إقبال التميمي

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Al Arabiya, women journalists and the ‘bikini' story of Lauren Booth

Written by Iqbal Tamimi
Saturday, 30 October 2010 20:08
Iqbal TamimiDuring this week of international campaigns for equal rights for women journalists, a typical fabricated story was circulated attacking a colleague journalist over a personal decision she made. This incident tells a great deal about the kind of pressures women journalists endure, not by ignorant illiterate people but by media establishments and male colleagues who practice discrimination against women.

The woman under attack is Lauren Booth, a brilliant journalist working for the Daily Mail and Press TV in UK who took the decision to embrace Islam. The attack strangely enough was not by a ‘Western' media source, but by a Saudi-owned television station which should have supposedly reflected a Muslim perspective and welcomed such news with open arms. Quite the opposite happened.

At a time when we Muslim journalists in UK enjoy the freedom of wearing a veil, praying in places made available for Muslims at conferences, venues and universities, and enjoy sheltering under a democratic umbrella that allows us to practice our faiths and live our personal lives the way we choose and protect us when some ignorant people in our own communities mistreat us, an Arab and supposedly Muslim television channel knits a disgusting story full of holes about a female colleague who has just embraced Islam --not because she has done something wrong, but to use her as a scapegoat in a fight she is not part of.

On 25 October 2010 Al Arabiya Net published a shocking article titled ‘The Journalist and the sister-in Law of Tony Blair has became a Shiite and converted to Islam in Iran'. The article claims that Booth became a Shiite in Iran, and squeezed in some irrelevant information about Shiiats.

AlArabiya claims as well that Booth swam wearing a Bikini when she visited Gaza during the blockade and caused embarrassment to Hamas who left her to practice her freedom even though it bans Gaza women from enjoying such luxury. Al Arabiya claims that this incident of Booth wearing a Bikini happened despite the shock and disapproval of the Gazans.

It seems that Gazans who were struggling to find some flour on the market to make bread for their guest, managed to provide her with a bikini. Or maybe Booth who was occupied by buying hearing aids for the Gaza children who lost their hearing as an outcome of the Israeli bombing has not forgotten to arm herself with a bikini on her way to the humanitarian aid ship.

The pathetic Al Arabiya did not stop this far, but continued in its unethical smear campaign, adding “on top of all that, the resigned Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, offered her [Booth] the Palestinian nationality and hosted her.” From Al Arabiyah's perspective, this would make Haniyeh a naughty boy.

AlArabiya made sure that all Muslims should hate Booth by the end of the article, digging an old interview; in which Al Arabiya claims that Booth said one day that she hated her mother most, of all people, knowing very well the impact of such comment on Muslim people. In Islamic teachings, it is a sin equal to blasphemy to even huff as a sign of displeasure in the presence of one's parents.

The article of Al Arabiya ended by ridiculing Booth and opening the doors of hell to ridicule, adding another dose of poison by claiming that she had commented about the fabricated bikini story by saying, and I quote Al Arabiyah, “She justified the embarrassment then by saying: I swam to lift the siege.” This comment was not meant to be a public humiliation for Booth only, but for all women journalists who are reflected as shallow, stupid, careless, and reckless and have no sense of responsibility or good judgement. Such fabricated comments are behind holding thousands of women journalists away from decision-making posts.

AlArabiyah has no code of ethics and does not recognise that it is immoral to use sensationalism and cheep tactics to improve its readership by smearing a colleague and reporting lies.

Lauren was extremely distressed. She called us as a colleague member of NUJ and as member of AWMC in the UK because she wanted to start legal action. Lauren Booth and Yvonne Ridley, both journalists, were offered Palestinian citizenship a couple of years ago when they arrived at Gaza with other humanitarian campaigners who broke the siege on Gaza, and both were granted Palestinian passports and Palestinian nationality. Obviously we were proud at the Arab Women Media Centre to offer them our membership through which they can enjoy the support of all Arab women journalists.

Lauren's interview with the Daily Mail about embracing Islam was manipulated, twisted and used on Al Arabiya Net in the most disgusting sarcastic way which brought Booth a hail of hurtful comments by the readers who built their arguments from Al Arabiya report.

