Adonis Diaries

Archive for August 6th, 2016

What hallucination reveals about our minds

Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks brings our attention to Charles Bonnet syndrome — when visually impaired people experience lucid hallucinations. He describes the experiences of his patients in heart warming detail and walks us through the biology of this under-reported phenomenon.

Oliver Sacks. Neurological anthropologist

Since “Awakenings” stormed the bestseller lists (and the silver screen), Oliver Sacks has become an unlikely household name, single-handedly inventing the genre of neurological anthropology. Full bio

We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination.

And we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different. They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.

0:46 So I am going to be talking about hallucinations, and a particular sort of visual hallucination which I see among my patients.

A few months ago, I got a phone call from a nursing home where I work. They told me that one of their residents, an old lady in her 90s, was seeing things, and they wondered if she’d gone bonkers or, because she was an old lady, whether she’d had a stroke, or whether she had Alzheimer’s.

they asked me if I would come and see Rosalie, the old lady. I went in to see her. It was evident straight away that she was perfectly sane and lucid and of good intelligence, but she’d been very startled and very bewildered, because she’d been seeing things. And she told me — the nurses hadn’t mentioned this — that she was blind, that she had been completely blind from macular degeneration for five years. But now, for the last few days, she’d been seeing things.

 I said, “What sort of things?” And she said, “People in Eastern dress, in drapes, walking up and down stairs. A man who turns towards me and smiles. But he has huge teeth on one side of his mouth. Animals too. I see a white building. It’s snowing, a soft snow. I see this horse with a harness, dragging the snow away. Then, one night, the scene changes. I see cats and dogs walking towards me. They come to a certain point and then stop. Then it changes again. I see a lot of children. They are walking up and down stairs. They wear bright colors, rose and blue, like Eastern dress.”

TED|By Oliver Sacks

Sometimes, she said, before the people come on, she may hallucinate pink and blue squares on the floor, which seem to go up to the ceiling. I said, “Is this like a dream?” And she said, “No, it’s not like a dream. It’s like a movie.”

She said, “It’s got color. It’s got motion. But it’s completely silent, like a silent movie.” (You never hear sounds in dreams too) And she said that it’s a rather boring movie. She said, “All these people with Eastern dress, walking up and down, very repetitive, very limited.” (Laughter)

And she has a sense of humor. She knew it was a hallucination. But she was frightened.

She’d lived 95 years and she’d never had a hallucination before. She said that the hallucinations were unrelated to anything she was thinking or feeling or doing, that they seemed to come on by themselves, or disappear. She had no control over them.

She said she didn’t recognize any of the people or places in the hallucinations. And none of the people or the animals, well, they all seemed oblivious of her. And she didn’t know what was going on. She wondered if she was going mad or losing her mind.

I examined her carefully. She was a bright old lady, perfectly sane. She had no medical problems. She wasn’t on any medications which could produce hallucinations. But she was blind.

And I then said to her, “I think I know what you have.” I said, “There is a special form of visual hallucination which may go with deteriorating vision or blindness. This was originally described right back in the 18th century, by a man called Charles Bonnet. And you have Charles Bonnet syndrome. There is nothing wrong with your brain. There is nothing wrong with your mind. You have Charles Bonnet syndrome.”

she was very relieved at this, that there was nothing seriously the matter, and also rather curious. She said, “Who is this Charles Bonnet?” She said, “Did he have them himself?” And she said, “Tell all the nurses that I have Charles Bonnet syndrome.” (Laughter) “I’m not crazy. I’m not demented. I have Charles Bonnet syndrome.” Well, so I did tell the nurses.

for me, this is a common situation. I work in old-age homes, largely. I see a lot of elderly people who are hearing impaired or visually impaired. About 10 percent of the hearing impaired people get musical hallucinations. And about 10 percent of the visually impaired people get visual hallucinations. You don’t have to be completely blind, only sufficiently impaired.

with the original description in the 18th century, Charles Bonnet did not have them. His grandfather had these hallucinations. His grandfather was a magistrate, an elderly man. He’d had cataract surgery. His vision was pretty poor. And in 1759, he described to his grandson various things he was seeing.

The first thing he said was he saw a handkerchief in midair. It was a large blue handkerchief with four orange circles. And he knew it was a hallucination. You don’t have handkerchiefs in midair. And then he saw a big wheel in midair. But sometimes he wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating or not, because the hallucinations would fit in the context of the visions.

So on one occasion, when his granddaughters were visiting them, he said, “And who are these handsome young men with you?” And they said, “Alas, Grandpapa, there are no handsome young men.” And then the handsome young men disappeared. It’s typical of these hallucinations that they may come in a flash and disappear in a flash. They don’t usually fade in and out. They are rather sudden, and they change suddenly.

Charles Lullin, the grandfather, saw hundreds of different figures, different landscapes of all sorts. On one occasion, he saw a man in a bathrobe smoking a pipe, and realized it was himself. That was the only figure he recognized.

On one occasion when he was walking in the streets of Paris, he saw — this was real — a scaffolding. But when he got back home, he saw a miniature of the scaffolding six inches high, on his study table. This repetition of perception is sometimes called palinopsia.

With him and with Rosalie, what seems to be going on — and Rosalie said, “What’s going on?” — and I said that as you lose vision, as the visual parts of the brain are no longer getting any input, they become hyperactive and excitable, and they start to fire spontaneously. And you start to see things.

The things you see can be very complicated indeed.

