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The Linguistic Labyrinth of Arabic News

As the Syrian government took back eastern Aleppo from the rebels in December, the story you heard in the Arab world about what was happening largely depended on where you got your news.

On some channels, it was a heroic tale of the Syrian Army's "cleansing" the area of "armed groups" or "terrorists" before leading a process of "reconciliation."

On others, the "regime" had routed "the revolutionaries" and planned to carry out "ethnic cleansing" against "the Syrian people."

Such drastically different narratives of the same event are prominent features of the media landscape in the Arab world, a reality that I have had to learn to navigate during a decade living and working here as a journalist.

There are hundreds of 24-hour news channels, from giants like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which reflect Qatari and Saudi views, respectively, to newer arrivals like Al Mayadeen, which holds a pro-Iranian line, along with many other national channels.

Even militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have networks that broadcast news, talk shows and rousing music videos of militants crawling through forests and launching rockets.

Far from being independent brokers of information, these channels have powerful backers who deploy them to bolster their agendas and undermine their foes. What that means for the viewer, and for the student of Arabic, is having to decipher a complex code of politically charged vocabulary whose usage can swiftly betray someone's political views.

Who are the "martyrs" in Syria, for example? The government soldiers killed by the rebels, or the rebels killed by the government? Who is "the resistance"? Hezbollah and other groups committed to the destruction of Israel, or militias fighting for the exiled government in Yemen?

I first stepped into this linguistic labyrinth while studying Arabic in Cairo in 2004. The Iraq war was raging and news reports were a large part of the lessons; 9 a.m. classes sometimes started with images of bleeding civilians being rushed to the hospital or of smoldering remains from a bomb attack. After class, I retreated to a coffee shop to memorize vocabulary lists full of terms like "pre-emptive strike," "booby-trapped car" and "the Zionist entity."

I learned that "a suicide attack" and "a martyrdom operation" were the same thing, but from different points of view. And I was exposed to the richness of the Arabic lexicon in words like "ashlaa," meaning "body parts," as in those found scattered in the street after a bombing.

After a string of gruesome reports, I once asked our teacher if we could work on some culture stories. Surely some channel had covered a new theater production or a team of Egyptian firemen rescuing a pharaonic-looking cat from a tree.

"We don't really have that here," she said.

Now, as a journalist, I don't just have to understand these barbed terms, but properly deploy them based on whom I am talking to.

There have been mishaps.

Once, after militants in Gaza fired a volley of rockets at Israel, I called a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad group to ask who was "responsible" for the attack.

"The Zionist occupation and its crimes against the Palestinian people," he said, and hung up.

The polarization of the media has increased as violence has spread across the region, exacerbated by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But such a complicated web of conflicts can make it hard for any channel to stay consistent.

In the Syrian conflict, for example, channels aligned with Iran portray "the legitimate government" as at war with foreign-backed "gunmen" or "terrorists" seeking to topple the state. But when covering Yemen, those same channels cheer the gunmen who have taken over the capital, referring to them as "popular committees."

The channels aligned with Saudi Arabia tell opposite stories in both places. For them, the Syrian conflict is a "revolution" in which the "opposition" is fighting a "regime" that has lost "legitimacy." The rebels in Yemen, on the other hand, are "militias" fighting against "the popular resistance," which seeks to restore the ousted government.

But for all their interest in "legitimacy" in Yemen, those same Saudi-backed channels had little use for it in Egypt in 2013, when they cheered the coup against President Mohamed Morsi, who was democratically elected. That didn't matter, since he hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, a "terrorist organization."

And it is there that they part ways with Al Jazeera, which calls Mr. Morsi's ouster a "coup" against the state's "legitimacy."

Sadly missing in all of this media crossfire is any criticism of one's own side or any sympathy for the normal people who may have been killed by it.

"There is a great deal of hypocrisy, there is a great deal of propaganda, and everyone abuses language," said Hisham Melhem, a Washington-based columnist for Al Arabiya.

The American news media, too, can be polarized, he said, and flipping between Fox News and MSNBC can give starkly different impressions of the same issue. But the differences are far greater in the Middle East. "In the Arab world it is not nuanced," he said. "It is in your face."

While the Arab news channels did not create this polarization, they increase it, said Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University who writes about Middle Eastern politics, history and culture. "It is not to say that it is not there, but these channels whip it up in a big way," he said. "People turn on the TV every day and this polarizing language seeps into the way they think about things."

I now know that you have to be careful what you call a "regime" and that in the aftermath of an attack, you don't ask how many people died; you ask about the number of "martyrs," unless you're taking about the enemy.

And I keep learning. During a recent trip to Yemen, I asked a rebel fighter what his group called it when they had stormed out of the mountains and pushed the government into exile.

Saudi Arabia had called it a coup d'état.

"We call it 'the revolution,' " he said, smiling.

[Source: By Ben Hubbard, The New York Times, Beirut, 14Jan17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 19Jan17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.