A journalist apart
Kenneth Brown remembers Lebanese writer and journalist Samir Kassir, killed in Beirut in June. The European Commission to Lebanon has recently announced the creation of the "Samir Kassir Prize for Freedom of the Press"
I first met Samir Kassir (1960-2005) at a conference on journalism that our review, Mediterraneans, participated in organising in Marseilles in 1994. He was the bright light of the conference. None of us who were there will forget his paper on censorship of the press, his forceful participation in all of the discussions, and his spirited exchanges with Igal Sarna, the Israeli journalist whose characterisation of the Israeli- Palestinian relationship as one of "love-hate," Samir found "a bit shocking." Samir responded thus: "It's a total illusion to see the problem in this way from the Palestinian side. This must be clear. The Israelis can't expect a psychoanalytic cure from the Arabs. They have a tendency quite often to come to us and say: 'You must love us...' I have affection for a few Israelis," he continued, "but that's something quite different and not mixed with hate."
Samir participated in the follow-up conference in Alexandria two years later, the first time that he visited the city, he told me, and his participation was equally brilliant. The last time we met was in Beirut two years ago. He was finishing his book on the city, Histoire de Beyrouth (Paris: Fayard, 2003), and as he showed me around, I understood the profound affection that he had for the place.
Eventually, Samir's paper on censorship was published in the volume Etre journaliste en Méditerranée (Paris: Mediterraneans, 1995). The book emerged from an unusual meeting in which journalists working in the Mediterranean region came together for a moment of self-reflection, to discuss the challenges -- ethical, political, personal -- they have faced in the practice of their profession. In Marseille in March, 1994, a group of twenty journalists met for this workshop, one of the projects of the European Union's MED-MEDIA programme. The journalists ranged in age from 25 to 65; they were Algerian, British, Cypriot, Egyptian, French, Israeli, Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, Spanish, Tunisian, and Turkish. The meeting was organized not by the journalists themselves, but by the editors of three reviews: the literary and cultural review Mediterraneans in Paris, the monthly Cuatro Semanas in Barcelona, and the analytical journal Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya in Cairo.
Overt censorship by the state, the seizing and confiscating of issues of papers containing offending articles, or the shutting down of dissident papers, are problems in many countries of the region. But beyond these direct pressures by the state, there are many other kinds of pressures on journalists, many other attempts to control what can and cannot be printed. For example, the situation in Israel is paradoxical: the press itself is remarkably free, and critical, but the military censorship extremely tough. In Turkey, there is another kind of paradox: an apparently limitless freedom, with intense pressures for self-censorship, with fears of retaliation from the P.K.K. limiting coverage of the Kurds, intense police surveillance impeding investigative reporting on the same subject, and fears of economic and political behind-the-scenes pressures limiting other kinds of reporting. This is also the case in Egypt where, in spite of a great liberty of expression, all of the major newspapers are government-owned. This means that self-censorship is widely practiced, and influences the choice of subjects covered as well as the way they are handled. The response to censorship and self- censorship may be the development of a "code," a set of allusions and hidden meanings by which the journalist attempts to bypass and subvert the rules.
Based on his double experience as a journalist working both in Lebanon and in France, Samir suggests in his paper that this "code" can finally become so loaded that it eventually moulds journalistic expression and wears down the curiosity and spirit of journalists themselves, to the detriment of professionalism. In different cultural contexts, the rules differ about what is publishable and what is non-publishable. When these rules become limits that the journalist spontaneously imposes on himself or herself, the reader is expected to be "in the know," able to understand all the allusions and read the silences and omissions that themselves are part of the process of communication. The journalists, as Samir Kassir suggests, write between the lines, for readers who read between the lines.