Press Wars?

Six thousand miles from the daily bloodshed in the Middle East, a small community of Jewish, Arab and Muslim journalists have an almost luxurious freedom in Washington. We rub elbows at hearings on the Hill with one another, share notes at luncheon speeches and chat outside dueling press briefings. I'm a reporter for the Forward, a Jewish paper, and I have access to roughly the same daily spread of material as the Arab reporters I know.

That openness is once crucial aspect of an open, democratic society: When a person takes a public stand -- or has the guts to say something controversial -- everyone is listening and the speaker must accept the consequences. When the Saudi ambassador to London spoke out last summer against Arab states "ruling out the option of war" against Israel, the world heard. When, in April, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay called the occupied territories "Judea and Samaria" before the America Israel Public Affairs Committee convention -- and then bragged to journalists about it -- Arab reporters took note. Likudnik Jews at the Zionist Organization of American heckled a State Department official for having the nerve to mention the Seeds of Peace, a camp for Israeli and Arab children -- and I wrote up a report.

Parties on both sides of the proxy war in Washington are impressively open with their assumed adversaries. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) extends full press credentials to Arab and Muslim publications. Diplomats from Egypt and Kuwait recently gave the Forward full interviews. AlJazeera visits the Israeli Embassy to interview visiting ministers. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a prestigious pro-Israel think tank, invites top Arab reporters to its private briefings.

But not everyone in the Muslim camp is so comfortable with this kind of open relationship -- even in Washington. On Friday, June 28, I attended the annual convention of the American Muslim Council (AMC), an organization with which I have a pretty good professional relationship. I was there covering a story about Muslims in American politics. But when I attended a panel called "American Muslims in the Media," Abdurahman Alamoudi, a former executive director of the group, approached me and asked if I wanted to talk about the story outside.

Out in the foyer, I interviewed him, as I have in the past, and then thanked him and returned to the session. At the time, members of the 100-plus in attendance were asking questions at the microphone; one was saying something about September 11 and the question of who was behind the attacks. Before I had a chance to sit down, Alamoudi approached me again.

"It is not good for your health that you are here," he told me suddenly. I was confused. Was he threatening me? He repeated what he said, and I felt immediately intimidated. It was clear he was worried about what the audience members were saying at the microphone, and about how I would report on their comments. "They are not aware that you are here," he explained.

"We have a small problem with the Forward," he added when we had gotten back out to the foyer, explaining that in his opinion the paper had given the AMC unfair coverage in the past. When I told him I thought I had seen another reporter inside, he went inside to check, then returned to say he didn't know of any other reporters there. (Actually, the four panelists on the stage were journalists themselves, including Joyce Davis of Knight Ridder and Barbara Ferguson of the Arab News.)

Alamoudi went on to explain that if I wanted, he would "get up and tell them that a reporter from the Forward" was there. Given his first comment about my "health" and the possibility that he would somehow incite the crowd against me, I decided to leave.

On Monday, Alamoudi backtracked. "We've been burned [in the past,]" he said, adding that "out of goodwill " it was required that the people in the room knew the media was present, "especially the Jewish media."

Could you imagine, I asked him, the outrage that would have followed if an official at a Jewish organization had kicked a reporter from an Arab paper out of an event?
He apologized, saying he retracted any comment that I may have found threatening. "Sometimes people flare up," he told me, referring to the crowd. "I just wanted to protect us, the council, and you from that."

The AMC director of communications, Faiz Rehman -- who had actually invited me into the media session -- apologized as well, and said that Alamoudi was not acting on behalf of the organization. Earlier that day, he pointed out, the group had allowed two Jewish protestors to sit at a front table, where the pair heckled FBI Director Robert Mueller during his lunchtime address. The protesters made fools of themselves in the press, and no major Jewish groups came to their defense.

Which is how the game is -- and should be -- played in Washington. Rile up your troops, and you can expect some heat from the other side. But Alamoudi, who sits on the AMC board of directors, apparently wishes he could have it both ways.

Alamoudi may have been inclined to muzzle me because he's "been burned" in the past himself. In 2000, he told a Washington rally that "we are all supporters of Hamas." He added that he supported Hizbollah. Alamoudi says that he supports Hamas for its humanitarian efforts. In 1995 in The Washington Post, however, he defended Hamas leader Abu Marzook as "a moderate man on many issues. If you see him, he is like a child." American authorities deported Marzook to Jordan in 1997 after an American judge found probable cause that he had he had helped plan 10 terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.

I wish my run-in with Alamoudi, mentioned in this week's Weekly Standard, was an isolated case. But for all of my good relationships with officials at Arab-American organizations, Arab reporters and Arab diplomats, many members of the "other side" in town won't speak to me. Some Arab reporters in town are unwilling to meet a Jewish reporter, and I've never gotten my calls returned from Saudi, Syrian or Iranian diplomats here.

To be sure, the door swings both ways. Officials at Jewish organizations have berated me for my coverage of their groups, and I feel Israel, though it has a very open relationship with the press, should not have refused to let reporters into Jenin in April to cover the fighting there. On the whole, however, I believe Israeli and American Jewish groups are impressively open with the media.

The same cannot be said, sadly, of the Arab and Muslim world. According to international watchdog Freedom House, 11 of the 14 countries in the Middle East are "not free" with regards to the media. (The Washington Post reported recently that the Syrian government allows a satirical play in Damascus to poke fun at the regime -- as long as it refrains from mentioning the name of President/Dictator Bashar Assad.) Maybe the recent Arab Human Development Report, released by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, put it best when it said that the Middle East's "freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development."

We are lucky in Washington that even heavy-handedness with the media -- such as Alamoudi's treatment of me -- can make it into the news.