Within a short period of time, developments in Yemen have transformed it into a regional hub of conflict. Do Western and Arab media assess the situation in the same way? DW Akademie discusses the topic with media experts
Simplifying the issue without telling only one side of the story. It's a challenge faced by journalists every day when they report the conflict in Yemen. But how to deal with this challenge? That was the topic of discussion for a panel of experts at the ARD studio in Berlin last Friday (May 8, 2015), moderated by WDR TV correspondent Arnd Henze. Henze proposed using the meeting called "International Media - Arabian Peninsula" to move beyond using the clichés and biased, overly-simplified terminology that can interfere with an impartial assessment of the conflict in Yemen.
Who's fighting whom? Not an easy question!
Marie-Christine Heinze, Yemen expert and President of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO)
In Yemen, who is fighting whom - and why? Even experts find it hard to give a definitive answer on that question, said Marie-Christine Heinze, Yemen expert and President of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) in Bonn. But for the sake of the audience she did venture to try, explaining that the military intervention by the Saudi-led coalition had given a regional dimension to what had been a local conflict. "Two particularly violent actors are the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh," said Heinze, before continuing in the same breath to describe the military actioin by Saudi Arabia as "a war of aggression."
Complicated? That's certainly one of the reasons why many Western journalists have resorted to relegating the fighting parties into clearly defined groups. And that is why the conflict is often simply being depicted as a battle between Sunnis and Shiites, criticized Adnan Tabatabei, Iran expert and managing director of the CARPO Institute in Bonn. "And yet these labels haven't really helped us much." On the contrary, he said, they have created the false assumption of alliances that do not exist. For example, he said, the Houthi rebels are often portrayed as having close ties to the Shiites in Iran. But what is ignored, explained Tabatabai, is that there are major differences between the two Shiite groups. The danger is to portray this as a religious conflict when it is really a battle for power.
Good information a rare commodity
Deutsche Welle's Middle East expert, Loay Mudhoon, who is reporting on the conflict in the context of his role as editor-in-chief of the online magazine Quantara.de, took a broader look at what's happening among the Arab media. Paradoxically, all of the Arab-language media are currently reporting along similar lines. Mudhoon felt that this is because "Qatar and Saudi Arabia are coordinating their foreign policies." As a result, he said, television in particular has been co-opted for a media propaganda war.
In the confusion over the definitive interpretation of the crisis on the Arabian Peninsula, it is important not to lose the broader perspective, advised Aktham Suliman, freelance journalist from Syria and former Germany correspondent for the Arabian TV news channel, Al Jazeera. "You just have to know who is paying whom -the rest is really very simple." Suliman left Al Jazeera in protest in 2012, accusing the government in Qatar of exerting more and more influence over the channel. Suliman proceeded to outline his view of the Arab-language press and how it is reporting the crisis in Yemen. He said that over 80 percent of the so-called independent press in the Arab world is actually being financed by Saudi Arabia and simply reflects the views of the Saudi-led coalition. The opposing Houthi position is being reported by the Lebanese daily newspaper, "al Akhbar". "Right now it is virtually the only voice in the Arab World that is reflecting the anti-Saudi point of view."
Blind faith in news agencies leads to imbalance
On the subject of the Western media, Adnan Tabatabai criticized their "blind faith" approach to the information provided by news agencies. The CARPO expert said that this often leads to a dangerous imbalance in reporting. Especially in Germany, agency news items from Reuters, AP, AFP and DPA, written by journalists who are far from the region, are often accepted without question. The Iran expert said that he has observed even some of the prominent German media simply using the "copy-paste" approach. For example, he said, "A quote will be used from an insignificant member of the Iranian parliament who said last year that Iran now controls four capitals in the region." The problem with this is that the comment comes from a parliamentarian who carries no weight regarding Iran's foreign policy. But that's not something the Western public is told," said Tabatabai. But how can journalists access reliable information, when there are no correspondents left on the ground? Islam expert Marie-Christine Heinze primarily uses her personal contacts via Facebook and Twitter. "And there you must know who you can trust and who you can't." This may be a kind of patchwork approach but it's the only way to form an independent picture of what is really happening. "Since the Houthis took over the capital, they've been very aggressive with journalists." Marie-Christine Heinze advised not to overlook the reporting blind spots, because there is still information from activists coming from the larger cities. However, as much of the conflict in Yemen is playing out in a province far from the capital, this information gap is particularly problematic. "We know almost nothing about what's happening there, because there's simply no one around to report what's going on."
"Nobody can handle five crises at once"
Afterwards, the lively discussion with the audience underlined how multi-layered the conflict in Yemen is. In light of the "large number of unbelievably complex crises" in the region, moderator Arnd Henze recommended not to lose sight of the fact that the general public has a limited capacity to absorb information. "Nobody can handle dealing with five crises at once". The Yemen crisis is one of the few worldwide "that is managing to even register at the moment".
DW Middle East expert Loay Mudhoon ended the event by appealing for a greater show of courage. "We must expose the general public to these complexities." He described it as the only way to achieve greater understanding.
"Medien International" is a series of events organized by DW Akademie in cooperation with the ARD sutdio in Berlin. DW Akademie currently supports journalists and human rights activists in over 20 crisis countries around the world through education and training and by advocating for their interests, and this also includes journalists in Yemen.