With another patient of mine, who, also had some vision, the vision she had could be disturbing. On one occasion, she said she saw a man in a striped shirt in a restaurant. And he turned around. And then he divided into six figures in striped shirts, who started walking towards her. And then the six figures came together again, like a concertina. Once, when she was driving, or rather, her husband was driving, the road divided into four and she felt herself going simultaneously up four roads.

She had very mobile hallucinations as well. A lot of them had to do with a car. Sometimes she would see a teenage boy sitting on the hood of the car. He was very tenacious and he moved rather gracefully when the car turned. And then when they came to a stop, the boy would do a sudden vertical takeoff, 100 foot in the air, and then disappear.

9:01 Another patient of mine had a different sort of hallucination. This was a woman who didn’t have trouble with her eyes, but the visual parts of her brain, a little tumor in the occipital cortex. And, above all, she would see cartoons.

These cartoons would be transparent and would cover half the visual field, like a screen. And especially she saw cartoons of Kermit the Frog. (Laughter) Now, I don’t watch Sesame Street, but she made a point of saying, “Why Kermit?” she said, “Kermit the Frog means nothing to me. You know, I was wondering about Freudian determinants. Why Kermit? Kermit the Frog means nothing to me.”

She didn’t mind the cartoons too much. But what did disturb her was she got very persistent images or hallucinations of faces and as with Rosalie, the faces were often deformed, with very large teeth or very large eyes. And these frightened her.

Well, what is going on with these people? As a physician, I have to try and define what’s going on, and to reassure people, especially to reassure them that they’re not going insane.

Something like 10 percent of visually impaired people get these. But no more than one percent of the people acknowledge them, because they are afraid they will be seen as insane or something. And if they do mention them to their own doctors they may be misdiagnosed.

In particular, the notion is that if you see things or hear things, you’re going mad, but the psychotic hallucinations are quite different. Psychotic hallucinations, unlike Charles Bonnet hallucinations, whether they are visual or vocal, they address you. They accuse you. They seduce you. They humiliate you. They jeer at you.

You interact with them. There is none of this quality of being addressed with these Charles Bonnet hallucinations. There is a film. You’re seeing a film which has nothing to do with you, or that’s how people think about it.

There is also a rare thing called temporal lobe epilepsy, and sometimes, if one has this, one may feel oneself transported back to a time and place in the past. You’re at a particular road junction. You smell chestnuts roasting. You hear the traffic. All the senses are involved. And you’re waiting for your girl. And it’s that Tuesday evening back in 1982.

And the temporal lobe hallucinations are all-sense hallucinations, full of feeling, full of familiarity, located in space and time, coherent, dramatic. The Charles Bonnet ones are quite different. (I wouldn’t mind lovely temporal lobe hallucinations)

 So in the Charles Bonnet hallucinations, you have all sorts of levels, from the geometrical hallucinations — the pink and blue squares the woman had — up to quite elaborate hallucinations with figures and especially faces. Faces, and sometimes deformed faces, are the single commonest thing in these hallucinations. And one of the second commonest is cartoons.

what is going on? Fascinatingly, in the last few years, it’s been possible to do functional brain imagery, to do fMRI on people as they are hallucinating. And in fact, to find that different parts of the visual brain are activated as they are hallucinating.

When people have these simple geometrical hallucinations, the primary visual cortex is activated. This is the part of the brain which perceives edges and patterns. You don’t form images with your primary visual cortex.

When images are formed, a higher part of the visual cortex is involved in the temporal lobe. And in particular, one area of the temporal lobe is called the fusiform gyrus. And it’s known that if people have damage in the fusiform gyrus, they maybe lose the ability to recognize faces.

But if there is an abnormal activity in the fusiform gyrus, they may hallucinate faces, and this is exactly what you find in some of these people. There is an area in the anterior part of this gyrus where teeth and eyes are represented, and that part of the gyrus is activated when people get the deformed hallucinations.

There is another part of the brain which is especially activated when one sees cartoons. It’s activated when one recognizes cartoons, when one draws cartoons, and when one hallucinates them. It’s very interesting that that should be specific.

There are other parts of the brain which are specifically involved with the recognition and hallucination of buildings and landscapes.

14:09 Around 1970, it was found that there were not only parts of the brain, but particular cells. Face cells” were discovered around 1970. And now we know that there are hundreds of other sorts of cells, which can be very, very specific. So you may not only have “car” cells, you may have “Aston Martin” cells. (Laughter) I saw an Aston Martin this morning. I had to bring it in. And now it’s in there somewhere. (Laughter)

 at this level, in what’s called the infero-temporal cortex, there are only visual images, or figments or fragments. It’s only at higher levels that the other senses join in and there are connections with memory and emotion.

And in the Charles Bonnet syndrome, you don’t go to those higher levels. You’re in these levels of inferior visual cortex where you have thousands and tens of thousands and millions of images, or figments, or fragmentary figments, all neurally encoded in particular cells or small clusters of cells.

15:22 Normally these are all part of the integrated stream of perception, or imagination, and one is not conscious of them. It is only if one is visually impaired or blind that the process is interrupted.

And instead of getting normal perception, you’re getting an anarchic, convulsive stimulation, or release, of all of these visual cells in the inferotemporal cortex. So, suddenly you see a face. Suddenly you see a car. Suddenly this, and suddenly that. The mind does its best to organize and to give some sort of coherence to this, but not terribly successfully.

 When these were first described, it was thought that they could be interpreted like dreams. But in fact people say, “I don’t recognize the people. I can’t form any associations.” “Kermit means nothing to me.” You don’t get anywhere thinking of them as dreams.

