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Arab-American journalists 'under siege'

July 8, 2010 3:46 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 17, 2011 9:40 P.M.)
By: George Hale

Bethlehem - Ma'an - CNN's decision to fire a veteran Mideast editor over a Twitter message mourning the death of a Lebanese cleric is just the latest effort to silence critics of Israeli policy, Arab-American journalists say.

CNN's Lebanon-born senior editor for Mideast affairs Octavia Nasr was fired Wednesday after writing on Twitter that she was "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot," a remark that drew criticism from pro-Israel activists.

Fadlallah, one of Shiite Islam's highest religious authorities, died Sunday. A key figure in the founding of Hezbollah, he was known for his moderate and progressive social views, particularly on the role of women.

Nasr, a 20-year CNN veteran, later clarified that she was referring solely to Fadlallah's stance on women's rights, writing on her blog that "It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment ... Not the kind of life to be commenting about in a brief tweet. It's something I deeply regret."

Nevertheless, the US network dismissed Nasr on Wednesday because "we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward," Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of CNN International Newsgathering, wrote in an internal memo obtained by the US blog Mediaite. Khosravi noted in the memo that Nasr's "tweet over the weekend created a wide reaction."

To many Arab-American writers and journalists, CNN was just the latest news organization to fold under pressure from pro-Israel pressure groups, many of which had also lobbied the Hearst newspaper chain to fire Helen Thomas, another American journalist of Lebanese descent, who resigned as the longest-serving White House correspondent in US history last month over critical remarks she made about Israeli settlers.

'No free speech on Mideast in US'

Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American author and activist, called Nasr's dismissal "another worrying indication that there is simply no free speech when it comes to Middle East issues in the United States media. After the firing of Helen Thomas, and now Nasr, we can expect self-censorship when it comes to Israel and those Israel has designated as its enemies will become even more extreme.

"Journalists express opinions all the time, but it seems that opinions that pro-Israel groups object to are the ones that can cost you your job," Abunimah told Ma'an. "CNN's own Wolf Blitzer used to work for the Israel lobby AIPAC and has often expressed pro-Israel opinions. None of that has apparently disqualified him from being their main anchor. And of course there is New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner whose son recently volunteered in the Israeli army. Despite the newspaper's public editor declaring this a major conflict of interest, he continues in his post. So there is a very clear double standard."

Ray Hanania, a Palestinian-American radio host and syndicated columnist, called the move "shameful" and said it reflected intolerance facing American reporters of Arab or Palestinian descent.

"I think it is outrageous that another American Arab journalist has fallen victim for expressing an opinion about a national topic that was without depth or context, and that when an off-the-cuff comment is made either to a blogger who ambushes you or on Twitter," Hanania told Ma'an. "It’s shameful."

He says American Arabs in journalism "are under siege and they have been. This is not about politics. Octavia Nasr’s views were far right, not far left. Some might have said she wasn’t the biggest critic of Israel either. I think the news media in this country is more biased than some of the dictatorships we complain about."

According to Lebanese-American professor and commentator Asaad Abu Khalil, Nasr's dismissal proves that "no matter how much you grovel and how much you insult Arabs and Muslims in the US, as Nasr has largely due to her ignorance of Middle East and Islamic affairs, it will never be enough."

Abu Khalil wrote on his blog that while "Israeli orientalists rule supreme in US popular media. ... In the US, you may only [express] sympathy and admiration for Jewish and Christian religious figures. Muslim religious figures are all a bunch of terrorists, Sunnis and Shi'ites alike, regardless of views."

Pro-Israel groups declare victory

In the hours following Nasr's dismissal, Twitter was abuzz in outraged messages from her supporters and self-congratulatory tweets from pro-Israel activists who publicized the issue in preceding days.

Honest Reporting, a London-based watchdog focusing on perceived anti-Israel media bias, boasted Thursday that its report "triggered a groundswell of anger at Nasr and CNN, leading to the firing," and commended CNN "for acting swiftly and in the best interests of professional standards of journalism."

The Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel group based in Washington, had urged CNN to "deal with this matter and take steps to insure that its journalists and editors understand that making known their personal views by tweeting or other methods is out of bounds." "It is clearly an impropriety for a CNN journalist/editor to express such a partisan viewpoint as Ms. Nasr did in her tweet," the group said Sunday.

Fluent in Arabic, English and French, Nasr joined CNN in 1990 and anchored its domestic World Report and CNN International's World News from 1993 to 2003. Among the major stories she covered live were the Bosnian war, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Japan’s Sarin gas attack, the Concorde crash, and every major step of the Middle East peace process, according to her CNN biography.

She is the recipient of the 2006 Excellence in Journalism award from the Lebanese-American Chamber of Commerce and was honored CNN World Report’s 2003 Achievement Award "for her numerous contributions to the program." Her work also brought her with her colleagues recognition and several other awards.
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