Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What goes for journalism in an Egyptian newspaper...

Eli Lake has this important and revealing piece on the state-controlled Egyptian media. The question all Middle Eastern reporters need to ask themselves is: why didn't I write this story first, and had I done so, who would publish it?



December 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Foreign >

Meet the Egyptian Editor Who, Once Aided by U.S., Denies Holocaust

BY ELI LAKE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
December 21, 2005

URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/24767

CAIRO, Egypt - Hisham Abd al-Rauf, the foreign editor of Egypt's largest-circulation afternoon paper, would like the readers of The New York Sun to know that he does not hate all Jewish people. But that nonetheless, he is entitled to his opinions that the Holocaust never happened, that the Romans did not destroy the Second Temple in Jerusalem because it was never built, and that Jews ordered President Bush to unseat Saddam Hussein.

But as for the Jews, Mr. al-Rauf grew up with many in his Cairo neighborhood before the Six-Day War. His father's jeweler was Jewish. In 1993, he met many more Jews, whom he claims to genuinely like, on an American government program to train foreign journalists in Boston. "I have even met some rabbis. I liked them," he said in an interview yesterday where he defended a recent column praising the Iranian president's recent remarks questioning the historical truth of the Holocaust.

Mr. al-Rauf's column, titled "Israel's Lies," argued that the gas chambers were actually rooms to disinfect clothing, and that Adolf Hitler was "not against the Jews," he even allowed 120,000 of them to immigrate to Israel. At the end of this screed, Mr. al-Rauf scolded the Europeans who have expressed outrage at the comments of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "If you feel sorry for the poor Jews, why don't you establish their country on your lands?" he wrote, according a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The column appeared on December 12 in al-Masaa, a government funded paper that has 200,000 daily readers.

One might think these sorts of assertions would draw controversy. But not here in Egypt. Mr. al-Rauf and al-Masaa's editor in chief, Khaled Imam, say they have received no letters to the editor.

In an interview following Mr. Imam's midafternoon prayers, the editor seemed puzzled that the column would even warrant a news story. "I did not even read this," he said. "Some people say the Holocaust happened, other people say it did not." The editor then explained that researchers and historians differed on the facts of the matter. For his part, he thinks Hitler did attempt the extermination of European Jewry. "There is no smoke without fire," he said. "Israel cannot propagate something like the Holocaust if it was made up 100%. But some of it might be exaggerated."

Mr. al-Rauf, however, is sticking by his story. He says that his column is supported by a British historian, David Irving, the author of "Hitler's War." That book, which has drawn severe criticism from reliable historians, argues that Hitler never ordered the Holocaust. "I cite David Irving," he said. "These are facts."

When asked however, if he ever read the Nuremburg Laws, for example, or the transcripts from Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, he admitted he did not. "I do know the Mossad kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina," he said however. When pressed for more sources for his assertions, he got testy. "I am not the only one writing this. There are researchers in Europe and the USA who say this. This is my own opinion. You cannot be a journalist if you don't have an opinion."

Throughout the hour-long interview, Mr. al-Rauf asserted, among other things, that Jews secretly control the governments of Britain, France, and America; that there was never a Second Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and that as a general rule Jewish people are "greedy." In the interest of fairness, however, he did concede that Jews were persecuted by the Spanish during the Inquisition, and that it's likely Russian tsars ordered pogroms against Jewish villages in the 19th century.

The journalist exchange program in which Mr. al-Rauf participated in 1993 was funded by American taxpayers. He says he treasures the trip to America, arranged by the U.S. Agency for International Development. During the visit he remembers meeting colleagues at the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. When asked if he could recall a particular lesson from the exchange program, he recalled the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. "There are times when you have to be responsible. The American reporters did not write that some of the hostages were CIA until after they arrived home safely," he said.

"I saw Jackson, Miss.; New Orleans; Washington; New York, and of course Boston," the foreign editor said. "It's a very good country with very good people, but a very bad government." When asked his thoughts on President Bush, he said, "He is turning America into the Soviet Union," an odd comment for the foreign editor of a state-funded newspaper that nearly every day features an above-the-fold photo of President Mubarak.

Mr. al-Rauf got his start in journalism in 1980 working for a sister paper to al-Masaa translating wire copy. He remembers at the time that the hot story was the Iran-Iraq war. "Many journalists here were bought off by Saddam Hussein," he said. "Just like how America is buying the Iraqi journalists today." He noted that no one in Egypt wrote about the plight of the Kurds during the 1988 Anfal campaign, but suddenly journalists remembered this in 1991 after Egypt supported the first Gulf War.

But Mr. al-Rauf is not particularly sympathetic to the plight of ethnic minorities. In fact he thinks journalists have a responsibility not to write about massacres and discrimination if the stories shame their native governments. This is the theme of his next column, at least. It is an attack on a Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, who faces possible jail time for telling a Swiss newspaper this year that Ottoman forces killed 1 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917.

"Some Turkish people are selling out their country," he said with an almost conspiratorial nod. "For someone to say that the Turks killed 1 million Armenians, well they should prove this. And even if it is true, they should not say this because it is damaging to their country."

Mr. al-Rauf sees a similarity between Mr. Pamuk and his country's renowned sociologist and human rights activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Unlike many of the world's journalists, Mr. al-Rauf says he supported the regime when Mr. Ibrahim was arrested in 2000. "He is always speaking about the persecution of the Copts in Egypt, which is not true. And even if this was true, it should not be propagated because it harms Egypt," he said.

Ali Salem, a playwright and columnist who was shunned by Egypt's literary and journalistic establishment for visiting Israel in 1994 and writing a book about it, described Mr. al-Rauf's approach to journalism as "mercenary."

"These sort of people think they are soldiers fighting a war of liberation. They are part of an intellectual brigade," Mr. Salem said with a laugh. "They think this sort of thing is defending Egypt." He says this attitude is a byproduct of Arab socialism.

Mr. Salem in 1994 was kicked out of Egypt's writer's guild. He sued the organization to get his membership back and won, only to resign from the club as soon as he was allowed back in. Today Mr. Salem is still writing plays but he is recording them on to compact discs and cassettes because almost all of Egypt's theaters are run by the state and will not allow his creations to see the stage.

Meanwhile Mr. al-Rauf is the foreign editor of Egypt's largest afternoon newspaper.

December 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Foreign >

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