Lost in translation: Dutch media reporting on the ‘Arab world’

In Holland, newspapers report on the "Arab world" from Tel Aviv and correspondents often don't speak more than a few words of Arabic. How then is the Middle East perceived by Dutch readers?
Dutch press

BEIRUT, August 2, 2009 (MENASSAT) - "Imagine someone living in Spain, unable to speak or read a word of Dutch, reporting on an issue that is being discussed in the Dutch parliament. Do you think he or she could do a good job?"

In his book Het zijn net mensen ("They are just like people"), published in 2006, Joris Luyendijk - a former correspondent in Cairo for NRC Handelsblad - posed a similar question, to convey the impossibility of accurately reporting from the "Arab world" for the Dutch media. He describes in detail the way news is shaped, filtered and manipulated.

Writing home about the Arab world
In his book, Luyendijk writes how most journalists and correspondents in the Arab world have little to no knowledge of the Arabic language – neither written nor spoken. He also relates the difficulty of having to cover an entire region as diverse as Europe, but which is frequently viewed as a monolith. His main point though, is how the language he has to use to reach the audience of the newspaper can never adequately describe the world he lives in. After all, does a Dutch newspaper-reader really know what dictatorship is, or occupation? Or, for that matter, do they realize that when he uses terms like "the president of Syria" or "the court case against an opposition leader," that "president" and "court case" do not necessarily carry the same meaning as in a Dutch setting?

Living in "the Arab world" (in Lebanon) for more than two years and having a fair command of Arabic, I decided to look at the coverage of this part of the world in the Dutch newspapers to see if Luyendijk’s point still holds true, or if perhaps things have changed. After all, while his book doesn’t give any practical solutions, he clearly points out where things are going wrong and what areas need improvement. Having looked at the five biggest nationwide newspapers - De Telegraaf, Algemeen Dagblad (AD), De Volkskrant, Trouw, and NRC Handelsblad - his book doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference - whether it's due to a lack of funds, certain political preferences, or a lack of understanding is unclear.

‘Quality publications’ vs. puppy rescue stories

Each newspaper of course has its own approach to gathering and disseminating news. For some, the guidelines are mentioned on the newspaper’s website. For others, it is an evolving process among the editorial staff. Within Dutch society, each newspaper has a distinct face. NRC Handelsblad is seen as liberal and intellectual because of its focus on economic and international issues. Trouw is a newspaper with a religious (protestant Christian) background, which is expressed through a special focus on religion, education and society, and De Volkskrant is more of a middle-of-the-road publication (with a history of support for the socialist party) that in the eyes of many caters mainly to those who vote center-left. These three are often designated as "quality newspapers."

AD and De Telegraaf, on the other hand, are viewed more as popular newspapers, appealing to those who vote right of the center. On their homepages, news from the Arab world is flanked by articles about puppy-rescues and the private lives of local stars. The latter two publications are also the biggest newspapers in the country, with half a million and almost 700,000 copies sold per day, respectively, whereas the "quality newspapers" sell around 110,000 (Trouw), 220,000 (NRC) and 260,000 (De Volkskrant) copies a day.

Tel Aviv, pulse of the Arab world
All newspapers have a correspondent or a regularly contributing reporter covering the Arab world (or at least the Palestinian/Israeli situation) who live, without exception, in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – which, as the international news editor of De Volkskrant pointed out, are actually not Arab cities.

For De Telegraaf, their correspondent in Tel Aviv is the only "source on the ground" in the Arab world, and he doesn’t speak Arabic. De Volkskrant, which until recently had a reporter in Lebanon, no longer does, and doesn’t seem too eager to find a new one. They do have a freelancer living in Morocco, but this is considered Africa, and the international news editor did not know if she speaks the local language. Trouw has several people in the Arab world, and their freelancers in Cairo and Syria speak the local dialect, but their correspondent in North Iraq does not speak Arabic – or Kurdish. AD has one reporter outside of Israel - an Arabic-speaking journalist in Beirut, but no one in North Africa. Lastly, NRC also has one reporter outside of Israel, who lives in Cairo. Their correspondent in Israel, although responsible for the Occupied Territories as well, hardly speaks any Arabic and has to work with translators when working on the ground.

Dependent on translators
None of the people interviewed for this article ––both editors at the newspapers and reporters in the field–– seemed to consider this lack of understanding of Arabic a major obstacle. There is apparently no need to read or understand the local news, or perhaps they deem the opinions of local intellectuals uninteresting. They seem to think that speaking the local language is an added benefit, rather than an absolute necessity for understanding what’s happening on a local level. There was no indication of an awareness of problems that can occur when working with a translator – that people interviewed may trust the journalist, but not speak freely because they think the translator is from a secret service, or simply of the opposing political party or religious sect.

On top of that, when there is no translator available, the reporters and correspondents who don’t speak Arabic can only communicate with those who speak English (or French, in certain countries). This not only means they necessarily speak only to those with a certain level of education, but also that they miss overhearing random conversations in taxis and at parties. It is hard to overstate the importance of inside information, of things said ‘off the record’ – not just when interviewing officials, but also when speaking to ‘the man on the street.’ One would think that journalists trying to translate and convey life in the ‘Arab world’ would know how much has to be read between the lines and heard in off-hand remarks to truly understand the nuances and intricacies of life.

One can wonder, then, what is the true job of the correspondents and journalists working in the ‘Arab world?" If it is not to spread an understanding of a part of the globe that many Dutch readers will probably never visit, then what is it?

