moral and political integrity in doing one’s job as a reporter or analyst. Acting with integrity means honestly probing the causes of the many problems and tensions that define the modern Middle East and suggesting antidotes that offer a way towards a more stable, productive and equitable society. It means demanding that power in the hands of the state be exercised with a sense of responsibility, and within limits, while also demanding moral behavior on the part of private businesses, local traditional leaders, and civil society organizations. Challenging the governments of the Middle East, in particular, has meant demanding that the guns and money in the hands of the central government be subjected to mechanisms of accountability, whether through representative governance based on elected parliaments, the rule of law based on independent judiciaries, or more informal traditional systems of representation, voice and pluralism that are deeply ingrained in Middle Eastern cultures.
The modern history of the Middle East, especially the Arab world, has been plagued by police states that use violence against their own citizens more than against external enemies. Governments for decades indiscriminately closed publications, jailed or harassed journalists, and used every available means of control and intimidation. They did this in order to present the citizenry with only the government’s view of events, aiming mainly to perpetuate the ruling elite’s grip on power. The government-disseminated view was usually incomplete, inaccurate and untruthful, designed to promote a citizenry of docile yes-men and women, unthinking and robotic nationals who make neither serious demands nor utter independent thoughts. The consequence is all around us today — a region wracked by homegrown violence and foreign armed occupations, corruption, abuse of power, criminality, terrorism and a widespread desire among youth to emigrate.
Journalists who dare to challenge the prevailing power structure and demand a better and more just order in society represent one form of courage, alongside others who do the same thing in civil society, the religious and educational establishments, the world of arts and the business community. Journalists often are the first to make public demands of the state, challenge its use of power, or suggest a better, more humane style of public life and political authority. Their courage derives from their willingness to make the first move in tightly run societies, to be the first to challenge authority in public, to point out that the emperor is naked, and that the citizens are human.
Rami G. Khouri, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is editor at large of the Beirut-based The Daily Star and an internationally syndicated columnist.