I’ve more or less said what I wanted. I think I just want to recapitulate and say this is common.

Think of the number of blind people. There must be hundreds of thousands of blind people who have these hallucinations, but are too scared to mention them.

So this sort of thing needs to be brought into notice, for patients, for doctors, for the public. Finally, I think they are infinitely interesting and valuable, for giving one some insight as to how the brain works.

16:58 Charles Bonnet said, 250 years ago — he wondered how, thinking these hallucinations, how, as he put it, the theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain.

Now, 250 years later, I think we’re beginning to glimpse how this is done. Thanks very much.

17:22 Chris Anderson: That was superb. Thank you so much. You speak about these things with so much insight and empathy for your patients. Have you yourself experienced any of the syndromes you write about?

Oliver Sacks: I was afraid you’d ask that. (Laughter) Well, yeah, a lot of them. And actually I’m a little visually impaired myself. I’m blind in one eye, and not terribly good in the other. And I see the geometrical hallucinations. But they stop there.

CA: And they don’t disturb you? Because you understand what’s doing it, it doesn’t make you worried?

 OS: Well they don’t disturb me any more than my tinnitus, which I ignore. They occasionally interest me, and I have many pictures of them in my notebooks. I’ve gone and had an fMRI myself, to see how my visual cortex is taking over. And when I see all these hexagons and complex things, which I also have, in visual migraine, I wonder whether everyone sees things like this, and whether things like cave art or ornamental art may have been derived from them a bit.

Attenuating circumstances (just 5 year-prison term in Lebanon): I killed my wife when angry

Never mind that he planned this murder in cold blood.

In addition of going berserk, the wife Manal al 3assi was discovered to be cheating?

Nothing fundamental changed in the laws concerning women’ rights: It all depend on the judge attitudes

 Aug. 2016

أن تكوني إمرأةً في بلد منال

سحر مندور

رسم رائد شرف

الحكم على قاتل منال العاصي بالسجن لثلاث سنواتٍ و7 أشهر فعلية، مع احتساب مدة التوقيف حتى بحيث يخرج القاتل بعد 18 شهراً من يومنا هذا إلى الحريّة، رنّ في أذن كلّ إمرأةٍ تتلقى الضرب وطمحت لوهلةٍ بامتلاك إمكانيةٍ للخروج منه. “بقتلك، وبفوت فيكي سنتين ع الحبس”، سيقولون لنا. ولمَ لا؟ ففي قضيةٍ ملأت أخبارها البلد وصارت محطةً عامّة في سياق العنف الأسريّ، أتى هذا الحكم ليتفهّم العنف لا ليحمينا منه. كأنه يقول لنا: لا تغرّنكن السنوات القليلة الماضية التي علا حسّكن فيها، القانون ما زال قادراً على لجمكنّ.
هذا الحكم جاء ليسكِت تلك الحملة، في قضيةٍ نفر من إجرامها المجتمع. لو قيل لنا: “ولكن حيثيات هذه القضية..”، سنسمع: “وكلّ قضية”. هذا الحكم استسهل وضع حياتنا على المحكّ.

شرعة أقوى من القانون

الدولة لا تريد فعلياً أن تحمينا، نحن النساء. تلغي “جريمة الشرف” وتترك مدخلاً إلى براءة القاتل عبر استثناء “الغضب الشديد”. تقرّ تجريم العنف الأسري، وتسارع لتغليف قضية منال بكلمات الشرف والجنس بحيث صارت “خيانتها له” إعتداءً يستبق عنفه. لا الشرف ألغي فعلياً، ولا الحماية أقرّت فعلياً، وإنما هما تواريا ليظهرا عندما تستدعيهما الحاجة. والحاجة إلى إليهما كلاسيكيةٌ في سياق تعنيف النساء، وقد سادتا متن الحكم الصادر بحق هذا القاتل: ممارسات جنسٍ مفترضة يرويها عن الميتة مجموعة أحياءٍ يسعون جميعاً للخروج أبرياء من جريمة، فتكون منال هي التي قتلت نفسها برسائل جنسية بعثتها لرجلٍ يقولون إنها نامت معه. هل هي هنا لتخبرنا بما إذا كان ذلك كذباً أو حقيقةً؟ لا. وهل الجنس يبرّر القتل؟ وكيف كانت أصلاً حياتها معه؟ لكن، لماذا هذه الاسئلة؟ هي لا تهمّ. البطل الفعليّ في القصة هو القاتل: عصبيّ، لكنه “متديّن” ويهدأ بسرعة.
هو محور إهتمام الحكم، لا منال. هو الخلوق الذي يحبها، وهو الشرس المهاب العنيف في الحيّ كما في البيت. وهو الذي غضب لشرفه، وهو الذي تفاجأ، وهو المتزوج عليها لكنها “خانته” قبل زواجه الثاني، علماً أنه “عدل” بينهما (بحسب متن الحكم أيضاً). هو الذي لم يسمح بنقلها إلى المستشفى بسيارة إسعاف وإنما بسيارة الأجرة. وهو.. هو كلّ شيء. فهي انتهت منذ ثبّتوا عليها أنها “زانية”، رغم أنها أوحت للجميع بأنها “متديّنة”. السؤال عنها هي يكاد يقتصر عمّا إذا وقعت بنفسها في طنجرة الفاصوليا أم أنه هو من رماها بطنجرة الفاصوليا؟ مدهشٌ متن هذا الحكم.

