How Middle East Media Outlets Fan Homophobic Flames

In the LBGTQ+ fight against prejudice and discrimination, obscure actors can do severe damage

How Middle East Media Outlets Fan Homophobic Flames
Mourners in Amsterdam stand in memory of Sarah Hegazivat, an Egyptian queer communist activist who was imprisoned by the Sisi regime for waving a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert, and later died by suicide / 2020 / Paulo Amorim / VWPics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

June has been particularly horrible for members of the LGBTQ+ community. In Norway, authorities canceled all Pride events after a mass shooter killed two people and seriously wounded at least 10 others. In Saudi Arabia, authorities have been confiscating any object that has rainbow colors. Kuwait called on people to “participate in the censorship” by reporting any such object. At least 11 Arab countries banned Disney’s new film “Lightyear” because it features a same-sex kiss. One of those countries is Lebanon, whose caretaker interior minister, under popular pressure from hardline conservatives, banned all Pride events.

Homophobia is still the rule in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. It is exacerbated by the region’s media, including state-backed propaganda outlets, which often elude mainstream attention. Through parroting the hate-filled speech of political leaders, reporting on the arrests of LGBTQ+ activists and individuals, and ignoring the crimes and violence perpetrated against them, while gleefully painting them as Western conspirators, they contribute to anti-gay hatred.

In addition to state and religious authorities in the region, among the most insidious actors are  local media. While some websites and news agencies are easy to dismiss by those of us who get their information from more reliable and professional media outlets, they still are very influential and harmful. This includes Youm7 — the Egyptian privately owned daily newspaper with a website that millions visit every month — which almost exclusively uses pejorative terminology about gay issues and parrots statements by religious authorities, including a recent list of advice on how to protect children from homosexuality. Lebanon’s National News Agency is another platform dedicated to combating homosexuality, missing virtually no homophobic statement from any Lebanese figure, major or minor, while overlooking all violence against innocent LGBTQ+ individuals.

Generally, a lot of them continue to use pejorative terms such as “shudhudh jinsi” (sexual perversion) and “liwat” (sodomy) freely. In addition, they do not bother reading any scientific research on the matter or anything that pertains to it. In their coverage of monkeypox, for instance, several media outlets around the world blamed the outbreak almost entirely on those who partake in same-sex relations, increasing the stigma against this group and misleading those who are not homosexual into believing that they are completely safe from this disease. The pro-government Bahraini newspaper, al-Watan, ran an op-ed on how WHO conspired against humanity by locking us all at home for two years because of COVID-19 but now would not admit that homosexuality is “the cause” of monkeypox, according to “some results.”

While covering incidents having to do with Pride Month, many of those media platforms either sympathized with, or even celebrated, violence against the LGBTQ+ community. One news site hailed Turkey’s crackdown on “a march for the sexually perverted in Istanbul”; another offered “six ways to protect children from sexual perversion”; and dozens spoke of “Satanic schemes,” including national news agencies running columns by religious and secular figures decrying this “Western scheme” against the Arab and Muslim World. 

There has been some encouraging movement. In Lebanon — notwithstanding the prevalent hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community by the authorities, society and the media — several outlets have adopted a more positive or at least neutral tone when covering those issues in the past few years. This includes certain prominent TV stations such as LBCI, whose coverage has been deemed largely positive, and MTV, which was more neutral, according to a report released by The Samir Kassir eyes (SKeyes) Center. 

The main threat, according to the report, remains the hate speech spewed by religious authorities and politicians, which media outlets disseminate without providing any other comment or interview to explore more nuances. On OTV, the channel founded by Lebanon’s president’s Free Patriotic Movement, a guest said that “not only am I in favor of banning [LGBTQ+ persons] but also amputating them.” 

In other Middle Eastern countries, those issues are, for the most part, either ignored or addressed exclusively negatively. A 2020 report by the Iraqi LGBTQ+ rights organization IraQueer showed how local media is one of the country’s main promoters of hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community. Famous Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan’s online publication “Rai al-Youm” ran a story claiming that the campaigns by “sodomites” against the Muslim world are bound to fail. 

