Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10-Dec-14: In the Arab world's most promising new journalism school, a passion for murder and hatred

The Jordan Media Institute campus, Amman [Image: Sahar.Ahmed - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
How did a promising initiative, funded and supported by Western governments and NGOs and designed to produce world-class journalism in the Arabic world, end up creating a pedestal for one of Hamas' ugliest achievements, the 2001 massacre at Jerusalem's Sbarro pizzeria?

A major Arab media conference  took place this past weekend in the Jordanian capital, Amman. A published opinion piece authored by a senior member of the organizing team opens with these words:
"The lights of free speech are being steadily extinguished across the Arab world, heralding a new era of ignorance, intolerance and repression..."
As bad as this is, aspects of the news reporting industry in the Arab world are even more profoundly disturbing than she and her professional colleagues seem to realize. Allow us to explain.

Jordan, like the rest of the Arab world, lacks a free press. The respected human rights watchdog organization Freedom House in its 2014 update calls the Hashemite Kingdom “Not Free” and gives it a score of 6 on a scale of one to seven for freedom of the press. (Seven is the worst score.) It notes “a marked increase in the number of incidents of intimidation and physical attacks” on members of the media during 2013. Reporters Without Frontiers, which also tracks press freedom, says Jordan’s authorities further tightened their existing grip on its media in the past year.

Princess Rym Ali is a former CNN reporter who married King Abdullah II's half-brother in 2004 and thereby became part of Jordan's royal family. She is the daughter of Lakhdar Brahimi, once Algeria's Minister for Foreign Affairs and a senior UN official. She was raised in Great Britain and Algeria; educated in France and the United States.

A high-performing professional, she is the prime mover behind the establishment of an Arabic-language graduate school of journalism, Jordan Media Institute, which opened its doors in Amman in 2010. Its mission was to “raise professional standards and become a regional beacon” on the model of the princess' alma mater, Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Sitting on the JMI board of directors are prominent individuals from journalism, law, publishing, the royal family of Jordan and the long-time head of the Agence France-Press bureau in Amman.

To judge from the JMI website and its use of all the right-sounding phrases, its arrival heralds something uplifting and positive. Its professed values and mission statement echo those of the best global journalism schools: “media freedom and human rights”, an “unparalleled centre of excellence in the Middle East”, “innovative curricula”, “world-class facilities”, “highest international standards”, “emphasizing accuracy and ethical journalistic procedures” in order to “provide the public with increased access to fair and balanced news”. Lovely.

All of this, while acknowledging "the distinctiveness of Arab culture and philosophy".

An impressive list of funders and strategic partners are providing “in-kind, financial or technical assistance” to make it happen: Anna Lindh Foundation, Sweden; Australia via its International Development Aid agency; Canada via its International Development Aid agency; EU via the European Commission Delegation in Jordan; the German governmentJournalists for Human RightsNetherlands governmentNorwegian Institute of JournalismReporters Without BordersSaatchi and Saatchi, the global ad agency; The Swedish Institute; the UK governmentUNESCO, and some others.

The button links to the site
Visit the homepage of the JMI website and you see a button that links to a related website hosting the work-product of JMI’s own cadre of young journalists. It's in Arabic only, naturally enough; these contents are not meant for the Western sponsors and international partners. They're the work product of JMI's insiders. 

But intentionally or not, it is these pages – along with the invaluable help of Google Translate’s Arabic-to-English service - that shine a revealing light for non-Arabic speakers like us on what all that NGO and government money, inspiration and support is enabling for this “unparalleled centre of excellence in the Middle East”.  

On every page of the site, under the headline “Success Models”, a journalist called Tamimi is profiled. She is the murderer of our daughter, Malki.