يوم الجريمة، قالت أمّ منال للشرطة أن سبب وفاة إبنتها المحطّمة تماماً والتي تلقت ألوان التعذيب الدموية لما يزيد عن 3 ساعاتٍ متواصلة، هو وقوعها عن سلم المطبخ. أسباب الأم ليست عصيّةً على الفهم، فهي تخبرنا ما نعرفه عن تجذّر الرعب من الظلم السائد في حياتنا: بطشه، وصيتهنّ. شقيقتها وقتها انتفضت ورفضت التعتيم. وكلنا انتفضنا معها ورفضنا التسكيت. اجتهدنا وتابعنا وكتبنا وتظاهرنا، حتى دخل قاتلٌ إلى محكمة. وها هو اليوم يتجهّز للخروج منها “ليربّي بناته”.
أيّ مربٍّ هذا الذي يشرب من دمّ زوجته؟ هذا الكلام ليس مجازياً، وإنما هو وارد في متن الحكم: جرحٌ طوله 7 سنتيمترات فوق الشفة العليا. أحدثه بلكمةٍ، مصّ منه دمها، وبصقه في وجه أمها. في دماغها نزيفٌ حاد، الكدمات القاضية في كافة أنحاء جسمها. الأم تخاف منه، لسوابقه المستمرة. ببديهيةٍ، خافت من مجرم! وهي تعرف عميقاً، بعمق حبّها لابنتها، أن شرعه أقوى من القانون. وفعلاً.. القاضية بالعدل، تعرف ما نعرفه، ووجدت في حريّته خيراً لعائلته. هذا هو بالضبط جرم الذكورية متجسّداً: الذكورية تقبل القتل، التعذيب، الجريمة بشكلٍ عام، طالما سلطة الذكر الذكوريّ مستقرٌّةٌ في الأسرة المحافِظة. وأسرة الذكر هامّة، لأن عليها يقوم النظام. هي خليّته الأولى، منبع مريديه والمدافعين عنه (والقاتل ناشطٌ في أكثر من مواجهةٍ طائفية في البلد).

عند البحث عن مدخلٍ للإنتصار للمرأة، يتوجّب علينا أن نعيد تعريفها كإبنةٍ مثاليّةٍ للنظام، لا تخرج عن تعريفاته، لا تتحدّى أيّاً منها، مطيعةٌ كئيبة. هذا هو المدخل شبه الوحيد لإدانته. لو أرسلت “واتساب” أو قيل أنها فعلت، لو “خانت” أو قيل كذلك، لو كانت عصبيّةً، “متبرّجة”، لو طلبت الطلاق… أيّ حركةٍ خارج النصّ الجندريّ المتفق عليه بين الشرع والقانون والتقاليد، هو مبررٌ لضربها حتى قتلها. يتوجّب إذاً على المرأة أن تبرهن طاعتها لقانونٍ ما زال يتهرّب من الإعتراف بجرمٍ في الإعتداء عليها، لكي تستجدي منه عدالة.
أم منال طلبت منه في محاولة لإنقاذها أن يبقيها “صانعة للأولاد” (أي، خادمة). قاسيةٌ المساحة التي كانت متاحة لمنال كي تحيا فيها. عليها أن تحصر زيارتها للحياة بالتأرجح ما بين ضربةٍ من البيت وضربةٍ من المجتمع. ولما قتلت في نهاية المطاف بمشهديةٍ تجسّد كلّ هذا العنف، تقبّل القضاء موتها و”تفهّم” القاتل. هذه الأجساد التي نحيا فيها، ليست لنا. فما صادر من منال حياتها، هو تحديداً ما صادر منها (ومنا) العدالة بعد رحيلها: الشرف، والأسرة. مِلكيّةٌ، وخادمة. هذا هو الخيار الذي كان متاحاً أمامها، ورفض القاتل حتى منحه لها. ولا بد أن يجد كلّ قاتلٍ قاضياً وقاضيةً يتفهّمان دوافعه لو مثل أمام محكمة. ففي النهاية، القانون ترك الشبّاك مفتوحاً للقاتل كي يهرب من العقاب، شرط أن تكون المقتولة إمرأة، “إمرأته”.

