So No One Can Say "We Didn't Know"

by Robert Fisk
published in MER208

In a world where journalists are increasingly attacked for their work, it is gratifying when an organization of Amnesty International’s stature appreciates a reporter’s work. But there is a more important reason as a journalist to be grateful. Over the past 22 years in the Middle East, I have noted the ever-increasing power of lobby groups. Well-funded, well-versed in denial, they are masters in suggesting to our editors -- and in the readers’ letters columns -- that we are lying or racist when we uncover the sordid truth of cruel regimes or brutal states. For investigating the torture chambers under the command of the former British Special Branch Officer Ian Henderson in Bahrain, a Bahraini newspaper compared me to a rabid dog. For my eyewitness report on the Israeli massacre of more than 100 Lebanese civilian refugees in the UN camp at Qana in southern Lebanon in 1996, I was vilified by a reader as anti-Semitic and compared to Hitler -- a statement not repeated when I threatened libel action.

In Boston, a Jewish lobby group called me “Henry Higgins with fangs” for working on a documentary about the Middle East and Bosnia. Accusing me of pouring “venom into the living rooms of America,” the organization claimed the Israeli-occupied West Bank was “never occupied,” and the Israelis never sent their Phalangist militiamen into the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps in Beirut prior to the 1982 massacre. (Even the Israelis admitted that.) Still, the group did prevent the Discovery Channel from showing the film a second time in the US. Given these enormous pressures, journalism awards acquire a new meaning. Although they cannot save us from shell splinters in Lebanon or Kosovo, awards shield our work, reducing the firepower of our more vicious critics.

Looking back through two decades of clippings from the Middle East, I noticed my reporting of human rights issues has grown more extensive, evidence of increasing cruelty in the lands in which I work. Never have so many men and women had their heads chopped off in the Arab Gulf. Never have I recorded so many torture victims in Israeli or Arab jails. When I first reported from the Middle East in 1976, I never thought I would climb over mountains of Palestinian corpses, slaughtered by Israel’s allies as the Israeli army surrounded a Palestinian camp and watched. Not in my worst nightmares did I imagine walking into Algerian villages such as Bentalha to report the cutting of the throats of hundreds of old men, women, children and babies.

In The Independent last week, Mark Lattimer, Amnesty’s communications director, wrote that the publication of evidence is often what “ruptures the culture of impunity which allows systematic violations of human rights to occur.” I would like to think this is so. Yet I have to question whether journalists really have the effect of breaking open those prison doors and dismantling the torture equipment. With rare exceptions, journalists do not move mountains or bring down regimes; instead, we chip away at the rock face, hoping that someone notices -- so no one can ever say “we didn’t know.”

In Egypt, I have catalogued the systematic torture of Islamist prisoners by the state security police; conducted dozens of interviews with torture victims in Cairo, Asyout and Bani Suwayf and identified the floor of the Lazoghli Street police headquarters where electricity is used on prisoners. The Egyptians have both denied the evidence and pointed out that they are fighting “international terrorism.” But the gross human rights abuses have merely grown worse.

British and other Western governments have put no pressure on the Egyptians to halt these practices. President Mubarak is called the West’s most faithful Arab friend. When an American colleague sought to investigate police torture in Cairo several years ago, he was dissuaded from doing so by the US ambassador to Egypt, who assured him that Mubarak would take steps to curb police torture. Nothing of the kind happened.

After Israel’s 1996 massacre of Lebanese refugees at the Qana camp, The Independent obtained video footage proving that the Israelis had a pilotless aircraft with television cameras over the massacre site sending live pictures back to the artillery battery firing at the victims. Our publication of the video pictures prompted the UN to publish its own report of the massacre, which the Americans attempted to browbeat Boutros Boutros-Ghali into keeping secret. Moved by our reports, a brave American Jewish woman mounted a campaign to persuade the US media to mark the anniversary of the Qana butchery. She was ignored.

Much stands out in brave solitude amidst the gutlessness of our politicians, parliamentarians and intellectuals. Perhaps our work as journalists does open the occasional cell door and sometimes saves a soul from the hangman’s noose. I hope so. But I wonder whether Amnesty’s regular requests for members to write the world’s dictators with appeals for mercy should be redirected toward their own foreign offices, urging them to end torture in the regimes their governments support. Western governments working with Amnesty could do more to put pressure on the torturers and killers than Amnesty alone.

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