Booth, who embraced Islam, has never mentioned that she became a Shiite or Sunni; she only said that she became a Muslim after a visit to Iran. The fact that there is a fierce competition in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran over media control is not a secret. This comes at a time when the Middle East is boiling with sensitive issues related to fighting over power between Shiites and Sunnis, such as election seats in Bahrain and in Iraq; the pains of Lebanon which recognizes 18 religious sects; the siege of Gaza and Egypt's collusion with Israel to starve the Gazans to death; the disagreements between Iran and its UAE neighbour over the ownership of three Islands; not to mention the latest arms deal between USA and its ally Saudi Arabia.

All these issues and many more made Lauren the scapegoat in an article that was full of irrelevant information about Shiite places she visited in Iran, making her a perfect target of Al Arabiya that made her guilty and worthy of persecution by Arab audiences. Al Arabiya ignored the fact that Lauren is a journalist. Being an employee of an Iranian television channel means that it's only natural that she visits Iran or Shiite places exactly as the Al Arabiya reporter who is based in Iran does. Booth was angry because Al Arabiya used her in a media war that causes rift between Muslims she is not part of.

Lauren was angry and distressed when she read about the ‘bikini' story not only because Al Arabiya has no right to dig into a colleague's personal life, but because it was a fabricated fib. Such behaviour reflects not only bad taste but also bad journalism on the part of Al Arabiya's staff that could not even translate well or bother to do some simple research before publishing. Otherwise, they would have found that Lauren does not have two sons but has two daughters, one of them who accompanies her in most activities, and who cycled with her for peace across many countries until they reached Palestine. She was next to her when she declared her embrace of Islam.

Lauren said: “I went to the shore of Gaza very early in the morning before anyone woke up. I was accompanied by Dr Mona Al Farra and I was wearing my full clothes. I have not caused the Gaza people any embarrassment as AlArabiya claimed.”

Obviously it is a cheap shot by AlArabiya to publish two different articles about the same subject on the same website, totally different in content. One in English that is balanced and almost a copy of what has been published by the Daily Mail, and another full of slander published in Arabic aimed at the Arabic audience, counting on Booth's not reading Arabic to spot their crime.

What is even worse is the fact that Al Arabiya sensors and filters the comments, and uses a wearied way of manipulating the audience by deleting the content of the comments and replacing them with few dots to insinuate improper content. This policy serves both in eliminating positive responses Al Arabiya disapproves of, and in eliminating comments no body knows of their content to insinuate that the content was unsuitable for publication because it is slanderous or horribly offensive.

I was compiling evidence for a study the past 8 years about filtering comments on Arab websites and I have evidence of Al Arabiya editing and manipulating the comments. At the very beginning Al Arabiya used to delete and censor the whole comment, including the name of the commenter, but for the past year it has changed its policy. It manipulates the content of the comments by editing them and leaving the name. This suits its policy of showing advertisers that there is heavy traffic going on, and they can advertise and be sure that their products will reach the audience. Al Arabiya even edited a complaint I wrote about its sexist language, and republished my comment to look like a thank you comment to Al Arabiya. I took photo shots of the comments before and after, going through the mincing machine of Al Arabiya who proved to practice dishonest and unethical methods of manipulating the audiences.

Al Arabiya's methods of attracting an audience through sensationalism has failed, and now it is desperate to attract readers, especially after Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah implemented policies of reform in journalism that led to openness and transparency that have never been witnessed before, and reflected online on news websites and forums extremely open and courageous views. Now one can read uncensored comments from Saudis inside Saudi Arabia, unlike AlArabiya, that is based in Dubai which hide behind a Saudi identity but does not reflect the Saudi audience's views or aspirations.

For Booth I would say, we Arab women journalists respect you now as much as we would respect you if you were wearing a bikini. It makes no difference. You are a courageous journalist, and a human rights campaigner, an inspiration for all women journalists regardless of your choice of dress. I feel sorry that you were another victim of the media, but I feel sorrier for media sexism freaks who have no journalism skills or ethics that they resort to gossip and fabricated stories to gain readership, those who allow their hormones hold their brains captive and those who think of women journalists as meat stuffed in bikinis.

Iqbal Tamimi is Director for Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UK
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0044 7930343026

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