They provide a large photograph of Tamimi and certain biographical details concerning her journalistic background. But important things about the “success model” offered up by this new centre of journalistic “excellence” are omitted:
  • Tamimi brought a human bomb to the center of Jerusalem on August 9, 2001 to destroy the busy Sbarro pizzeria. She was instrumental in planning this major terrorist attack.
  • Fifteen people were blown to pieces that day and 130 injured, many of them children and infants.   
  • The sixteenth victim – a young mother with her two year-old daughter – has never regained consciousness.
  • The people traveling on the bus with Tamimi from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the hour after the explosion beamed with delight as the scale of the carnage was reported on the radio.
  • Tamimi was barely able to contain her own happiness [video], the joy that came from secretly being the one responsible for the massacre and no one on the bus knew.
We first published this image four years ago
Tamimi is a convicted killer, a psychopath who boasts on YouTube that she selected the site of her massacre so that the dead would include as many young religious Jews as possible. She famously smiled broadly with perverse pleasure [video] when informed of how many children’s lives were extinguished in the attack she masterminded.

JMI tells its English-speaking sponsors what it wants them to hear – that JMI embraces the “highest international standards” and “ethical journalistic procedures” – and the financial support flows. Yet in Arabic, the language of its Jordanian audience, JMI embraces a much darker narrative, one in which it glorifies a mass murderer. Do the Western funders understand this?

If we are wrong about JMI’s embrace of Tamimi, we would expect an urgent outburst of Arab rage at the affront to the honor of their society. 

But bitter experience tells us not to hold our breaths.

The JMI outrage does not exist in isolation. Consider the distinctive way Jordan’s legal system views terror. It might not be what most people think:
The Lower House [of Jordan’s parliament] on Wednesday endorsed draft amendments to the State Security Court (SSC) Law following extensive discussions over its provisions. The deputies excluded “resistance actions” against Israel from the court’s jurisdiction, following a proposal to do so by Deputy Tareq Khoury (Zarqa, 1st District). The deputies agreed that any actions against Israel cannot be “terrorism” at all; hence, they approved a provision that excludes actions against Israel from terrorism crimes. [Jordan Times, December 11, 2013 Note that this page is no longer reachable via a regular Google search. But it remains stored on the Wayback Machine, the repository of pages that never disappear. Click to see it here.]
The repugnant - and almost totally unpublicized - manner in which they have adjusted their laws is something to keep in mind when the Jordanians next stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Europe and the US in the battle against the jihadists. The State Department, by the way, bizarrely continues to call them “a strong ally in combating terrorism and violent extremist ideology”.

Princess Rym, interviewed before JMI opened its doors, said Everybody talks about the media explosion in the Middle East“. She probably was not thinking of Tamimi, the budding young media student in the final year of journalism studies at Birzeit University who moonlighted as a news-reader at a West Bank television station. 

When Tamimi joined Hamas in 2001 as its first female jihadist, an explosion was what Tamimi had in mind. And on August 9, 2001, she made it happen.

The transcript of her subsequent trial on multiple murder charges shows Tamimi confessed it all to the court, and with no remorse.  She told the judges:
"The smile on my face will not be erased. I will not ask forgiveness... I will be smiling always because I won."
The impact her bloodless words had on the court can be gauged from the way the presiding judge handed down the sentence:
“It is our responsibility to distance the defendant from society forever… Let the normal pleasures of life therefore be denied the accused until the time of her death behind bars. We sentence the guilty party, unanimously, to fifteen life sentences and add to them one further life sentence for her other crimes… [and] recommend that the guilty party not be eligible for pardon by the military commander, nor to early parole by any other means.”
Justice unfortunately was not done. Less than eight years later, to our horror, Tamimi walked out of her Israeli prison cell to freedom. She was one of 1,027 undeserving beneficiaries of a successful act of terrorist extortion, the Gilad Shalit transaction that subsequently cost so many innocent Israeli lives and did so much irreversible harm to fundamental principles of justice.

On the day she was freed, Tamimi was transported immediately to Cairo for a photo op with the arch-terrorist who heads Hamas. Then, right after that, a flight to Jordan, her homeland, and a triumphant reception in her honour on the premises of her country’s Family Law Court in downtown Amman. Numerous additional gala events followed in Jordan and abroad. Soon she was given a weekly television program of her own on one of the Hamas satellite channels. Via television, cable, the social media and rallies in public places, she leveraged her status as an icon, as the incendiary unchained voice of the murder-minded terrorists still behind Israeli bars.

