Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 November 2003
Issue No. 664
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Friendly fire

Is the standoff between the US Embassy and the Egyptian media an attempt to gag the press, or a case of a little friendly advice? Omayma Abdel-Latif searches for answers

"Ambassador Welch is a friend of the Egyptian people and when he speaks to them, he speaks as a friend. Being a friend requires that you state your views and say things which your friends might not like to hear," said US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in response to questions posed by a London-based Arab daily on Saturday, about the debate currently raging between several Egyptian journalists and David Welch, the US ambassador in Cairo.

Powell's statements, however, have done little to diffuse the tension catalysed by Welch's recent critique of an Egyptian newspaper (later revealed to be Al-Gomhouriya) for describing the suicide attack which took place in Haifa last month as an 'act of martyrdom'. In a speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Welch criticised the way the press covers suicide bombings, which he considers "acts of terrorism" that should not be glorified.

Welch's remarks have become the talk of the town. They also inspired the Press Syndicate to join the fray, issuing a stern statement condemning the remarks, as well as what it described as Welch's "continuous meddling in Egypt's internal affairs". The statement said, "the ambassador's criticism is only meant to muzzle the press because it does not support the aggressive policies of his administration, policies which only serve Zionist schemes against countries of the region and the Palestinian people."

This week, the conflict has continued to escalate. The Press Syndicate issued another statement urging the foreign minister to summon Welch and notify him of the syndicate's protest. The syndicate council also called on all journalists to boycott the ambassador, and cease to publish news about his activities. Veteran journalist Salama Ahmed Salama, who himself was once a target of Welch's criticism, called that move ill conceived and unwise. "Boycott will get us nowhere. It is much better to counter argue their line of thought reasonably," he said.

Some commentators argue that the row has been simmering for quite some time. They trace it to the period immediately following 11 September, when Welch again publicly criticised the way the Egyptian press covered the attacks on New York and Washington. Just a month after becoming the ambassador, he wrote an article in Al-Ahram accusing the Egyptian press of revelling in conspiracy theories, mainly because of their scepticism regarding Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qa'eda's responsibility for the attacks. Welch found himself thrust into a heated public debate about the exact nature of his role.

Journalists are particularly critical of what they see as the ambassador's continued meddling in Egypt's internal affairs, reflected in critical remarks Welch has made regarding the country's educational system, economy and politics. Dismissing Powell's statements, Ahmed El-Naggar, a member of the Press Syndicate board, described Welch's commentary as being "more than just friendly advice". He said that Welch's views are a manifestation of the extreme right-wing policies of the current US administration, which is anti-Arab. Despite the fact that Welch comes from a country where press freedom is sacred, said El-Naggar, the ambassador continues to incite the state against journalists, and asks that opinions that are critical of his government's abhorrent policies in the region be gagged. "He even accuses the press of encouraging terrorism," El-Naggar told the Weekly.

The syndicate, he said, believes that US policies in the region are hostile to Arab interests and security, and the root of the problem, in El- Naggar's view, is that Welch wants to impose an American dictate on journalists. "He wants to force us to see our own issues using an American prism, so resistance becomes terrorism, and occupation of Arab land in Palestine and Iraq becomes a blessing that we should thank them for."

In response, Philip Frayne, spokesperson of the US Embassy in Cairo, insisted that it was not "beyond the ambassador's duties to criticise the press and air his views". The problem, he explained, "arose because he chose to air them in public and not in private. But if editors and journalists go public with their criticism, he would also like his views to be heard in public," Frayne told the Weekly. Frayne insisted that during the AUC lecture, Welch did not offer a blanket condemnation of the Egyptian press. "He offered two examples which he believed went beyond responsible journalism. When a paper claims that the Americans were behind the bombing of Al-Najaf which took the life of the Iraqi Shi'a leader Mohamed Baquir Al- Hakim without giving any evidence, a charge like that was not very responsible," Frayne argued.

But, journalists argue, it was Welch's defense of Israel and his adoption of the Israeli narrative and version of events which has served to escalate the tension between the two parties, and even prompted a respected journalist like Salama to question whether Welch was representing just one state or two -- the US and Israel. "I officially deny that he speaks for Israel," Frayne said. "We are not out there to defend the Israeli government and its policies. He is there to defend US policies. Sometimes the policies of the two countries converge and sometimes they don't. And I say that our policies can be legitimately criticised," Frayne said.

Salama thinks the issue is related to "US policies in the region, and the fact that the press is doing the job state officials" are meant to do.

"The ambassador has the right to criticise, but it's government officials who should be making the rebuttals. They should respond, but they don't, and thus it's left to the press to deal with the ambassador's critical remarks about the way the country is governed," Salama said.

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