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The Middle East and its shades of grey – An interview with a Foreign Correspondent



Sander van Hoorn is the Middle East correspondent for the Dutch broadcaster, NOS. He started working for NOS when he was studying Political Science at university. He then became a staff reporter for radio and covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the revolution in Egypt alongside the previous Middle East correspondent. After that, he was asked to take over, but he did not apply for the role. Arabic or Hebrew were required as languages, and he did not speak a word, he tells me. Probably his concerns did not only touch on the local language, and that is nothing to blame. The Middle East, for how we know it, is a hard reality. But eventually he was convinced. He first moved to Tel Aviv, and he is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon, having lived in the Middle East for several years.

 How is it possible to report for the whole Middle East alone?

“Work varies a lot. Some days I work from early in the morning until very late at night, others I only need to make a couple of phone calls. Obviously it is impossible to always be present everywhere. I do a lot of reporting from here, also thanks to the Internet and social media [referring to the role of the Twitter revolution in many of those countries]. But I also travel when I am allowed to. In some countries bureaucracy is heavy, I have to deal with a lot of visa issues. For instance, here in Lebanon, when the government needs to renew my working permit, they take my passport and for two weeks every year I cannot leave the country. At the moment I am covering the hot topics of Libya, Syria and Iraq; what the audience at home is interested in. There would be a lot more to report on, though. Egypt has gone down a lot, some countries I don’t even cover them, like Bahrain, and others would be really interesting to cover, like Tunisia that just had elections. I have a 30-minute programme on broadcast, and it is just enough to report on the most relevant issues. Television as a media also requires certain schemes of news delivery, which do not really allow to cover topics in depth.”

 From a Western perspective, we tend to look at the Middle East as a whole and the borders between the different countries blur…how is it possible to deliver important distinctions to the audience?

“Indeed, every country is different, nothing is ever black or white, it always has different shades of grey. I like this part of the job and I try to express these variations through my work as much as I can. On the other hand, I always need to respect the balance between the detail that I can get into in every story and the general tone that I have to keep in mind, otherwise people would lose track and interest. Sometimes I manage to report on something that I consider important, but it does not always happen.”

 At this point, our Skype conversation is interrupted. A couple of minutes later, van Hoorn is back on my screen. He explains that power cuts in Beirut happen quite often.

“See? These are the shades of grey I was talking about”, he says. “We have about twelve hours of electricity per day, sometimes it goes off and we need to wait for the power unit in the neighbourhood to start supplying again. We could run out of water to shower any time. It is like this in Lebanon, nothing works properly, not to talk about the civil war that has been going on for years and the Lebanese political system which is highly divided.”

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi - Thierry ehrmann

What is your take on the beheadings that have happened over the past months by the Islamic State (IS)?

“They are symbolic at different levels, and the outcome of specific choices. To decapitate someone, either journalists, aid-workers or civilians, is a choice. And to make a video out of it, that is also a choice. IS makes these choices not only for religious reasons, because they do believe that whoever is against the Islamic State does not deserve to live and they see themselves as crusaders, but also because by beheading a single person they gain an exponential effect, instilling fear in everyone else. I talked to many people who do not demonstrate in the streets because they are afraid that the same might happen to them. It’s the mechanism of terrorism. They gather media attention, increase their visibility and scare the population. They have the ability to tell us what is news and what is not.”

Indeed, the media have a controversial role in drawing attention on these events, on one hand delivering the news that the world needs to know, and on the other hand boosting the fear that IS represents, hence contributing to accomplish their goal. What is the media landscape like in the Middle East?

“If you know how the Dutch system is, there are some similarities, but it is even more extreme. There are various satellite channels, ranging from Al Jazeera to Sunni TV stations. The Syrian state TV, for instance, is hilarious: everyone who is opposed to the country is depicted as a terrorist. The same happens in Iraq and Kurdistan but again, things are not black or white, reality shows different shades of grey.”

Tv reporters - The US Army

 Are you ever scared for your personal safety, or that of your family?

“I am not worried for my family. They are safe here in Beirut. But for myself, sometimes. I have talked to some of my fellow colleagues and we acknowledge that it is a dangerous situation for journalists. You only take a serious risk when crossing the street, but in the end that could happen everywhere. We stay away from the IS zones and fighting areas, of course. We don’t go there any more, it is too risky and unfortunately we are aware that it affects reporting negatively.”

 The policy of NOS is to change their foreign correspondents every 5 years. Van Hoorn is continuing his work until 2016.

“I am not really looking forward to go back to the Netherlands. Maybe I will move to some other place or perhaps I will remain in Lebanon for longer. What I can say is that I will be happy to leave the region, when it happens. We report on serious and important issues, but they are never positive stories. I wish I was reporting about cooperation, but the reality is that they are not building in this region, they are rather tearing it down.”

Words by Irene Dominioni

Pictures: Beirut (Sorgul), Al-Baghdadi portrait (Thierry ehrmann) Soldiers (The US Army)

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