By Fawaz Turki
Saturday, April 15, 2006
I was unceremoniously fired this month by my Saudi newspaper, a leading English-language daily called Arab News.
It didn't matter that I had been the senior columnist on the op-ed page for nine years or that my work was quoted widely in the European and American media, including this paper. What mattered was that I had committed one of the three cardinal sins an Arab journalist must avoid when working for the Arab press: I criticized the government.
The other two? Bringing up Islam as an issue and criticizing, by name, political leaders in the Arab or Islamic world for their brazen excesses, dismal failures and blatant abuses.
Never mind that a newspaper cheapens and debases the idea of the journalistic enterprise when it enjoins its commentators against being critical of the government that it is supposed to be a watchdog over. Never mind the absurdity of preventing your contributors from touching on the issue of Islam, a social ideology whose embrace by jihadists is the top news story in the world today. And never mind that Arab society -- a society that remains broken in body and spirit more than a half-century after independence -- needs very much to engage in serious self-assessment and to promote an open debate in the media among intellectuals, academics, political analysts and others about why Arabs have failed all these years to meet the challenges of modernity.
But those are the stringent, not to mention pathetic, rules that determine how the Arab press conducts its business. You play by these rules or you're cut off. The problem is that if stringing words together is the only way you know how to make a living, you end up eating humble pie and playing the game by whatever rules they set for you.
Sometimes all it takes is a phone call to someone high up in your paper from a semi-literate government official who couldn't run a lunch counter, or a fundamentalist imam who hasn't read a half-dozen decent books in his life, or perhaps a disgruntled diplomat at a Muslim or Arab embassy in Riyadh who didn't like what you had to say in your column about his country. The result is the same: Your career is ruined.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you will have an editorial page editor who likes your work, and he'll cut you a bit of slack and lobby on your behalf behind the scenes, often at the risk of losing his own job. But even in this case, three strikes and you're out.
My first provocation was -- horror of horrors -- to criticize Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak after he cracked down on human rights activists several years ago. My second occurred soon after the failure of the Camp David accords when I called for the resignation of Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.
My last was to write about the atrocities Indonesia had committed during its occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999. For that transgression, my Saudi paper showed no mercy. I was out the door. No questions asked, no explanations given. You don't write about atrocities committed by an Islamic government -- even when they're already documented in the history books -- and hope to get away with it.
But this is not just the story of an Arab journalist losing his job. It is a story with implications for the current American administration's efforts to "introduce" the Arab countries to democracy, of which independent, free media are a major building block.
What Arabs, including those masquerading as their newspaper editors, have yet to learn is that a free press, a truly free press, is a moral imperative in society. Subvert it, and you subvert the public's sacrosanct right to know and a newspaper's traditional role to expose. If the Western democracies work better than many others, it is because to them the concept of accountability, expected from the head of state on down, is a crucial function of their national ideology.
What Arabs have yet to learn, in addition to that, is that newspapers are not published to advance the political preferences of proprietors, or the commentary of subservient analysts who turn a blind eye to the abuse of power by political leaders running their failed states.
Democracy may be a political system, but it is also a social ethos. How responsive can a country be to such an ethos when its people have, for generations, existed with an ethic of fear -- fear of originality, fear of innovation, fear of spontaneity, fear of life itself -- and have had instilled in them the need to accept orthodoxy, dependence and submission?
The Arab world today, sadly, remains a collection of disparate entities ruled for the most part by authoritarian regimes that rely on coercion, violence and terror to rule, and that demand from their citizens submission, obedience and conformity. And that includes those citizens who call themselves "journalists," to whom, by now, responsibility to truth and logic has become irrelevant.
In this atmosphere, it is regarded as an example of reportorial acumen to write on the op-ed pages of prominent Arab journals about how the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were the work of Israeli agents, how the death of Princess Diana was the result of some diabolical plot by British intelligence to end her life rather than see her married to an Arab Muslim, how Monica Lewinsky was an agent-in-place, put in the White House by the "Jewish lobby" -- and so on with other infantile whimsies.
For Arabs, there is still a great divide between word and world. You can embrace conspiracy theories with impressive ease, and be accorded by your editors the right to pontificate about any foolish thing you want, but don't dare write about the malfeasance of political leaders in Egypt and Palestine, or the atrocities of a fellow-Muslim government in East Timor. The price you must pay for such offenses if you work for the Arab press is heavy indeed.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist living in Washington and the author of several books, including "The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile." His e-mail address email@example.com.