It has been six years since the disappearance of the Egyptian journalist Reda Helal, who served as deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper.
Helal disappeared under mysterious circumstances on 11 August 2003, and despite all sincere attempts to locate him, as well as hundreds of articles and appeals being written and broadcast, nobody was able to find any clear indication of the journalist’s fate after he made his last phone call from his apartment in downtown Cairo.
Asharq Al-Awsat recently published a report on Reda Helal, quoting some of his family members who learnt, via private means, that Reda was still alive and being held at an Alexandrian prison. However, no official comment has been made on this new piece of information. All that security officers could say to the Helal family and to those inquiring about him is that they had searched high and low for him, at the very least to determine whether he is dead or alive. It is also worth mentioning that over 200 police officers were assigned to the search for Helal.
Reda Helal was a professional, liberal writer. He had clear-cut political positions that clashed with pan-Arab and Islamic currents. He called those defending the crimes of Saddam Hussein “Saddam’s orphans”. But is this enough to abduct, kill or make a journalist or writer who takes such stances disappear? There are many people in the Arab media who oppose these currents, whether they are states or organisations, and many others who support them. However, they are still alive and are getting on with their lives normally. So what made Reda Helal a special case?
This article is not about Reda Helal’s disappearance or his ideologies. This is about the deterioration in ties between the writer and journalist on one hand and the sources of power and hegemony in Arab societies on the other. By this we mean the sources of power that range from ruling authorities all the way down to advertising agencies, politicized religious masses, and pressure groups. These all function as iron fists that grip the journalist. It’s like swimming in a sea full of mines. The journalist has two options; to have the skill of writing without really saying anything in particular, or to have the courage to reveal his true thoughts and positions regardless of the harm this might inflict upon him or, in some cases, the benefit he might gain; in other words, to accept responsibility for his words and ideologies. But very few are willing to do this.
Some journalists may find some middle ground without actually having a plan in mind to write for or against [a party], but rather to just allow every idea to surface in its own time, and take their stance according to the given facts of this or that particular case without committing themselves to a permanent orientation. Of course this does not mean that there is no general framework that regulates their thoughts and orientations, or else they would be completely unfixed, flying like a feather in the winds of fear or gain.
This leads us on to another issue concerned with the writer or journalist’s relationship with his social and political surroundings. Is he obligated to take a stand or just to present information? Should he just pass on a message? This is still open to debate in the American press, which serves as a role model for the international press; there are people who adopt this or that methodical definition of a writer.
Karl Marx believes that a true intellectual should be an oppositionist and not just an observer or analyst (Kitab Bu’s al Sihafa wa Majad al Sahafiyeen, by Nuaiman Othman, p47). But this Marxist view of the intellect’s mission, including journalists, is not completely approved. In the media field, as I pointed out, the controversy over the real task of writers and journalists has not and will never stop, at least in the near future. The idea of separating between a news item and an opinion article is still being examined and discussed, especially due to the numerous sources of information and news. Newspapers and television channels are no longer at the forefront of broadcasting and updating news as we now have the internet, SMS services and multimedia messages.
Despite the fact that the press and television stations are still very important and credible, there is now a dire need to know what’s behind the news and to examine, analyze, and reveal the interrelated components of a news story and its protagonists. This is the job of a writer or an analyst journalist. If we agree that this interpretation is sound, then the balance tips in the favour of opinion journalism at the expense of the news, unless of course the medium in question, whether it is a television station or a newspaper, secures an exclusive. In this case, the value of the news item doubles.
In any case, many variables have had an impact on the relationship between the media and its political, social and economic surroundings. It is true that the markets and the merchants sparked the formation of the information press and its accuracy.
American media expert, Abdullah Shliver says that the Anglo-American press model, in the beginning, sought to attain accuracy and objectivity due to merchants’ needs for fast and accurate news on the fluctuating prices of materials or the changing political conditions that affect trade and stability (Kitab Bu’s al Sihafa wa Majad al Sahafiyeen, Nuaiman Othman, p66). But this was in the past and cannot apply to the age of the internet and mobile phones.
We must acknowledge the solid relationship between journalism and politics. If we say that politics, according to some definitions, is the administration and control of public affairs, then the question is does the media affect politics more or vice versa?
In the war on Saddam Hussein’s regime, British leftist papers slammed Tony Blair’s policies and he responded by saying that the press is not subjected to any laws or systems as the case is with all [other] institutions in democratic countries. Spiro Agnew also attacked the media and said it was led by a “small unelected elite.” But journalists did not hesitate to hit back at Blair, saying that by waging the Iraq war, he wanted the press to achieve the political victory he failed to achieve.
But what has the relationship between the press and the media in the West got to do with us? This might be an embarrassing issue for us, and more importantly, it’s an issue that is distant to us. This is because in our Arab world, the press came into existence within a different context to that of Europe and America. When it first started, it was dominated by literary figures and poets and then religious reformist scholars and pioneers of national independence. It was not handed over to the real producers until much later, particularly amid the plethora of political arguments during the age of national independence movements. But after gaining independence and after the cold wars broke out between conservative Arab states and revolutionary ones, the journalistic elite was put in direct confrontation with these vertical divisions. Some of the most brilliant Arab journalists lost their lives as a result of these conflicts.
For example, Lebanese journalist Salim al Lawzi was brutally murdered in 1980 in the forests of Beirut for opposing the Syrian presence in Lebanon. His hands were burnt with acid signifying a brutal crackdown on the opposition press. Before and after the case of al Lawzi, dozens of journalists from all backgrounds on the Arab level met similar fates. Leftist and right-wing journalists have been killed, either by organs of enemy states, groups affiliated to these states or by pan-Arab or fundamentalist parties. The strangest cases, such as that of Reda Helal, are the sudden and mysterious disappearances of journalists. This is the frightening ideal state for the enemies of journalists and writers: complete absence and no disruptions.
We cannot claim that journalists are innocent people. I agree with what the Moroccan Minister of Communication, Khalid Naciri, once said in Asilah, that a journalist is not a neutral party but a political activist. Once in a while, some countries, in the East and the West, use the profession of journalism to conceal their [espionage] agents. In fact, some have benefited from this practice, as was the case with British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in his film “Bruno” as he presented himself to a Palestinian activist as a journalist, claiming to be making a documentary. All the while the Palestinian activist was being used as the butt of the joke in this film in his capacity as a terrorist.
The relationship between Arab journalists and writers on one hand and their general surroundings on the other is a relationship that is overshadowed by fatigue and agony rather than pleasure and joy. It is true that some journalists acquire the glamour and influence of a celebrity, yet they remain – far more than others – potential victims of political wrath. It becomes hard for them to strike a balance between their personal safety, and their obligation as writers and journalists to contribute to the general welfare. However, some people still mock the ability and integrity of journalists with regards to shaping public opinion on the assumption that “public opinion, in most cases, is the summary of discussions held between a group of journalists when they meet at a pub,” which is a quote of Mr. Hani by the author of the ‘Kitab Bu’s al Sihafa wa Majad al Sahafiyeen’.
Is it possible for journalists and writers to maintain a minimum amount of loyalty to their profession as journalists belonging to a “field” other than the fields of economics and politics and still stay clear of danger?
This is tough. Some people in the Arab world have accomplished this whilst others have failed. The problem, in both cases, is that success is extremely valuable whilst failure is horrific and destructive.