Are they there to cover the big events that are mentioned by AP and Reuters? Many articles in the Dutch newspapers seem to be direct translations of bulletins from the big news-aggregators. Some are published as is, others have some information added. The correspondent from De Volkskrant, for example, did some background research on the Israeli soldiers’ confessions in the booklet published by Breaking the Silence. He asked the Israeli Army for comments. Unfortunately, he forgot or did not manage to ask the people in Gaza if they could confirm the words of the soldiers (after all, they were there as well). As such, the added information made the article lean to one side rather than making it more informative - meaning a straight translation of the original news item might have been better.

Terrorists or opposition?
In general, it’s commendable that news from AP, Reuters or their Dutch equivalent, ANP, are checked by reporters on location, if the newspaper has any. Otherwise we will find news items like the one in NRC Handelsblad, which reported that several hundred ‘Muslim terrorists’ were convicted in ‘Saudi courts’ for planning ‘terrorist attacks.’ This goes back to Joris Luyendijk’s warning about the meaning of certain terms in different settings: the report seems to have unquestioningly accepted the terminology of the Saudi government which spread the news, without so much of a remark about the repressive rule in Saudi Arabia or the fact that these courts do not adhere to the same ‘rule of law’ as courts in The Netherlands. The fact that these same people on trial were elsewhere referred to as the ‘opposition to the Saudi regime’ should have made the editors re-examine if ‘Muslim terrorists’ was really the best word to use in this case.

Saudi Arabia, home to curious news stories
In general, news from Saudi Arabia, as well as Oman and Yemen, hardly figures in online versions of the Dutch newspapers. Insignificant to European and Dutch political interests, it is apparently not worth sending anybody there to report on what’s happening. Aside from the above-mentioned event, which only appeared in NRC Handelsblad, Saudi Arabia is only mentioned twice–– in Trouw, filed under ‘curious news from the Middle East.' Apparently it is nothing short of hilarious that a beauty pageant was organized in the Islamic Kingdom – especially because the contest is about inner beauty – and nobody thought twice about comparing this event to the goat- and camel-contests that are also held in Saudi Arabia. (Just imagine someone starting an article with ‘not only dogs and pumpkins, but also women are now judged for beauty in the United States…’.) To me this is a good example of how hard it apparently is for Dutch newspaper-editors to see people in Saudi Arabia as people, with complex opinions, feelings and actions - they are terrorists, oil Sheikhs, or humorous figures to laugh at.

Blogging the ‘real’ Middle East
In a similar section called ‘Weblogs Middle East,' Trouw actually tries to give its readers a glimpse of daily life in this part of the world. The correspondents write short blog posts about personal issues in the lives of those around them. It is an interesting antidote against all the ‘big news’ items of war and political conflict, and gives a face to what those things mean in real life – or what happens despite those events. Unfortunately, as evidenced from the comments section, the intent of these short posts is often lost on the readers. They see them as nothing but examples of how inevitable the problems in the region are, rather than ways to relate to fellow human beings.

Opinionated readership
What is interesting to see is that even though most newspapers don’t openly choose sides (western vs. Arab; Israeli vs. Palestinian, etc.) except in the vocabulary they use, their readers do. Notable are the differences between Telegraaf and De Volkskrant in the case of Palestine – Israel. Telegraaf mentions news as it comes in, like the release of the “Breaking the Silence” booklet. De Volkskrant has a separate dossier about the conflict, where news is mixed with weekly opinion columns by activists on both sides of the divide arguing about facts and who is right or wrong.

The readers of Telegraaf, many of them supposedly followers of the near right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders (who is also popular with the current Israeli government), almost unequivocally side with the Palestinians. Almost all reactions to the issue display a strong feeling of solidarity with the plight of an oppressed people, and an understanding of Palestinian anger on a very personal level. The readers of De Volkskrant, on the other hand, usually seen as ‘politically correct lefties,' have long debates about the issue, providing argument after argument for and against the Wall (security fence, illegal occupational construct, depending on their point of view) and every other aspect of the conflict. Why De Volkskrant has chosen to be a platform for fanatics on both sides, what service this does to its readers is a mystery. A possible explanation, though, is that they are too scared to say something wrong in regards to such a thorny issue, and therefore invite others to do it for them.

Teaching the natives
Finally, some words on the side-activities of the correspondents and journalists. Obviously, the newspapers are most concerned that those who write for them do not also write for the competitors, now that there is no longer enough money to pay several correspondents a full living wage. So those who work freelance often engage in other activities to earn an income – which may sometimes conflict with their work as journalists. The Trouw-correspondent in North Iraq, for example, runs a media center with workshops for local journalists. This may seem like a neutral activity, but her writing (especially the daily-life descriptions in the Weblog Middle East section) is peppered with ‘they do not yet understand’ or ‘it might be a while until,' betraying the mindset of someone who came to instruct, not to observe and understand. Both may be laudable activities, but they are not necessarily compatible.

All in all, the current state of the Dutch newspapers ––lower and lower numbers of subscribers, other financial difficulties due to the current economic downturn–– does not bode well for finding a solution to the problems Joris Luyendijk outlined three years ago. More people and more time and attention are needed to be able to accurately portray the complexities of the lives that serve as fodder for the news. Whether this would produce news that sells is a whole other issue – a dilemma that may in fact be at the heart of all the above-mentioned problems.