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On Robert Fisk and the memory of real journalism

On the 30th of October, journalism lost Robert Fisk. The Middle East correspondent for “The Independent” British newspaper, who has covered the unfolding history of this region for almost four decades. A reporter who chose to live in Beirut for most of his career because he didn’t want to report on the Middle East if couldn’t “be there”. A notion that is increasingly being forgotten in the journalism of today. In a time when the race to get a picture of an event out, before the event itself has finished taking place, and when the commenting of news from tv studios has become itself the news, Robert Fisk’s loss matters for journalism.

For the peoples of the region whose stories he has covered, from Kabul to Baghdad, and from Beirut to Gaza, his loss matters. Not because he spoke their voices or showed their side of their own stories, neither because someone could imagine that he was pro-Iraqi or pro-Palestinian, because he simply was not. But rather because he was a real journalist. One who went after the reality in people’s lives, engaged with it, felt it, and made others know it. One who grasped the ugly reality of war, waged from thousands of miles away, and put it right in front of his readers’ noses, not to give answers, but rather to raise questions, which is what a journalist is supposed to do. Robert Fisk’s death matters because he was that kind of international journalist that people in the Middle East rarely see around anymore.

“We must be partial”

People in the West probably remember his famous interviews with Osama Bin Laden, back in the nineties. In Palestine, however, Fisk is remembered for being one of the first reporters to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, in the last hours of the massacre, in September of 1982. He was one of the first to call the massacre by its name, and to call out its perpetrators: The fascist Lebanese phalange and their allies, the Israeli army commanded by Ariel Sharon, who sent the phalange men into the camps and stood on the surrounding roof-tops, for three straight days, watching the butchery happen.

He later wrote about the Palestinian refugee woman who he saw laying dead in the front yard of her house, surrounded by the washed clothes she was hanging when she was murdered, and a red stream of fresh blood coming out of the back of her head, crossing the yard. Robert Fisk wrote that night, in his own words; “with a freedom of anger and passion I never felt before”. He even went on to say that the events of Sabra and Shatila changed his own way of writing. “We should be passionate,” he said repeatedly in his lectures; “we should be partial and denounce criminals when we see them”.

Bodies of Palestinian refugees in the streets of Sabra and Shatila refugee camp after the Israeli-backed massacre was carried out. [PHOTO: MICHEL PHILIPPOT/SYGMA/ GETTY IMAGES)

Journalism and Power

This understanding of journalism led Robert Fisk to criticize mainstream media in the West, especially when reporting on the Middle East. Fisk referred to what he called “the osmotic parasitic relationship between American journalism and Power. The need to be close, to have contact, to be In on the story” as he regularly explained. This slipping of journalists, further away from the real stories of people impacted by war, and closer to the decision makers, made it easier for governments to sell war to their citizens as something easy. Some kind of “bloodless sand-pit” as Fisk described it. And it also made it easier for people to buy into it.

With such a way of reporting, those in power will rarely be held accountable for their decisions, when they cause death and destruction upon peoples living thousands of miles from their borders. But what is more dangerous is that their political rhetoric, their language, their terminology and their narrative about the places they engage in, will have a monopolized access to the language of reporting. This means that the narrative of those in power will be presented to the public, through the media, as the uncontested, objective facts. Especially when this media presents itself as objective. “Look at the sourcing in this story” Robert Fisk pointed out in one of his lectures in the Georgetown school in Qatar in 2010, referring to an LA Times article dealing with the war in Iraq, “US officials said, said one US justice department counter-terrorism official, officials say, US authorities said, several US officials said …” he went on quoting the sourcing of the article, before concluding; “If this is journalism, ladies and gentlemen, I’m out of work. Why don’t just call the LA Times: ‘US officials said’? ”

The impact of this way of making news was often described by Robert Fisk as “lethal”, and it is. The lethal impact of this toxic relationship between mainstream journalism and Power is no less than the falsification of reality, and, on the long-run, the falsification of history. How else, if not, did the American media come to call the Israeli illegal, colonial, apartheid settlements built on stolen Palestinian land “Jewish neighborhoods”? or to call the West Bank, Eastern Jerusalem and Gaza, which are, by all international law standards, occupied; “disputed territories”?

But on the ground, the impact is even more lethal. It is the continuation of such inhumane realities without significant citizen challenge. As long as Americans are told that the blowing of Afghan children up into pieces with 200 pound-bombs is “cirurgical strikes”, they will never tell their government loud-enough to stop it. As long as they are told that the 26-feet-tall militarized wall that turns a Palestinian 6th grader’s walk to school into a prison-break is a “security fence”, they will continue to fund it with their tax-money without questioning. Robert Fisk did call things by their names, and he did strive to keep his work free from capture by the Power’s narrative.

In his book “The Great War For Civilization”, Robert Fisk wrote: “After the Allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father’s war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career—in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad—watching the people within those borders burn.”

Robert Fisk in 2001 after being beaten while reporting along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. [Credit…Hussein Malla/Associated Press]

It was perhaps then, when those borders were created, that the peoples within them lost their voice, and that their story began to be written by somebody else. And at some point along the way, more and more journalists also gave up on reality, confined themselves to borders and sold their pens out to power. Robert Fisk was one of those international reporters who didn’t. One who went beyond the borders created by colonial powers, and took upon himself the task of showing the story of these peoples as they live it. He also encouraged journalists belonging to these peoples to raise their voices and tell their people’s stories from within, as he did with many of his Palestinian colleagues in Gaza.

Today, a new generation of journalists in the Arab world and elsewhere are using the internet to get our own narrative out to the world, and challenge the distortion of our realities by the powerful, and by the lazy journalism reporters orbiting them. And as we, journalists of the burning peoples, are more aware than ever of the fact that no body, not even Robert Fisk, could tell our story with our own words, as we live it, and that less and less international reporters are willing even to try, we still have a thought to give out to the life and legacy of Robert Fisk. Not because he was a pro-Palestinian or a pro-Iraqi, because he was not. But rather because he was a real journalist. That kind of international journalists that we, in the Middle East, rarely see around anymore.

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