Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Destined to be a witness to Lebanon is recent past, Robert Fisk is the “oldest” foreign correspondent in the Middle East, with over 30 years of first-hand experience covering conflicts in the region. A permanent resident of Beirut, Fisk reported on the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli invasion in 1982, the Iranian revolution and the first and second Gulf wars. It is impossible to ignore Fisk’s anger at the west and his conviction that the policies of western governments are responsible for a lack of true democracy in the Middle East. A journalist and an analyst, Fisk has written several reference books on the region.
Asharq al Awsat interviewed Fisk after he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the American University of Beirut, a few days before Israel attacked Lebanon .
Q: Do you find any deficiencies in the way western journalists write about the Middle East? Is this due to political or professional reasons? Do you feel you are distinguished from them because you live in Beirut?
A: I used to be a correspondent of The Times here and then The Independent. The method used in reporting is no longer, what it used to be. Newspapers are no longer required anymore to provide written information but visual information. The Editor in Chief wants coverage to be supplemented by the opinions of influential people. In Gaza, for example, the correspondent can relay a clear picture of the fear of bombing and explosions and not have to be contented with the official statements of both parties in the conflict. However, in many cases, we find that foreign journalists come to the region, investigate the situation and interview people, but when they write, they only include the opinions of the political authorities in their countries.
Q: Does this mean that journalists reporting on the field should include their opinions in their coverage?
A: It is easy to say that you reflect your own views in the article. But the issue is not related to your opinion but to the ideas that are formed on the field and from the situations we sense. The presence of a correspondent in a coverage area has a reason, not just enjoying the moderate climate of Middle Eastern countries. For example, when I was in southern Lebanon, I was eager to inform my readers of the situation of people there.
Q: Do you believe that journalists also play the role of historians?
A: In a way, yes. Many journalists say that it’s important to keep a card in our pocket. I say we should preserve history. If we, for example, go back to last century, between 1918 and 1920, we find in documents that the British, when they came to Baghdad , did not see themselves as an occupation force but as a liberation force. They bombed Falluja and Najaf and wrote that “terrorists” has infiltrated Iraq through the Syrian border. History repeats itself and the journalist who hasn’t read this information will not understand what’s happening today in Iraq . This is why I stay in the region to follow events and understand what is happening.
Q: Do you find yourself professionally the prisoner of events in the Middle East ? Does this coverage reflect an objective view?
A: I cover what happens in the region. When I started covering the Lebanese war in 1975, I never thought I would go to southern Lebanon and follow the details of the Israeli occupation and continue for 15 years. I am pessimistic about the situation. Iraq is moving to this unknown and the Palestinian state is a corpse that isn’t permitted to live.
Q: Do you notice that when you blame western policies for the situation in the Middle East, in your writing, this can be interpreted as supporting Arab regimes?
A: After the WW1, the United States sought to make the Middle East, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, democratic. But the European powers didn’t want to lose its control over the region and so divided it to enable it to control it easily. They incited neighboring countries against one another and encouraged them to protect themselves. They also sold them weapons. Jamal Abdul Nasser, for example, was accepted in Britain until he decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. Then, he became “the Mussolini of the Nile”.
Q: You use your own terminology in your writing. For example, you avoid using the term “terrorism”. Why?
A: Because this word is the key to justifying US foreign policy. It’s enough to use for evil to become present and true questions to be abandoned. Journalists should ask: Why is terrorism happening? But this question means that the one posing it is the enemy of US policy and democracy and a supporter of violence. But it is elementary to ask this question before any other, in order to cover any event or carry out an investigation. We notice that, after September 11, the only acceptable question is: How did the event take place, when and what are the methods used and how is responsible? But the question, why, is now forbidden. No one answers it, despite it being the most important question. If we want to be more in-depth in our analysis, it is enough to go back to the big US newspapers, before the invasion of Iraq, to see that it only reported one point of view, that of the White House. Today, the situation has slightly returned to normal and US newspapers have starting asking questions about US foreign policy.
Q: Why did you leave The Times newspaper and join The Independent?