الغضب، من أجل العدالة

منذ أكثر من سنتين، لما خرجنا بالقضية إلى العلن، هبّ رجالٌ إعلاميّون وسياسيّون ومؤثّرون يشاهدهم اللبنانيون /ات أسبوعياً على التلفزيون، وقالوا لنساءٍ معنّفاتٍ واقفاتٍ أمامهم: أنتن تخنّ الثقة وتخرجن بـ”حميم” الأسرة إلى العلن، أنتن تفضحنّ أطفالكنّ وتؤذينهم /ن أكثر بكثير من ضرب الأب لهم /نّ، ضرب الرجل لك. الوجود في العلن كان حقّاً مسلوباً، لكننا فرضنا سطوتنا عليه، وانتزعنا ملكيّةً لنا فيه. مشينا أكثر من خمسة آلافٍ في تظاهرةٍ تحمل صوراً وأسماء: منال العاصي، رلى يعقوب، سارة الأمين، لطيفة قصير..
أما رجال الدين فكانت لهم مهمّة التنكيل بالقضيّة برمّتها. وكلما ارتفع صراخ رجال الدين أكثر، اتسع هامش شركائهم النوّاب في لجم التشريع. فاهتاج الشيوخ وقالوا: كيف تكون لربّ البيت كلمةٌ فيه، بغير الحقّ بامتلاك العنف؟ صار العنف حقّاً. قالوا: أضربها، بشرط عدم ظهور الضرب للعين خارجها. أيّ، اضرب الرأس لا الوجه، فسواه من أنحاء الجسم ليست مخصصة للعيان أصلاً بعرف رجال الدين. والمهم، خارجها.
الحوارات المتلفزة لم تأت كلها بنمطٍ واحدٍ، لكن “أشرسها” كان أكثرها إثارةً ومشاهَدة. أبقت توزيع السلطات الحواريّة ضمن الشراكة الحاكمة. فقانونٌ كهذا لا حزب له، لا طائفة له، ولا هو استثمارٌ عقاريّ. ظهرت المعنّفات والناشطات والناشطون في مواجهةٍ “مثيرة” مكرّرة، تلك التي تثقل على قلوبنا في كلّ “نقاشٍ” متلفز محوره إمرأة، أو “فضيحة” جنسية، أو جنسانيّة مغايرة. أمام كلّ قصّة عنفٍ معلنة، جلس الدين، والطب، وأحياناً علم الإجتماع / النفس، ليشرّحوا “الضحية”، المرأة. مرّة، كان الضيفان الأشد “إثارةً” رجلين عنّفا زوجتيهما. واحدٌ صاح بأنه ضرب زوجته طبعاً، أحرق شعرها، كسر لها ثلاثة ضلوعٍ، وساقين، كجزاء لها على طلب الطلاق، ثم طلّقها. دفّعها الثمن، وقال أنه دفّعها الثمن. لم تنتظره دورية شرطة خارج الأستديو، ولا من يحزنون. خرج كما دخل، بينما هي، السيدة التي ليست زوجته، اضطرت إلى الإنفعال مراراً لتؤكد براءتها من تهم الشرف، والفضائحية، والمبالغة، والسلبية، وقلة الحيلة، والخروج عن الله، …
لكن المزاج العام مع الوقت بدأ بالتغيّر، واتضح فيه ميلٌ إلى طليعةٍ فيه من النساء والرجال أشارت باليد إلى خللٍ فيه. بدأ الناس برصد العنف الأسريّ كعنفٍ إشكاليّ، مهما اختلفت ردود الفعل تجاهه. بمبادرات فرديّة، صارت العين تختار أن تصوّر مشهداً في الشارع لتحاكم “مجرماً” فيه: محامي يضرب زوجته في السيارة في صلب النهار. النقابة ارتبكت وتلبّكت ولم تبادر بحسم، لكن ذلك لا يهمّ، فالأهم أن العين رأت وميّزت ما رأته كجريمة. والتغيير المجتمعيّ قوامه التراكم.

القانون أتاح للقاضية أن تصدّ كافة جهودنا، لأنها تريد للسائد أن يسود. الجريمة صارت تمتلك شرعية أن تستمر، لأنها، برأي القاضية كما برأي السائد، أتت لتصحّح مساراً، لا لتتوّج سياق العنف الفادح الذي تعرّضت له منال في بيتها، وتتعرض له النساء في بيوتهنّ. هذا الرجل، كيف تأتمنه قاضيةٌ على بنات؟ لقد برهن لنا الحكم أن القانون لا يحقق بالضرورة العدالة. كنا نعرف أن طريق التغيير لا تزال طويلة، لكننا نعرف اليوم أنها ستستلزم منا المزيد من الغضب. لقد عرف النظام كلّ ما نعرفه، وأصرّ مع ذلك على “تفهّم” الجريمة.
هذا ليس جديداً علينا. فجسم المرأة هو محور نزاعٍ شرس وطويل الأمد. ولسخرية الظلم، هو موقع الجريمة، وهو سبب الجريمة. هو أداة إدانتها، وهو سبب براءته. ولكن، لحسن حظّ العدالة، هو اليوم أداة ثورتنا. أكان زانياً، بتول، معوّقاً، حاضناً، أو مقتولاً… كيفما كان، هو لها. وسنسترده.

نشر هذا المقال في العدد 41 من مجلة المفكرة القانونية

Investigative journalism persists in the Middle East

Against all odds?

In the past year, a group of Arab journalists has been working secretly in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen as part of a global network of investigative reporters mining the so called “Panama Papers.”

They found that some Arab strongmen and their business partners are linked to offshore companies and bank accounts.

They also discovered that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have been able to skirt international sanctions by registering shell companies in places like the Seychelles.

What’s astonishing about this story is not that Arab dictators are going offshore to hide their wealth and evade sanctions. It’s that a community of Arab journalists is continuing to do investigative reporting in a region where there is increasingly little tolerance for accountability of any kind.

Andrew Bossone shared a link.

These days, it seems there is only bad news about journalism in the Arab world. Throughout the region, journalists are being jailed or killed, newspapers are being shuttered, and censors are clamping down on independent reporting.

In the five years since the Arab uprisings, the story of Arab media is one of closure: Doors that had been pried open have now been bolted by regimes shaken by popular protests, terrorist attacks, and sectarian strife.
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And yet, as Arab journalists’ work on the Panama Papers shows, investigative reporting—uncovering wrongdoing through documents, data, interviews, and occasionally, undercover methods—continues, even in attenuated form. But while the revelations from the Panama Papers are rocking governments around the world, reaction has so far been muted in the Arab world.

The exposés about Arab leaders’ wrongdoings offshore have not gotten as much traction in the region’s media as they have elsewhere, and Arab regimes have been largely unresponsive to the revelations.

In the past few years, government reactions to media investigations in the region have been tepid. Citizens, too, have become wary of muckraking media. In many places, there is a backlash.

