Over a month has passed since the beginning of the violent riots in the poor suburbs of the French capital. Violence escalated between members of the indigenous population and those of ethnic minorities. In such cases, accusations are cast by both parties. French authorities are blamed for not having incorporated its immigrants into French society, who had arrived to assist in the country””s rehabilitation after a world war. Such an authority has manipulated cheap labor and allowed immigrants to reside in ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. Such an authority also practices racism against members of ethnic minorities, who they believe are weakening the country””s economic, social and cultural conditions. Such charges as well as others are usually launched by leftists. Those of the right often speak of immigrants and their offspring as envious people who exploit social and political guarantees that are not available in their own homelands.
Through my coverage of the French riots, I sought to adhere completely to the objectivity of journalism; consequently, I researched the issues that needed to be covered. I decided that I would firstly visit a housing estate in the northern district of France where a large number of underprivileged immigrants live. The purpose of my visit was to shed some light upon the social understanding of the sensitive issue of public confrontation.
I was invited to the home of a young Arab girl who lived on the housing estate with her parents and four brothers. The cameraman and I were surprised to find a family of this size living within such a confined area and on an estate with smashed doors, elevators that were out of order, broken lights and walls covered in graffiti. The young girl spoke to us in defense of the unemployed young men who participated in the riots who, she argued have no other way for their voices to be heard or express their anger against the injustices from which they suffer. She referred to random checks, arrests, humiliating inspections, and physical abuse by the police on members of ethnic minorities. She added that when called out in an emergency, the police would not respond if the emergency call came from one of the estates.
The young girl spoke to me regarding her family. She expressed her sadness at the rejection of her sister””s marriage request by the local authority because, she believes, her sister wears the veil. I began to feel as if I was losing the objectivity that my profession imposes upon me. After a long discussion about the status of immigrants in France, the girl insisted we look at the rest of the estate in hope of delivering a desperate message to viewers.
We went downstairs to find two young men waiting. In a deep, stern voice, one of them questioned us about the intentions of our visit to the estate, whereas the other waved an iron bar attempting to emphasize his authority. In such a scenario, one waits for fate to determine the outcome. I tried to think logically and assumed that if I turned my back on the men, I would have been struck with the iron bar. I do not know how I remained so calm. I stood in front of both men and stated that I was a correspondent for an Arab television station and that the program we were filming for aims to highlight the marginalization of such districts. I tried my best to convince him but to no avail, when the young girls father came down and rebuked the young bully for his intimidating behavior. The youth began to attack the father violently and within a few seconds, a number of young men appeared. I will never understand how the old man””s behavior deserved such a brutal reaction. It would seem however, that violence is the language that prevails amongst these young men who can no longer differentiate between those who practice injustice and those upon whom it is practiced. The cars that they torched belonged to their neighbors; the racetracks they burnt were their own racetracks, and most importantly, the people they attacked were the very people they sought to defend.
I stood startled, as the scene before me was more than an exclusive for a journalist. Should we continue filming a message that would satisfy public curiosity or should I hurry to assist in saving this old man””s life? Such a question has frequently been the cause of much confusion. I did not see the necessity of exploiting another image of the same district, this time the image of a father describing his daughter running home after a man had set fire to her after she rejected his marriage proposal. I saw before me an old man who had left his homeland for France in search of a better life for himself and his family. He had struggled for 43 years living away from his homeland to provide his children with the basic needs and rights. He did not enjoy life in this new country but felt that he had to persevere. With all pride and dignity, he stood there in protest of such atrocious and barbaric acts. He wanted his voice to be heard so that what happened to his daughter would not happen to other girls. Despite trying to convince myself that I had no reason to feel this way, the strong sense of guilt overwhelmed me as I watched the old man””s hands tremble. At the beginning, I simply sought an exciting news story, but I was now looking at this scene from another angle. I stopped shooting and comforted the man as we thought about his daughter who was now in a coma.
I have always rejected the idea that a journalist is someone with no feelings who is taught to repeat others like a parrot. From my perspective, a journalist is a dynamic person who interacts with what he sees and delivers an honest message to people without exploiting the weaknesses and misfortunes of those in front of the camera.
*Valia Shami is an editor and presenter for Radio Orient and a freelance correspondent for Dubai TV in Paris.