A: On 3 June 1988, an Iranian Airbus plane was bombed by the Americans and all its passengers were killed. The American excuses weren’t convincing. I gathered information on the incident, made sure it was correct and included all the details that prove the US was responsible for this tragedy. I then sent an article on the issue to The Times. However, the article wasn’t published in the first edition and was censured when it was published in the second edition. When I found out about this, I handed in my resignation and applied to join The Independent. Six months later my application was accepted and I joined the newspaper to find that former colleagues had already preceded me.
Q: Why did you choose The Independent? What distinguishes it?
A: Perhaps the name is its main distinguishing feature. We have a trustworthy Editor in Chief. We don’t have to please any politicians or officials when we work. We can cover events and tragedies objectively. We can carry out investigations form anywhere around the world. We can also write analyses and opinions freely.
Q: What distinguishes the writer from the journalist in your work?
A: They are one person. There’s no difference. The content of the work is the most important.
Q: Before we started the interview, you said you had a bad relationship with the internet. Why? Do you consider that journalism is restricted to being in close contact with people away from technology?
A: I think the internet steals the journalist’s time and deprives him of working with people and books that give clear information that is easily archived. Many times, they call me from the newspaper’s library to ask me about information that might be available in my archive. The internet lacks this precision and the person searching can be submerged with detrimental information that might result in mistakes. This is why I tell those gathering information about me in the internet: it’s not me. This is an internet man who bears no relation to the real me. Instead of searching the internet for information or references, I prefer to go to the field and speak to people and obtain my information from them.
Q: Your books are taught in Lebanese schools. How did you become a reference on the region? What do Lebanese and Arab journalists need to achieve to reach this level?
A: It is not fair to evaluate Lebanese and Arab journalists. The circumstances are different and are related to the degree of freedom in each Arab country. In Lebanon , for example, there is a lot of freedom; in Kuwait too. The situation is difference in other countries and Arab newspapers based in London have a much wider scope. This is why I can’t judge Arab journalism in an absolute way. As for why my books arte taught, it’s because I am a Middle East specialist. Other than that, I am a normal person doing their job.
Q: Do you think Arabs can improve their image in the media?
A: In order to confront the propaganda, those speaking in the name of Arabs should be fluent in English, in order to reach the Western public. If we follow television, these days, we notice that the Israeli spokesman is very fluent in English and chooses expressions and terms that serve the idea he wants to convey. But the Palestinian spokesman, unfortunately, isn’t fluent enough to reflect positively on his cause.
Q: You interviewed Osama bin Laden three times between 1994 and 1997. How do you remember him?
A: It’s true and he asked to meet me after the September 11 attacks but I was unable to reach him in Afghanistan because of the US raids at the time. He mentioned me in one of his interviews before the US presidential elections. Like all people, he has changed over the years. He matured a bit but didn’t have any experience of world politics. Imagine that he told me he expected a civil war in the United States . I laughed at the time. But he knows very well how to address the Arab world. He knows he can move millions of Arabs.
Nowadays, the problem is no longer bin Laden but al Qaeda, an organization bigger that can’t be summed up in one person. I met, once, Palestinians from al Qaeda. They were on their way to Iraq . One of them told me his family didn’t like bin Laden but did not object to him going to defend Islam. This is why it’s not important if bin Laden is loved or not; he is no longer a person or the president of a party for them. He is an ideology in itself. The cause is the absence of democracy. If there was democracy in the Arab world, Osama bin Laden would not have continued to exist.
Q: How would you describe the current events in Lebanon ?
A: Death, massacres and violence, this is its name. Al Qaeda is al Qaeda and has its own members. When we use the term terrorism and suffice ourselves with it, we fall into an endless ocean and can no longer sea terra firma.
Q: Do you think of retiring? Where do you see yourself retiring?
A: Before this interview, I finished an article on wartime cinema in the Middle East . I didn’t like the Lebanese film “Another Day” but I liked “Paradise Now”. When I retire, I will write movie scripts. I believe the cinema has an amazing ability to reach the public, more than newspapers and television. I am currently very interested in it.