“The unity and positive vision for change that drove the uprisings has degenerated,” writes Marc Lynch, a political science professor who has chronicled what he calls the rise and fall of the Arab public sphere. “Violence, extremism, and war take up the space once occupied by peaceful movements for democratic change. Media platforms that once carried thoughtful arguments are now dominated by demagogues and charlatans.” (They are owned by demagogues and charlatans kings, princes and multinationals)

“People are more afraid of chaos in the region—the civil wars and failed states, the death, destruction, and drowning—than they are of ‘normal’ Arab repression by the state,” says Rana Sabbagh, a Jordanian journalist who heads Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism or ARIJ, a nonprofit based in Amman, which trained and funded the journalists who worked on the Panama Papers investigation.

“For them, democracy, free speech, and accountability equal anarchy and lack of security. They don’t want to become like the Syrian, Libyan, or Yemeni refugees.”

In the past decade, intrepid Arab journalists have perfected techniques for reporting about wrongdoing in restrictive regimes. While citizens and activists have found freedom on blogs and social media platforms, these journalists have opted to stay within the more constrained spaces of professionally run news organizations that operate openly in the public sphere.

They have been able to publish accountability stories by using careful and neutral language, providing documentation, and in places where restrictions are more severe, by confining their digging to “safe” topics like education or health.

The independent watchdog reporter is a novelty in the Arab media landscape. “We used to have only two kinds of journalists,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who is a founder and former chair of ARIJ. “There were either pro-government journalists or anti-government activists posing as journalists.

There is now a new kind of journalist who is neither. With investigative tools, these journalists have done a fine job of getting the facts. They were no longer easily dismissed as peddling lies.”
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ARIJ, which is funded by European donors, deserves a lot of credit for the emergence of investigative journalism in the region. Since its founding in 2005, it has trained over 1,600 reporters in nine countries. The journalists are taught to use documents, data, and other techniques to find evidence of wrongdoing. The most promising are given grants to pursue investigations with guidance from ARIJ mentors. The ARIJ team that dug into the “Panama Papers” was handpicked from those past grantees.

Until ARIJ came along and helped build syllabi for about a dozen journalism programs, Arab universities didn’t teach investigative reporting. Even now, many journalism instructors there still use textbooks from the Soviet era; many were educated not in free-press regimes but in Russia, Iraq, or Egypt.

In a region where there is widespread skepticism about the West and its intentions, foreign funding is often seen as suspect. ARIJ has tried to assuage these concerns by being transparent about its donors, says Sabbagh, and by pointing out that countries like Egypt and Jordan rely on foreign aid as well. “Conservative politicians have accused us of hanging our dirty laundry out to the world,” she says, “but that is the reality we have to live with.”

Over the years, ARIJ’s annual conferences have allowed Arab journalists to share successes and challenges. I’ve spoken at two of these conferences, most recently in Amman in December. One evening, I sat with a few dozen journalists who were watching investigative segments recently aired on local TV programs.

The lineup included a story on the illegal organ trade in Iraq; an investigation of corruption linked to the provision of tax-exempt, disabled-friendly cars in Egypt; and an exposé on an Iraqi governor who allegedly took bribes from contractors providing temporary housing for refugees.

International collaborations are helping Arab investigative reporting survive. That it exists at all is testimony to a community of journalists has mustered the courage, creativity, and resilience to keep it alive.

Each film was followed by a spirited discussion on ethics, evidence, and reporting techniques. There were lively debates on unnamed sources and secret filming. I asked Asaad Al Zalzali, the Iraqi TV journalist whose film on the illegal organ trade was shown that night, whether he got any threats. “A lot,” he said. “But it’s alright. It’s my job.”

Today, a community of Arab investigative reporters exists even when it shouldn’t. Most everywhere else, investigative reporting is possible only with some measure of media freedom and public support for a muckraking press. These conditions do not currently exist in the Arab world.

Naila Hamdy, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, has researched investigative reporting in the region. “The freedoms now are much less than they were prior to the revolutions,” she says. “It’s very difficult to do any serious investigative reporting anywhere, maybe with the exception of Lebanon and a little bit in Kuwait.”

The room for maneuver is getting smaller every day. Most of the ARIJ team’s reporting on the Panama Papers, for example, will be published Not by news organizations in the Arab world but elsewhere, like London or Paris.

In Algeria, ARIJ’s publishing partner refused to print the group’s findings. And in Jordan, the publisher of the AmmanNet website got a phone call from a security official, warning him not to run a story about a powerful Jordanian tycoon’s offshore holdings.

For sure, international collaborations are helping Arab investigative reporting survive. That it exists at all is testimony to a community of journalists has mustered the courage, creativity, and resilience to keep it alive.

Lina Attalah is one of the keepers of the muckraking flame. She is editor of Mada Masr, the Egyptian news site, which has broken stories like the millions of dollars in public funds spent for the upkeep of mansions owned by former President Hosni Mubarak. Last month, Mada Masr revealed the involvement of military intelligence in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Mada Masr reporters use data and documents like lawsuits and audit reports to shine a light on problems not covered by Egypt’s currently pliant press. They are seldom allowed access to official sources; instead they get their information from public interest lawyers, human rights advocates, and sometimes, government insiders.

We have a big responsibility to report on cases of police violations, cases of economic corruption, particularly at the [national] level,” Attalah says. “We report on stories that don’t get covered enough in the other media, or if they do get covered, are covered with a great deal of distortion. We feel we have the language and the mechanisms of reporting through which we can produce better stories.”

