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On Mohamed Morsi, Al Jazeera, and censorship

There's nothing uniquely Middle Eastern about a news medium that hears one voice much more clearly than another.

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The job of a pundit is to reduce a complex situation to something simple and then pass judgment on it. Grateful readers admire the pundit for his perspicacity. Ungrateful readers marvel at his incomprehension.

When I took note in a recent blog post of a David Brooks column in the New York Times applauding the coup in Egypt, I couldn't help but wonder if Brooks knew what he was talking about. "The debate on Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance," Brooks wrote. Presumably he meant the debate among Americans, who have no interest in more than two sides and would be happiest with one; surely Egyptians, even Egyptians who see eye-to-eye on nothing else, would agree the debate is a little more complicated than that. Brooks explained that the pro-process crowd favored keeping President Mohamed Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood in power because they were, after all, democratically elected. But Brooks said this view was wrong.

"When you elect fanatics," Brooks wrote, laying out the argument he believed events had "vindicated," "you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means."

It was the sort of tough-minded insight attractive to an American speed-shopping for a position on Egypt so he could focus his intellectual resources on the George Zimmerman trial. Being in that group myself, I initially described the above passage as what "Brooks reflected." But at the last minute I made it something Brooks "breezily opined."

I'd had a queasy feeling that applauding the Egyptian army for hitting the "reset" button on Egypt's revolution—basically telling the country, we reserve the right to kick out your governments until you come up with one we like—would strike anyone well acquainted with Egypt as absurd. Was this not an example of what the press has long called "Afghanistanism"—editorial pages playing Dutch uncle to societies at the far ends of the earth, telling them what they'd better do if they know what's good for them?

Satellites, the Internet, social media—they've all helped create the illusion that our world is now small and knowable. It isn't. All of CNN's 24/7 trial coverage couldn't tell me what happened the night Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, let alone what the jurors were thinking, and I write this column having no idea if the turmoil in Egypt is darkness before dawn or another variation on the Middle East's endless night.

Seeking clarity, I decided to focus on one small token of Egypt's troubles—the tribulations of the Al Jazeera TV channel after the coup. But even this remains a blur.

On July 8 I spotted a notice on Facebook that there'd been a mass resignation of Al Jazeera staffers in Cairo. According to gulfnews.com, the management of Qatar-based Al Jazeera had told staffers to skew the news in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, and as a result 22 staffers walked out, accusing their employer of "airing lies and misleading viewers."

Seeking comment, I called Al Jazeera America—the new network that Al Jazeera hopes to launch in the U.S. by the end of summer. But comment didn't come, and eventually I decided that Al Jazeera America figures the less identified it is with the Middle East operation, the better. Yet in the meantime, other news stories were making me wonder if the walkout report was disinformation. Reporters Without Borders reported that in Egypt, journalists who called a spade a spade—that is, who described the ouster of Morsi as a "military coup" (as Brooks did)—were "being subjected to intimidation and censorship." The Cairo offices of Al Jazeera—"widely accused of 'pro-Morsi' bias in its coverage"—had been raided by police and staffers arrested. Bureau chief Abdelfatah Fayed had been charged with "disturbing public order and threatening national security." Worst of all, when Fayed and other Al Jazeera journalists were expelled from a July 8 news conference, other journalists booed them.

Writing in Britain's Guardian, Fayed indulged the military by calling the coup a "change of government," but he was otherwise unsparing. It had been a "dark week for media freedom in Cairo," he said, and Al Jazeera had been "singled out for extra special treatment." He said 28 of its staffers were detained, feeds from Cairo to Doha were interrupted, and "personally, I was hounded away from a military press conference by supposed fellow journalists. The astonishing press conference ended with the assembled media offering the spokesman a round of applause."

Then a Chicago journalist I know who'd recently returned from the Middle East sent me to a link to an overview posted by Foreign Policy magazine. "This wasn't Al Jazeera's week," said the piece by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a well-known commentator who lives in Dubai. The channel's offices were raided, its staffers arrested, and its programming taken off the air—"not that you'd know any of this from reading the Egyptian press syndicate, which chose to remain silent over the assaults on Al Jazeera's staff and offices."

But maybe Al Jazeera had it coming. Last January the Economist warned that the TV channel was losing its way. "Al Jazeera Arabic's vaunted reputation for even-handedness has withered in recent years," the British weekly reported. Its "breathless boosting of Qatari-backed rebel fighters in Libya and Syria, and of the Qatar-aligned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have made many Arab viewers question its veracity. So has its tendency to ignore human-rights abuses by those same rebels, and its failure to accord the uprising by the Shia majority in Qatar's neighbour, Bahrain, the same heroic acclaim it bestows on Sunni revolutionaries."

After chiding Egyptian journalists for what they didn't report, Al Qassemi went even harder on Al Jazeera itself. In Syria, he wrote, it "blatantly abandoned journalistic standards." In Egypt it lost its audience by throwing in with Morsi, going so far as to snatch the microphone back from any man on the street who presumed to criticize him. And as the protest against the Muslim Brotherhood reached a boil in late June, Al Jazeera shifted to "soccer training updates."

"Even journalists showed their frustration," Al Qassemi wrote. "At a news conference held by spokesmen for Egypt's Interior Ministry . . . Egyptian journalists were heard chanting 'Barra! Barra!' or 'Out! Out!' at Al Jazeera's bureau chief. The journalists accused the network of broadcasting images from the Syrian civil war, alleging they had taken place in Egypt.

A video of the news conference has been posted online, and if your Arabic is up to snuff you can watch it yourself and decide where your sympathies lie. Such is the miracle of social media. But if your Arabic isn't, you're out of luck. In another era, the Tribune might have had its own correspondent in the room and the New York Times probably would have. But this appears to be one fallen Middle East government too many for both papers. David Brooks can write what he pleases on the op-ed page without concern that his views will be compromised on page one.

In the Guardian, Abdelfatah Fayed said Al Jazeera was the only regional news outlet that gave fair time to the Muslim Brotherhood. They "were elected in free elections," he argued, "and depriving them of a platform, as many other outlets do, would be unfair and biased. . . . It's no doubt jarring for opponents of the Brotherhood to hear their opinions, but that's no reason for them to be censored."

There's nothing uniquely Middle Eastern about a news medium that hears one voice much more clearly than another. When journalists anywhere deliberately skew the news, we need to call them on it. But when men with guns silence those journalists, we need to protest. And when other journalists cheer as those journalists are silenced, we need to repudiate them.

But these are merely truisms. When a situation is so difficult and fluid and far away that all we can do is incant truisms, we should allow ourselves to be humbled by our ignorance. Pundits are paid the big bucks not to let that happen.

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