People Like Us
Beelden uit het Midden-Oosten
Images from the Middle East
How many followers does Osama Bin Laden have in the Arab world? What do Muslims think about equality between men and women? And what about democracy? Western media reports give the impression – to take the first question only – that Bin Laden has a large worldwide following. But is this an accurate picture? Do we really know what is going on in the Arab world?
No, we don’t, says Joris Luyendijk in Almost Human In fact we know very little about the Middle East, because all Arab countries are dictatorships, countries without opinion polls or freedom of the press, countries where every official body takes orders from the single monster called dictatorship. Dictators survive thanks to a lack of transparency, which makes reliable journalism impossible.
Luyendijk spent five years working as a correspondent, first in Cairo, then Beirut, then East Jerusalem. He has written for the two most important Dutch newspapers and worked as a reporter for The Netherlands’ most authoritative television news programme.
The main conclusion of this provocative book is that our image of the Middle East is coloured by all kinds of filters. One of the most important of these, for the written press as well as the visual media, is television. The big American television networks decide the news agenda and newspaper journalists tend to run along behind them, trying to keep up. Since the first law of television is ‘no pictures, no story’, very many stories never get told.
Another filter is language. The story of the Middle East is told in words borrowed from western democracies, words like ‘elections’, ‘parliament’, ‘political parties’, but these terms are simply meaningless in a dictatorship. In Israel yet other filters apply; correspondents there encounter an extremely well-oiled propaganda machine. Luyendijk gives several disconcerting examples.
The picture that Luyendijk sketches is sombre: reliable journalism is simply impossible in dictatorships like those of the Middle East. But he describes all this very enjoyably, with humour, extremely accessibly, and without sparing himself. Journalists ought more often to admit there are things they do not know, Luyendijk says, rather than bluffing or giving the impression that, on the basis of their own observations, they can say exactly how things stand.
More than just an analysis of the Middle East, People Like Us is a razor-sharp analysis of western media. This makes it an important book, essential reading not only for journalists but for all newspaper readers and television viewers who assume that the information they receive is truly objective.