Mada Masr, like ARIJ, publishes its stories in both English and Arabic, making its work accessible to a global audience. Elsewhere in the Arab world, a number of gutsy, independent, bilingual news sites are pushing the boundaries, including AmmanNet, an Internet-based radio station in Jordan;

7iber, an online magazine, also in Jordan, that has been banned 4 times; and

inkyfada, a Tunisian webzine that publishes in both Arabic and French.
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Attalah, 32, began journalism in the twilight of the Mubarak era, when journalists were breaching the limits of press censorship. She was chief editor at the Egyptian Independent, the feisty English-language weekly that, together with its mother paper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, chronicled the first stirrings of discontent that culminated in the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011. Attalah exemplified the new generation of Arab journalists who refused to be muzzled by the authorities. But her paper was shuttered in 2013, in part because of political differences between the English-language paper’s young, progressive staff and its owners.

Today, Attalah presides over a young staff of 30 and runs the operation much like a journalist’s cooperative. Funded by Western donors and by events and other revenue-generating activities, the site’s core audience is young people in their 20s and 30s, mostly bilingual, middle-class students and young professionals, many of whom took part in the protests that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

Egypt’s tumultuous experiment with democracy came to a close two-and-a-half years after Mubarak’s fall, when the military removed the Islamist government of President Mohamed Morsi from power. The military is firmly back in the saddle in Egypt, jailing and killing dissidents and clamping down on free speech. The popular energies mobilized in 2011 have since dissipated, leaving the young people who took part in the uprising divided and dispirited.

“There haven’t been any channels for them to be politically engaged,” says Attalah. “In general, there is a withdrawal from politics and political activity, mainly because there hasn’t been an inclusive conversation that could engage them. Protesting has become extremely costly, with many of our friends now in jail. There hasn’t been a thirst for protesting the closure of the political space. In my own circle, people have left the country or are struggling with depression. It’s been hard.”

Violence, extremism, and war take up the space once occupied by peaceful movements for democratic change. Media platforms that once carried thoughtful arguments are now dominated by demagogues and charlatans.”

Attalah sees it as Mada Masr’s role to “activate the conversation, to reopen the political space, and engage the public in conversation.” She feels that investigative reporting is a catalyst for such conversations “by pointing to things that we can provide evidence about, in a compelling narrative that renders the conversation more urgent.” Corruption stories, she finds, get a lot of traction.

“When we publish something that has documentation, that gives you a sense of the industry of corruption, how it works, how it happens, how it’s done, it gives an urgency. Investigations add a measure of urgency to the political conversation.”

Last November, Mada Masr journalist Hossam Bahgat was detained for three days and charged with disseminating false information after he reported on a secret military trial in which 26 officers were convicted of allegedly plotting a coup. Last month, a Cairo court froze Bahgat’s assets and banned him from traveling overseas as part of a 2011 investigation into NGOs receiving foreign funding.

More and more, it looks like Mada Masr is skating on thin ice. Two years ago, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued an amendment to the penal code that imposes a life term on individuals receiving funds from a foreign country or group with the aim of destabilizing the government.

In February, the head of a local media foundation was charged with “international bribery” for doing research for foreign organizations without a security permit. Investigative reporting could well be penalized under this new provision, lawyers say.

“If we’re not locked up, if we manage to muster the strength to fight our own exhaustion with all the restrictions surrounding us,” says Attalah. “I’d like Mada Masr to grow, to become a go-to site for investigations and to build a media culture where the public expects this kind of content, and to start believing that bad content or pliant content is actually an insult to them.”

The history of Arab media is one of subservience. Since the consolidation of authoritarian rule in the 1950s, newspapers and broadcast networks have been mouthpieces of ruling elites and drumbeaters for autocratic states.

But starting in the late 1990s, satellite television and later the internet and social media opened up new spaces for public discourse. Throughout the Arab world, journalists and citizens began exploring these spaces and were soon using the new platforms to demand that their voices be heard. Unlike their elders, the generation that had come to adulthood in this new information landscape was not afraid to confront the region’s feckless regimes.

In the past, muckraking flowered in periods marked by demographic change, profound alienation from authority, and technological shifts in the media. The surges in muckraking energies in the early 1900s and in the 1960s and ’70s in the US are partly attributable to these conditions.

Similar disruptions were taking place in the Arab media at the turn of the last century, providing fertile ground for muckraking. Al Jazeera was among those that took the lead, with the Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda launching the investigative program Sirri lil-Ghaya (Top Secret) in 1998. At the same time, a new generation of journalists was digging into taboo issues like corruption, human rights abuses, and workers’ rights within the bounds of what was possible under the tight rein of Arab autocrats.

Even in Syria, change seemed possible. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad, a 35-year-old London-trained ophthalmologist, succeeded his father as president and promised to open his country to the world. He loosened the muzzle on the press and relaxed the state’s hold on the economy. Emboldened by the reforms, liberal-minded Syrians set up “dialogue clubs” to talk openly about political issues. Independent magazines were published, including one that featured political satire. The information minister encouraged the new openness, as did the internal affairs minister, who complained that state-run publications were unreadable.
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Hamoud Almahmoud, a freshly minted journalism graduate from the University of Damascus, joined the staff of Tishreen, the state owned newspaper, the year Bashar al-Assad became president. A native of Raqqa and the first in his family of farmers to graduate from college, Almahmoud knew that his prospects in the state-owned paper were not exactly bright.

