Formerly TBS Journal

ISSN: 1687-7721

Western Reporting in the Middle East: The Dilemma of Local Arab Reporters

Issue 16, Fall 2012

By Salah Al-Nasrawi

Photo by Violaine Martin/Creative Commons

Photo by Violaine Martin/Creative Commons

Ever since Mark Twain’s sojourn to the Holy Land and Egypt in 1867, much has been said about Western journalists and writers who report on the Middle East—a great deal of which has been met with suspicion and sometimes resentment in the Arab world. Far less has been said, however, about an issue that is central and consequential to Middle East reporting: the role of local Arab reporters who work at mainstream Western media organizations and who cover the region alongside their Western colleagues. After a career of nearly thirty years at international news organizations in my home country, Iraq, and across the Middle East, I have lived and witnessed firsthand the contribution of local reporters in adding to the West’s understanding of the region, despite the enormous constraints and challenges they face.

The participation of local reporters in international media operations dates back to the period following the First World War when most of the Levant was colonized by the two European victors, Britain and France. In this period, major Western media organizations set up permanent or long-term operations in the Middle East, ushering in, I argue, a new form of Orientalism in the post-colonialist world.  In this article, I will look at the attitudes and practices of these organizations toward locally hired reporters, revealing a system that, at its most fundamental, favors Western narratives about the Middle East as described in the writings of Edward Said and Michael Foucault on the correlation between knowledge and power.

These early media operations had to resort to local journalists, mainly English- and French-speaking helpers, who were recruited for their expertise in needed specializations such as translation, guidance and connections with local, non-English-speaking officials and communities. With the passage of time these “helpers” increased in number and became a new breed of professional reporter. Many of them, having graduated from Western journalism schools, returned to the region bringing with them a liberal education and up-to-date journalistic and writing techniques. Today, there are hundreds of native journalists employed at various Western media organizations across the Middle East, covering one of the most complex stories in the world of news and politics and working under some of the most difficult circumstances in one of the most unfriendly and dangerous regions in the world.

Yet, after nearly 100 years of active participation, the contributions of these reporters has not received sufficient critical attention or academic research.[1]  Indeed, no serious and sustained public discussion has been held by the stakeholders on the integral role of local journalists in supporting Western media coverage of the Middle East, their work conditions, or the unique challenges and risks they face.  Although these men and women have been instrumental to the West’s coverage of this important region, they have remained largely unrecognized, unappreciated, and their courage and sacrifices go unnoticed by news consumers. Arab local reporters can be called “forgotten heroes” in the ongoing battle for truth and accuracy in Middle East reporting, in a blatant manifestation of Orientalist power, denial and prejudice.   

This article is an attempt to draw attention to some of the unfair practices and attitudes that pervade Western media organizations—especially print—operating in the Middle East today.  I will focus here not on Western journalists of Arab descent (such as the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid), but on native Arab journalists who are hired locally by Western news organizations. The distinction between the two is an important one, for while the former operate with the benefits and protections of US and other Western citizenships, the latter are typically denied such advantages, which literally means they are stripped of any immunity or political cover in the authoritarian states in which they work.

Foreign media need native reporters because they rely heavily on local sources for news and information gathering. They hire them because of their contacts, their connections, mobility, knowledge of local languages and culture, and most important, for their ability to convey a sense of place and add perspective and background to a story. These native reporters posses the natural “meta skills” which make them best suited to provide insight, context and analysis, unfiltered by foreign perspectives, agendas or political strategies. While Western journalists can, and often do, possess the editorial, writing and language skills to shape the story, there is no replacement for the kind of granular knowledge that local Arab journalists bring to news production.

In this capacity, native Arab journalists are actually working as a cultural bridge to connect the West and Arab world, two worlds that have been traditionally separated by a geopolitical gap, historical and cultural distortion, misunderstanding and stereotypes. They are best suited to be the link that facilitates better understanding of their region by Western audiences. 

Fortunately, this argument is increasingly becoming acceptable in media and academic circles worldwide. At a recent forum of foreign reporters working in China, participants urged the Chinese government to lift a ban on foreign media organizations hiring local reporters, arguing that these local reporters would “help promote better understanding of their nation.” Under current Chinese law, permanent offices of foreign media organizations may hire Chinese citizens only to do “auxiliary work” and this “through organizations providing services to foreign nationals.”[2]

While the practice of hiring local Arab journalists to support Western news production is standard, the problems faced by these journalists remain largely unrecognized, and are mounting along with the pressures of digital media and the 24-hour news cycle. For example, while hundreds of these journalists struggle to provide reporting under stressful conditions and in dangerous zones, sometimes even risking their lives in perilous situations, they themselves have little or no legal protection.  The issue of the safety and well-being of local Arab journalists is rarely and inadequately addressed by the organizations that hire them. For example, many of these reporters are working as “stringers” with no contracts and are not provided any kind of insurance, even when they work in war zones.

