The hijacking of AFP: Lessons for beginner journalists

The hijacking of AFP: Lessons for beginner journalists
Comment: AFP has made some crucial - and elementary - mistakes in its profile of academic Azmi Bishara, writes Abdelwahab El-Affendi.
5 min read
18 Jun, 2018
Azmi Bishara was subject to a 'hit piece' by AFP [Getty]
If you are taking your first steps into journalism, make sure that your headline does not include a double error: evidence of careless prejudice, and wild speculation.

You also should advise your sub-editor against putting an intro that sounds like a silly joke, but without any humour being intended.

A recent article circulated by AFP, purporting to profile Azmi Bishara, a leading Arab intellectual, did just that - and more. Its title described Bishara as the "Knesset black sheep", a curious depiction, even from the perspective of the most hardline fascists of Israeli politics (who are sadly in the majority these days), as the term "black sheep" is usually used to describe a wayward family member.

'Black sheep'

Few Israelis would think of Bishara as a a family member - wayward or not - since the whole point of his struggle was precisely protesting the denial of citizenship rights to Palestinians in Israel. If this is merely a language error - meaning instead to recycle Israeli prejudice against Bishara as a "traitor" - it is not worthy of a self-respecting media outlet. It is like following the former Apartheid regime in South Africa by calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist, or repeating the argument that the Polish Solidarity trade union was "a capitalist agent". It is highly unprofessional.

The Israeli accusation against Bishara of "espionage" is also carelessly recycled in the piece. He had laughed those accusations off when first made by the Israeli government in 2007, saying in an interview that he did not have access to military secrets to pass on. He added that perhaps Hizballah would be in a better position to pass him Israeli military secrets.

The same can be said about depicting Bishara as a "Qatar insider", which is based merely on speculation, since the man does not occupy any official position in the Qatari state. But that could be passable, since speculation is the stuff of the low-end of professionalism in the media, otherwise known as tabloid - or "gutter" - journalism.

Few Israelis would think of Bishara as a a family member - wayward or not - since the whole point of his struggle was precisely protesting the denial of citizenship rights to Palestinians in Israel

Less so is the profile's standfirst - that read as follows: "Runaway MK [member of Knesset], who fled Israel amid claims he spied for Hizballah, slammed on media outlets close to Saudi Arabia as 'Doha's Rasputin', a Mossad agent and the 'godfather of terrorism'."

This could pass as a (sick) joke, but no one was laughing, even in the offices of The Times of Israel - one of the first publications to carry the piece. Interestingly, the dateline was Dubai, June 5th.

Gulf rivalry

The coincidence with the 51st anniversary of the Arab defeat and the loss of Jerusalem is interesting. More so, the first anniversary of the decision by the UAE and its allies, led by Saudi Arabia, to blockade Qatar.

That decision was preceded by the hacking and takeover of the Qatari News Agency. Is it possible that AFP's Dubai office has also fallen victim to the same professional hackers? Or is it worse: has it been bought and paid for?

Any serious media outlet would highlight the laughable nature of such accusations: how can a person be a Christian Arab, a Marxist, a Mossad agent, a terror mastermind, and a "Qatari insider" at the same time?

Maybe on Saturday Night Live or a similar spoof show - however, there is no tongue in cheek, or an appropriate emoji, when the agency and its clients report Saudi-Emarati-Egyptian accusations against the "Christian from Nazareth" of complicity in Qatar's alleged "links to Sunni Islamist extremists and supporting Shiite Iran".

How can a person be a Christian Arab, a Marxist, a Mossad agent, a terror mastermind, and a 'Qatari insider' at the same time?

This must be another Nazarene miracle: a Christian who succeeds in uniting Shia and Sunni extremists, after having become simultaneously Mossad agent and terror godfather? Even the original saint of Nazareth would find this feat a challenge!

These are not the only miracles wrought by our Doha Nazarene. The agency quotes thinktank researcher Theodore Karasik as alleging that "Bishara plays a key role in Qatar's approach to the region and the world through media and research". It is true that Bishara is a leading Arab intellectual, who publishes books at a dizzying rate, and has also founded important media, research and higher education institutions.

However, we researchers know how hard it is for research, and the media, to achieve impact. If this Nazarene can also directly and decisively influence policy not only in Qatar, but the region and the world through research, then we would love to know his secret.

Karasik is decent enough to admit that most claims regarding Bishara are exaggerated, and to categorically deny his links to terror. But the whole tone of AFP's article combines naivete with carelessness and a shoddy attempt to promote those allegations as at least partly credible.

When you write that many people call a person a rapist, but add that those allegations have not been proven, you deliberately want to plant a thought in the reader's mind. Luckily, most readers are too intelligent to take the bait. One comment on one of the websites on which the article was posted read: "Never heard of him but sounds like a decent dude."

Our hope is that the remuneration for this attempted hatchet job has been substantial. For it looks like a professional suicide act for both the reporter and the platform.

Dr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi is Dean, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

Azmi Bishara is a prominent Arab academic and intellectual. He has founded numerous institutions in the region including the leading Arab think tank the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, the Doha Institute as well as the Alaraby Aljadeed group of media organisations (to which this publication belongs).