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Mideast coverage suffering due to media cutbacks: former war correspondent

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Former Guardian Middle East correspondent Kareem Shaheen speaks at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies in Montreal on Jan. 30. (Janice Arnold/The CJN)

Media coverage of the Middle East is suffering because of diminishing resources, says a former correspondent for the Guardian, a British daily.

Egyptian-born Kareem Shaheen, who was based in Beirut and Istanbul for three and a half years, spoke about his experiences covering Syria, Lebanon and Turkey at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) on Jan. 30. He has been living in Montreal since August.

Shaheen earned the U.K. media’s Frontline Club award for his first-hand reporting on the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack by government forces on the town of Khan Sheikhun in Syria in April 2017. The poison gas killed at least 74 and sickened hundreds more.

Shaheen rejects any characterization of him as daring or heroic, even though the danger was real: at one point, a pro-regime Russian fighter jet buzzed the convoy of militants in which he was travelling.

Shaheen rushed from Istanbul to Khan Sheikhun, after one of the rebel groups operating in the area offered protection to any international journalists who wanted to report on the ground. A few other journalists took up the offer, but backed out at the last minute, Shaheen said.

In addition to the Syrian Civil War, he covered operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, the Saudi campaign in Yemen, suicide bombings in Lebanon, as well as terrorist attacks and the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.

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He was one of only two Guardian correspondents in the entire Middle East. Shaheen believes that, in order to get the truth, there is no substitute for being on the ground.

But that kind of coverage is becoming increasingly rare, he said. There are fewer journalists gaining the expertise and cultivating the reliable sources needed to report on such a vast and complicated region. Much goes under-reported, such as the Yemen conflict.

Shaheen eschews the term “war correspondent,” because he says the Middle East is about much more than conflict and the term tends to glorify those who wear the label.

They relish their “bad ass” image and their stories often focus on themselves, he says. “They are drunk on the adrenaline of being there.… It’s a lifestyle.”

He finds it “shocking” that few foreign journalists speak Arabic, as he does. Shaheen, who attended a Catholic high school in Dubai, also speaks fluent English.

Being Egyptian was an advantage for him, because Egypt has “the reputation of being above a lot of the conflicts in the region, so there was no assumption that I had any political sympathies,” he says.

All the (foreign) powers involved couldn’t care less about the Syrian people.
– Kareem Shaheen

He emphasizes that gathering information and verifying it to the best of his ability was all he sought to do.

Before joining the Guardian in 2015, Shaheen earned a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London. Before that, he studied journalism at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Before being hired by the Guardian, Shaheen was a reporter for the English-language Daily Star in Lebanon.

Shaheen said the Middle East is much more than the war zone that it is portrayed as in Western media, which has to focus its limited capacity on the most horrific violence. The reality is that most places, most of the time, are not dangerous, he says.

Lost is the larger picture, the “human stories,” he believes, and non-conflict issues, such as culture, the environment and women’s rights.

Asked how he dealt with stress, Shaheen jokes: “Cigarettes and Jack Daniels.”

He says he has not experienced post-traumatic stress, but has felt guilty for being a bystander to the suffering. He drew strength from the resilience of the people who live with conflict and do not have the privilege of leaving it behind like he did.

Shaheen, whose wife is from Aleppo, believes only the Syrian people can resolve the crisis. Their civil society must be listened to and supported by the international community, he says.

“All the (foreign) powers involved couldn’t care less about the Syrian people. The Russians want a presence in the region, the Americans (want) access to the oilfields and to make sure the Islamic State does not come back, and Turkey (wants to ensure) that no Kurds are on its border.”

Shaheen says he went into journalism because he wanted to find the truth. He welcomes scrutiny of the media and urged those who consume it to demand that journalists be transparent about how they get their information, and to do their own due diligence by consulting different sources.

MIGS, which is affiliated with Concordia University, conducts research and makes policy recommendations aimed at preventing mass atrocities. Among its partner organizations are the Montreal Holocaust Museum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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