By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
DUBAI -- Talking with brave Arab journalists such as Hussein Shobokshi, I hear the passion that animates good reporting everywhere. And it makes me all the more disgusted by recent revelations that my own government has been corrupting the nascent Iraqi free press by planting stories.
Shobokshi was fired by the Jiddah daily paper Okaz in 2003 after he wrote a column imagining a democratic Saudi future in which his daughter could drive, leaders were elected and the budget was public. This June he was attacked for writing a column in Asharq al-Awsat titled, "Why Do We Hate the Jews?" He described "a very noble and polite" Jewish doctor in America who had treated his young nephew for a rare cancer, and he asked why Saudis were encouraged "to hate Jews and pray against them, too."
I spent the past few days with Shobokshi and other Arab journalists at a conference here sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Arab Thought Foundation. I heard some of the rote criticism of the United States and Israel that has given the Arab press a bad name over the years. But far more often I heard a new voice of professionalism and accountability that is shaping the movement for change in the Arab world.
The best of the Arab journalists are my heroes. They are risking imprisonment and death to tell the truth. At a time when U.S. media are having an identity crisis, they remind me what the news business is all about. I want to describe several of them, so readers will understand the energy they are bringing to the Arab debate.
Let me start with Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, who lost his life this year because he refused to trim the facts. Kassir was a columnist for the Beirut daily An Nahar who wrote fearlessly about Syria's brutal military occupation of Lebanon. Friends warned him of the risks; some pleaded with him to stop. But he wouldn't bend, couldn't bend. In June he was assassinated.
At a memorial service in Beirut a week later, I stood at the spot where a car bomb killed Kassir. All around me, Lebanese journalists held candles and sang the national anthem. I will mention just two, who stand for dozens of others: my friend Jamil Mroue, editor and publisher of the Daily Star, who was early to write and speak honestly about the Syrian occupation; and his editorial page editor, Lebanese American Michael Young, who has written brilliantly about Syria and Lebanon.
I've met some brave Syrian journalists on several trips to Damascus this year. I won't add to the danger by naming them, but I can summarize their message: They love their country, and they want political change. They remind me of the samizdat writers I met in Moscow a generation ago. If Syria's rulers think they can be intimidated into silence, they're wrong.
I visited here with Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who has been arrested by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis for trying to do his job. Now he's based in Amman, running a wide-open Internet radio station for the Arab world, Ammannet.net, and training radio journalists from Saudi Arabia.
And there's the new generation of Arab television journalists. Some of the best work for al-Arabiya, a satellite news channel created three years ago as a competitor to al-Jazeera. When I ask al-Arabiya's general manager, Abdul Rahman Rashed, to describe his mission, he keeps repeating the same word: "professionalism." Seven al-Arabiya journalists have been killed in Iraq, taking fire from both sides as they try to do their jobs.
Touring al-Arabiya's studios here, I meet a 28-year-old reporter, Wael Essam, who just left Baghdad after three years. He covered the battle of Fallujah last year from both sides, behind insurgent lines and as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army, and he has been held captive by both sides, too. Known to his colleagues as "Wild Wael," he is pleading with his editors to send him back to the war zone. "If I stay in the newsroom, I'll die," he tells me.
Against this background of courageous Arab reporters risking everything for their journalism, what do I see? The U.S. government has been bribing Iraqi newspapers to run "good news" stories about the American occupation of Iraq. This at a time when real Iraqi reporters are risking their lives to work for The Post and other news organizations in Baghdad because they believe in honest journalism. Here's a thought for an administration that claims to love freedom and democracy: Let's try living our values, rather than just talking about them.