When Reuters was forced to sever ties with free-lance photographer Adnan Hajj and remove more than 900 of his photos from its database earlier this month, long-whispered questions about the reliability of Arab stringers and freelancers came to the forefront.
But while the widespread use of Arab locals in covering the Middle East raises many legitimate concerns, the Palestinian propaganda machine has enjoyed tremendous success over the years hoodwinking supposedly sophisticated Western journalists. And Hezbollah appears to have done the same over the past month.
In short, almost nothing that is purported to happen in the Arab world can automatically be taken at face value. Not even if it’s captured in a photo.
Nowhere is the use of Arab “fixers” (as they are known) more common than in the Palestinian territories. And yet despite the extensive reliance on locals who presumably enjoy greater familiarity with the terrain and key players, negative press coverage of the Palestinian Authority or various Islamic terrorist organizations operating in the territories has long been scant.
This void in coverage is not because such evidence does not exist. Palestinian Media Watch, a nonprofit that operates on a tight budget, has easily reported more on incitement and indoctrination by the Palestinian Authority, for example, than all Western media outlets combined.
When it was discovered that Mr. Hajj had digitally manipulated his photos, at least one prominent Arab journalist was not surprised. “Sadly, things like this happen a lot, especially when your local fixers are openly affiliated and have a clear agenda,” explains Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh. He adds that some of the Arab stringers and freelancers contracted by Western media outlets are “people who see themselves as foot soldiers for the cause.”
Mr. Toameh is careful not to paint with too broad a brush, and he stresses that there are Arab journalists who do their best to get the story out. But the record is well-established that reporting certain truths in the Palestinian territories can result in intimidation or sometimes severe violence.
After being arrested and detained for six days because he didn’t give Yasser Arafat the desired coverage in the run-up to the 1996 election, Maher al-Alami, editor of Al Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper in Jerusalem, said that “the Palestinian media follow [Yasser Arafat’s] instructions out of fear.”
When an Associated Press cameraman filmed Palestinians in Nablus jubilantly rejoicing over the September 11 attacks, he “was summoned to a Palestinian Authority security office and told that the material must not be aired,” according to the AP’s own account. Threats from Islamic terrorists on Arafat’s payroll quickly followed. One Palestinian cabinet officer even stated that the the Palestinian Authority could not “guarantee the life” of the cameraman if the footage was released.
The Associated Press never officially released the footage.
Even under the theory that Arab thugs and tyrants would be less likely to kill Western journalists because, well, the world would sadly care more about their deaths, relying solely on Western reporters instead is no panacea, either.
Examples abound of Western reporters being duped or threatened. In April 2002, the Israeli military raided the Jenin refugee camp, a known terrorist breeding ground and safe haven. Palestinians immediately accused the Jewish state of systematically committing war crimes, and the buzzword soon tossed about by the Western press was “massacre.”
That no massacre actually occurred — not even the United Nations, the Palestinians’ best friend, found any evidence to suggest one had — received only a fraction of the earlier, largely uncritical reporting. Ditto for the incident this June, when many family members died on a beach in northern Gaza. Originally covered as an Israeli shelling of innocent Palestinians, it turned out that Israel almost certainly played no role in the tragedy. The media mea culpa, though, was essentially mute.
In a widely circulated photo taken last month and distributed by Agence France Press, two older, hijab-clad Lebanese women are wailing in front of caskets. Dozens of caskets, actually. The caskets were lined up against a wall, and numbers were spray-painted on the wall. Somehow, the women had wedged themselves into the narrow space between the coffins and the wall, and the numbers conveniently appeared directly behind them — guaranteed to be in any photo.
The problems with the photo are obvious. Why would the women force their way into a crevice, when they could more easily face both the caskets and the wall? Quite simply, that shot wouldn’t capture both the mourning faces and the numbers signifying the enormity of the tragedy. And on the topic of the numbers, the ones spray-painted on the wall were the kind used in the West, not in South Lebanon, thus erasing any doubt about the photo-op’s intended audience.
This photo, though, was not taken by an Arab freelancer or some hack Westerner. It was shot by award-winning photographer Marco Di Lauro, who won praise for his work with Marines in Iraq. The benign — and probably correct — interpretation is that he just wasn’t suspicious enough.
Yet given that thugs from Hezbollah, Hamas and Mr. Arafat’s Fatah control almost everything in the most “newsworthy” areas of the Arab world, any scene or event encountered by Western media outlets must be viewed with supreme skepticism.
But it’s not as if this is news to the Western media. They know it. Yet pretend as if they don’t. That’s the real travesty.
Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.