Safer than Kansas CityYemen is victim of media ignorance [Archives:2005/828/Community]

March 28 2005

By Bryan K. Manning
For the Yemen Times

The ancient history of Yemen and the greater Arabian peninsula remains enigmatic to the world's archaeological community. Time, like a sandstorm, has shrouded the archaic truth of this vast area, leaving us to stare blankly backwards at a lost, antiquated era.

But what of the contemporary history of Yemen? How qualitative is the state of foreign media reporting that plies its trade in Yemen today? For what are reporters if not privately appointed “up to the minute” history chroniclers.

Fleeting sages that decide, document and ultimately interpret what the world digests as newsworthy imperatives. To often in Yemen the news takes the form of hair-raising headlines that read like warning labels on caches of TNT: Threat Level Rises For Westerners in Yemen, Warns Embassy.

One would swear the very air in Yemen is laced with mustard gas; it is enough to make you gag alright, but not from the effects of any noxious gas. Can a place be so incorrigible in its supposed barbarism towards outsiders? Embarrassed as I am to readily admit it, I more than entertained or should I say swallowed this preposterous media myth.

It is hard not to succumb to Yemen's constructed perception (tainted and skewed as it is) we Westerners receive. For the source – foreign media and government alarmism/opportunism make for clever and convincing bedfellows. In the voracious jaws of this dynamic duo where else are passive recipients of the news to turn? There is no credible source or viable alternative, barring uprooting oneself and making contact with actual Yemeni people in Yemen.

Not an option for most I would think. And so the less fantastical truth of life in the Middle East , and in Yemen pointedly, is replaced by a dire fallacy: life as a foreigner, notably a British or American citizen, is inherently fraught with imminent danger. Cue the chorus line of weathered cliches, fundamentalists and Islamic extremists will target you for assault, maiming, and possibly murder.

If you make it through that nasty gauntlet more harrowing peril awaits. Kidnapping. Actually I was informed by a Canadian Islamic scholar and one time resident of Cairo that the kidnapping rate has escalated to “cottage industry” status. Not surprisingly, he had never set foot in any part of Yemen but was sure the statistics (more likely lore) held true. After all he asserted “I am a scholar”. What hope can be left if even the learned amongst us are being sucked in?

Well whatever the conduit, be it nerve wracked governments, ill-advised individuals, or myopic journalists I am no longer partial to this weak dialectic. It is plainly false and painfully outdated.

As a working citizen of Aden I see the danger not in the streets and alleyways-chaotic as they are. Rather it lies imbedded in a ubiquitous web spun from beyond Yemeni and Middle Eastern demarcations. The webs orb is fixed over the Middle East and its spin doctors are busily at work here in Yemen.

Its strands connect to a taut and hegemonic conglomerate, ie. North American and European media corporations. The message – Yemen is unsafe – is derived from the medium – the news – recycled by them ad infinitum and mass produced until the stories origin is virtually forgotten. Is it that absurd to indict these corporations based on the misinformation they choose to proliferate? Absolutely not.

You need only to reference the research of American Will Hutchison pertaining to contrasting images of Yemen and America to begin to comprehend the immense double -standard in reporting (In Kansas City , Missouri, pop.440 000, a person is 97 times more likely to be a victim of a crime than in Sana'a). Where is old Eliot Ness when you need him? Certainly somebody has to lay charges of fear mongering on this the new breed of newsroom untouchables. I wouldn't hold my breath in the interim.

At the core of this epic blunder in communication between the West and the East is a thirst for sensationalism which demands a divorce from ethics. If they negatively sensationalize it – Yemen – you will not come. And the viewer ratings of a major broadcasting station grow. If they condemn the country as a haven for Al Qaeda then you just may dismiss it soundly enough to malign it outright.

This is the all to concrete and neglected crisis facing the national psyche of Yemen. It is a stake to the heart of key industries-culture and tourism related promotion and foreign business investment to name a few-already struggling to get on their feet in the country.

While the rest of the world reaps the exposure and profits of the global travel phenomena, Yemen crouches reticently in an arcing shadow of bad publicity. In the same way a global superpower might render a recalcitrant “minor league” nation disabled vis-a-vis economic sanctions, it follows that discriminatory mass reporting of events in Yemen has reconfigured the country into a global pariah.

Sadly, those who lead the charge in this myopic campaign of misinformation fail to consider its social and economic ramifications; the insidious and demoralizing consequences that mar the dignity of an entire nation. In a court of law one party can sue another for using inflammatory language for the purpose of slander.

Yet how is it the denigration of Yemen at the hands of media charlatans-an act tantamount to all out skullduggery-is tolerated and accepted as the status quo.

Well I think it is about time the pitch in the battle cry of this media assault changed from accusatory to accountability. Then, mercifully at least some semblance of the real picture of life in the Yemen can unfurl itself and allow the red, white and black and to fly true.

Then maybe the outside world, so long misled by spin doctors and propaganda, will start to see the genuine Yemen. And then finally foreigners like myself and countless others can stop chastising ourselves for not coming to this refreshingly uncommon country sooner. The German philosopher Hegel once said,

“Sometimes there is nothing behind the curtain other than that which is in front of it.” The truth about Yemen can be as sublimely vivid as a sunset over Elephant Bay, just don't look for it on the evening news.

Bryan K. Manning is a Canadian teacher working for the American Language Center in Aden.