Thursday, February 17, 2011


If there is one country that would seem worth visiting in the Arab world, it is Bahrain. Less restrictive than other countries in the region, Bahrain is a sophisticated, upwardly mobile culture with a thriving economy . It is, by most accounts, an enviable place to live if you are in that part of the world. That is, until this week. Following the lead of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the citizens of Bahrain have now taken to the streets in protest of what they perceive as an oppressive government. The message is that they want democracy, a tighter focus on human rights and equal treatment under the law.

In 2004, flying back to the U.S. from Singapore, the plane stopped in Bahrain (below, left, in more peaceful times), on the way to London. Of course I had never been to that part of the world, and even now all I can say is that I was in the airport in Bahrain. But during the layover, I was astounded at the upscale quality of the airport. High end retailers lined the lower level, including a jewelry store featuring items one might find on Fifth Ave. in New York. The airport was spotless, full of nicely dressed travelers and residents and generally a surprising introduction to the Arab world. About a half hour into the four-hour layover, all of the electrical power went out in the airport. Pitch black. Scary, actually. But soon enough, from wherever, employees with flashlights and other illuminators made the place comfortable, and people were strolling the lower level with silver trays, offering tea. It was quite civilized, I must say.

While in Singapore, I met a couple from Bahrain. They were in their late 30s, very well dressed and really gregarious. We were attending some of the same functions at an international food expo, so we got to know each other. I found out from them that they loved living in their country, even though now and then little tidbits about sexism, racism and xenophobia would leak through their conversation. Upon further examination revelations came forth that if you are from Asia or Bangladesh, you probably do not want to be in Bahrain. If you are a woman, the glass ceiling is quite low. If you’re gay, well, best to keep that to yourself. (It is reported that recently about 200 gay men were arrested at a private party).

That brings us to ABC News correspondent Miguel Marquez, an openly gay reporter who was severely beaten by what he described as a group of “thugs” just as he was filing a report on the unrest in the streets of Bahrain. Listen:

Just days after CBS reporter Lara Logan was raped in Egypt, Marquez is just the latest in a string of violent attacks on western journalists. Truth be told, Marquez was probably attacked more because he is a journalist than because he is gay. But should ABC send an openly gay reporter to cover a story in a country that often imprisons or otherwise abuses gay people? Yesterday, my question was should CBS send a beautiful blonde reporter in to Egypt, where violence against women is commonplace? Last week, my question was should CBS send Katie Couric (below right), of all people, into the streets of Egypt to report from the center of the violence? I think not, but there she was.

At the risk of sounding redundant, it is time for media organizations to step back and take a hard look at who is being sent where to cover important news stories. This morning on a talk radio program, a commentator said he felt it was critical for news organizations to have “boots on the ground” in volatile countries. “Boots on the ground” is military slang. Reporters are not soldiers. They are communicators. Unless journalists are going to start “enlisting” in their profession and carrying the same arms that soldiers carry, the commentator’s remarks are unfounded and ill-conceived. We do need global reporting, even (or especially) in times of uprisings, but we also need to safeguard our journalists. From where I sit, it seems increasingly risky to be an international reporter.

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