Local journalists are generally not represented in international journalist unions or even in their own organization’s guilds. The News Media Guild, which represents Associated Press workers (as well as UPI, and employees of the Spanish EFE News Service), for example, does not take complaints or support requests from non-American journalists working at AP’s offices worldwide.  This is in spite of the fact that its website states that it is “a labor union dedicated to quality journalism through fair working conditions for the men and women who provide the news.”[3] 

Based on personal experience, even the International Federation of Journalists fails to address grievances or complaints from local reporters working for international media. This is in contradiction to its self-definition as a confederation “created to deal with matters related to trade unionism and the practice of the profession of journalism” among whose “aims and objectives are …to protect and strengthen the rights and freedoms of journalists [and] to improve and defend the social and working conditions of all journalists.”[4] Furthermore, groups like IFJ tend to focus mainly on problems in state-owned media, largely ignoring problems occurring in private media organizations.  Finally, national press syndicates in home countries who accept the membership of local reporters working for international agencies do not have adequate programs to assist them, and they rarely advocate on their behalf in work-related and other disputes.

Some international media groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, maintain programs to help journalists through a combination of financial and non-financial assistance, but they too have no programs specifically dedicated to local journalists working with international media. The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a U.K.-registered charity, runs skills building programs in several countries, including the Middle East, to help local reporters seeking careers with international media. 

The absence of formal protection and advocacy support from international, regional and national unions comes at a high price and makes these journalists uniquely vulnerable. For example, it is customary for local reporters who work for international media to be hindered by authorities or local protocol from doing their work properly and safely. They are often intimidated and even threatened by authoritarian regimes for various reasons but mostly to pressure them to collaborate with the government security apparatus. The lack of legal and other kinds of protections makes them easy targets for police brutality, terrorists or radical groups, especially during episodes of street violence and conflicts.

Another dilemma these journalists face is the suspicion that they are working as spies, either for foreign countries or for their own governments. The notion that journalism is a cover for spying is as old as the profession itself and the two fields “have historically played off each other,” as noted by Murray Seeger, the late veteran Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent who was based in Moscow in the 1970s.[5] This suspicion is one of the most persistent conspiracy theories in the Arab world, found not only in popular culture but among the political elite and even academic circles. During a discussion of a dissertation for a PhD degree on American reporters in the Middle East at Ain Shams University in Cairo on November 27, 2007, the head of the academic panel, Mustafa El-Fiqi, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Egypt’s Parliament, argued that the thesis should have made it clear that some Western reporters are working as spies. “They do something at day time and something else at nights,” he told a large audience, some of them foreign reporters. The fact that there is a long history of American, British and Soviet journalists working for intelligence agencies naturally reinforces such suspicions.

Although there have been no “known” cases of native Arab journalists employed by international media who have been officially charged for intelligence work, the suspicion and mistrust associated with their employment haunts these journalists throughout their careers, sometimes leaving psychic wounds. These suspicions stem from the fact that working with foreign companies often requires holding a security clearance which makes them exploitable by the home country’s secret services or information ministries. Among the consequences of these suspicions is that journalists are particularly vulnerable during wars and in conflict zones where the roles of reporting and spying are most likely to be blurred.  Another serious consequence is that local reporters live under constant surveillance by their own countries’ intelligence and security services, and are sometimes even spied upon by foreign clandestine agencies. They are followed, their phones are tapped, their emails are intercepted and their houses and work places are wired. Attempts to recruit them or enlist their cooperation are not unusual. Ironically, native journalists working for international media are sometimes seen by their employers as intelligence agents for their own countries’ security and intelligence apparatus or government officials.

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[1] For a study on Palestinian journalists working for international media organizations, see Amahl Bishara, “Local hands, international news: Palestinian journalists and the international media,” Ethnography 7, No. 1 (2006): 19-46. 

[5] Murray Seeger, “Spies and Journalists: Taking a Look at Their Intersections,” Nieman Reports, Fall 2009,

[6] Interestingly, the rigid system of multiple checking of native reporters’ work became obsolete during the Middle East uprisings of 2011 and 2012 when newsrooms at international media organizations rushed to publish unverified information coming from anonymous citizens via phones and Internet connections. Suddenly, editors under pressure to pursue news leads had new faith in the “remote” and unidentified sourcing and stopped nagging native reporters about their fact-checking.

[7] One might compare the operations of Western media in Middle East to Hollywood, whereby an Arab reporter can only hope to get the “role” of a character like Khaled El Nabawy in Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” or Amr Waked in Lasse Hallström’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” They cannot even dream of being Omar Sherif in “Lawrence of Arabia.”