In Syria, pro-regime media outlets, following Bashar al-Assad’s approach to appease religious scholars and conservative supporters, either ignore the existence of the LGBTQ+ community or use the pejorative while including them in a conspiracy theory about the West’s evil plans for Syria and the world. Some opposition media touch on the subject neutrally, while others, including prominent ones like Orient TV, enjoy inciting hatred on social media through the terminology they use in reporting on incidents of violence against LGBTQ+ persons — including in Norway and Lebanon — without treating them as serious crimes and equating the victims with those who commit the violence against them. On July 5, Orient TV published a video celebrating the traction gained by a social media campaign called Fitra that is “rebutting the promotion of sexual perversion.” 

In a report titled “Arab Mass Media: A Monitoring Report Looking at Sexuality and Gender Identity in Arabic Media from 2014 to 2017,” OutRight Action International — an LGBTQ+ human rights organization — reviewed 332 pieces of media during the time frame to find that 223 of them discussed sexual orientation and gender identity issues negatively, while 83 adopted a more neutral tone and merely 26 were positive.

“Less than ten stories out of 332 published during the three-month monitoring period covered incidents of violence” against members of the community, the report concluded. It also highlighted how there is a specific focus on covering legal aspects of the matter negatively, such as focusing on covering arrests of LGBTQ+ persons while leaving out incidents of violence against them.

To varying degrees, bigger regional and international outlets that have an Arabic service were not as harmful in their coverage. In a previous issue of this newsletter, I briefly addressed how some international media outlets that have an Arabic service — such as CNN, DW, Sky News and France24 — compromise standards that are upheld in the English-language service in order to please a more conservative staff and audience. 

While none of those channels was using pejorative terms in their coverage (that I know of), they were at times guilty of seeming to desire mostly the controversy and engagement that reports on LGBTQ+ issues incur. I have found most of their reports were neutral, sometimes slightly positive but also not scratching the surface of the issue, instead treating the matter purely as a hot topic that draws clicks and comments. 

In the end, the coverage of very few media outlets across the region was fair and nuanced. This mostly includes independent and alternative online platforms run by a combination of journalists and activists, with a much narrower reach than that of mainstream local and regional TV channels and other outlets. Most platforms were either harmful or not particularly interested in anything other than conveying what happened and what the authorities said about it. 

Media outlets that are still scared of endorsing homosexuality in the Middle East could at least do what we journalists are supposed to do: ensuring fair and objective reporting. They should refrain from merely parroting homophobic authorities and include activists, scholars, experts and others who are well versed in sexual orientation and gender identity, to provide facts and their point of view. 

Using nonpejorative terms and not discreetly endorsing violence against the LGBTQ+ community are hardly the equivalent of championing gay rights in the world: They’re part of being professional and humane.

The two types of media in the Middle East that stood out to me the most are those that are blatantly and openly homophobic and those that seem to see in reporting on LGBTQ+ issues, even if neutrally, a chance for clicks on the website and engagement on social media. For an issue like this is controversial whether you defend it or attack it, and it’s easy to see the profit one can gain from that tension. 

Those who partake in or endorse homophobic campaigns are guilty of perpetuating the oppression of a marginalized and persecuted community, but they are also, in the overwhelming majority of cases, guilty of supporting oppressors in general, whether in the name of the state or of religion. Appeasing the most conservative strata of society is not alien to many of those outlets, some of them tabloid, others owned by politicians or run by states. The pejorative terms used against the LGBTQ+ community and the lack of condemnation of those who persecute them go against journalistic and humane principles that should not have to do with journalists’ views on sexual orientation. But going after marginalized communities is an easy card to play in order to achieve political gain. It is the easier path than professionally and patiently reporting on those issues to contribute to raising public awareness. This appeasement of conservatives also diverts the audience’s attention from those who are actually doing them harm by robbing them of the rights and resources they should be able to enjoy.

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