During Operation Protective Edge this past summer, as hundreds of rockets were being fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel’s towns and homes, Tamimi was the anchor for a series of blood-curdling, morale-boosting prime-time television programs produced by Hamas and beamed far, wide and via YouTube. She has become central to their jihadist war against the hated Jews.

But it’s her status as the poster girl, literally, for JMI, one of the Arab world’s most promising, well-resourced initiatives that ought to be causing deep dismay in the West.

Actually, it goes well beyond dismay. There’s a screaming contradiction at work here. On one hand, a politically-correct pledge to lofty journalistic values; all the right words. On the other, the marketing of Tamimi, a psychopath whose public appearances are replete with the language of religious zealotry, as the embodiment of Arab journalism’s courageous new wave. Lethal journalism personified.

This echoes aspects of the cultural encounter between Western democracies and Arab Muslim societies in which both use the same terminology but mean different things. The scandalous exploitation of video footage claiming to show a Gazan boy, Muhammad al Durah, being shot dead by Israeli soldiers in 2000 illustrates what we mean. 

(The Al Durah affair centers on a shocking video clip that went phenomenally viral 14 years ago. The Arab boy is terrified; his father is powerless; the Israeli bullets keep coming, until finally they strike home; the boy is dead. The part not screened at the time, right after the point where he is declared dead by the voice-over, shows the boy peeking out at the camera from under a raised elbow, plainly not dead. The consequences continue to exact innocent lives and are still being litigated in France’s courts.)

Jerusalem, August 9. 2001: The aftermath of the attack on a Jerusalem pizzeria,
proudly engineered by JMI's "success model"
A sound-bite [here] from a longer video interview shows a PA official who doctored the Al Durah video footage explaining that the tampering was done to fulfill the journalists’ duty “of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.” He looks satisfied as he says it, convinced he did the right thing. For audiences with a Western outlook, it exemplifies how blood libels, updated from their medieval origins, work in today’s world.

Mass murderers like Tamimi, honored by her peers for putting journalism to effective use for the benefit of their cause, evoke a similar sense of horror. Do these people seriously not understand what she did? Where did we lose each other? If Jordan’s best-educated cohort of emerging influence-builders thinks and does this when they believe no one outside the Arabic-speaking world is looking, what hope is there of a better future?

One answer is: there is hope. There is always hope

The beautiful, tragically short life of my daughter shows that. Malki loved life, loved making people smile, loved doing good. Her devotion to children with severe disabilities, starting with her own youngest sister, was inspirational. The work of the foundation we created in her memory   The Malki Foundation – with families from every part of Israeli society (Christians, Druze, Moslems, the unaffiliated, Jews) who care for a child with severe disabilities is our way of creating a success model.

The 13 years since Malki was killed have been replete with reminders of how differently the people on the other side view things. For us, remembering our tragedy and honoring our child’s stolen life has involved bettering the lives of strangers, trying to affirm what we share. It’s the polar opposite of what the JMI journalists’ success model stands for. Finding a common language with them will take far more than political correctness and mission statements.

[A version of this post appears on Times of Israel today under the headline "By their role models shall ye know them"]

UPDATE December 1, 2015: Much has happened since we published this post a year ago. What we have learned about the Jordan Media Institute affair - and the involvement of Jordan's establishment including the royal family that owns and operates Jordan - is an ongoing scandal. It's compounded by an inexplicable cover-up by several major foreign governments, by some of the world's most important NGOs, and by an embarrassingly large collection of members of the media. It touches on multiple issues (funding, development, journalism, government among others) but on none more sensitive or dangerous than terrorism. 

We want readers who have gotten to this page to at least be aware of what we added to our understanding during these past 12 months:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am left speechless. Your struggle, I can not imagine. Sorry this is so disjointed. I just watched the video. The pure evil. I want to say thank you for jolting me awake. I am so sorry for your loss, and I will continue reading your site. I just found it yesterday, and my heart is with you.