When he first came to Damascus to work, he quickly saw that “you might be stupid, you might be lazy, but you can be successful if you have connections, if you have relatives who were powerful people, like generals in the military and the security service,” he says. “Even if you are good, you will not be promoted because the power of those with connections will be stronger than yours. But when private media was opened, I had the opportunity to be in a new magazine and to be editor in chief.”

In 2005, Almahmoud joined Aliqtisadi (The Economist) magazine, one of the new privately owned publications that were allowed to open during what is now known as the Damascus Spring. The same year, a delegation of Danish journalists met with leading Arab journalists, offering to support media projects in the region. Soon afterward, ARIJ was formed with funding from the Danish government. It brought Danish and other European trainers to teach and provided funding and coaches for investigative projects in several countries.

In Syria, ARIJ had a formal agreement with the government: It was allowed to fund projects as long as US money was not involved, the information ministry knew in advance the names of the journalists and their coaches, and ARIJ disclosed the cost and descriptions of the projects. “We had a big debate in the ARIJ board,” recalls Sabbagh, who drove from Amman to Damascus every few months to oversee the projects. “Should we lock horns with the authorities and do tough investigations or should we build up gradually by making sure that the journalists who work with us get the skills of investigative reporting?”

ARIJ’s compromise allowed journalists to practice investigative techniques, but it meant that they had to stick to the rules and report only on sanctioned topics such as consumer issues, environmental problems, public health, education, and the miscarriage of justice.

“I don’t know why the Syrian government allowed it,” says Kuttab, who was then ARIJ deputy chair. “I assume they wanted to improve their relations with the Western world like Denmark and Sweden, which didn’t pose any real danger to them, and they were convinced this wasn’t a plot against the regime. They also needed to break out of the straitjacket they were in but didn’t know how to do it. They were willing to allow us that narrow but important space that we needed.”

What’s astonishing about this story is not that Arab dictators are going offshore to hide their wealth and evade sanctions. It’s that a community of Arab journalists is continuing to do investigative reporting in a region where there is increasingly little tolerance for accountability of any kind.

Almahmoud was among the first to get an ARIJ grant. “It was literally a turning point in my life,” he says. “I realized that I needed to document my stories, to verify everything, to look for proof for everything, to leave my feelings out and be objective in writing and collecting information. I realized that if I did all that, I could do more sensitive stories. I received fewer threats and fewer bad reactions from powerful people because they saw solid evidence in front of them.”

In Syria, ARIJ-funded journalists worked on stories about issues like air pollution, land confiscations, and medical waste. As the country descended into civil war, however, reporting became more hazardous. Almahmoud’s magazine ceased printing because the fighting made it difficult to distribute copies, although it continued to publish online.

In 2012, as fighting raged in the capital, Almahmoud was asked by the University of Damascus to teach a two-week investigative reporting course. “The university was very close to the frontlines of the fighting between the regime and the rebels,” he recalls. “I was teaching despite all the shelling. Students were really happy to attend the course. For them, it was the first case of a teacher who came from the field. I told them about the latest trends while their professors were teaching from old books.”
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Almahmoud remained in Damascus until 2014, when he moved to Amman to take charge of ARIJ’s research desk. With the help of technologists, he is putting together a database of corporate records, court cases, and government tenders from 18 Arab countries. ARIJ has scraped and preserved data from government sites that have since been been erased, although some of these are still on the Wayback Machine, the internet archive. It hopes soon to unveil what may be the most comprehensive, searchable database of public records in the Arab world.

In March, Almahmoud and seven European and Arab journalists published an investigation into the ownership of cargo ships that have been found to be smuggling migrants to Europe. Cross-border collaborations are one way ARIJ hopes to sustain investigative reporting under the current, inhospitable conditions.

Many who ARIJ has trained in Syria, however, have fled; a few have been killed or disappeared. ARIJ-trained journalists are fleeing Yemen as well. Those who remain in these two countries continue to work, increasingly writing under pseudonyms to protect their identities. In the past year, ARIJ-funded reporters in Syria have written about the curriculum of ISIS schools and the booming kidnap-for-ransom business run by both the army and the rebels.

A recent report, published under a pseudonym, exposed the secret holdings of Assad’s maternal uncle, using records obtained by Le Monde and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists from a former HSBC employee.

“We are thinking about how we survive, how to keep our reporters working without harming them or exposing them to risks,” says Almahmoud. “I am afraid we are back to square one. We are under pressure. We see the window of hope is narrowing but we are surviving and we are still doing stories.”

In 2012, not long after the Arab uprisings, Hamdy at the American University of Cairo surveyed over 200 Arab journalists, 60 percent of whom said they had worked on an investigative project in the previous 10 years. A good number believed their work brought issues to public attention or resulted in policy reforms.

This is quite impressive considering the restrictions on Arab media, although as Hamdy says, Arab journalists define investigative reporting more broadly to include what in the US would be called enterprise reporting, where journalists probe issues that are not widely reported even if they do not necessarily reveal something secret or previously unknown.

Since that survey, however, watchdog reporting has been put on a much tighter leash as Arab regimes either disintegrated into civil war or tightened their grasp on power. Looking back, it now seems that the early years of this century, up to about 2012, were a Golden Age for Arab investigative reporting. Those years saw, in the words of Seba Bebawi, an Australian academic and author of a recent book on Arab investigative journalism, “the rise of a tradition of systematic investigative reporting.”
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Writing about China in 2009, UK academics Jingrong Tong and Colin Sparks remarked on the continued vigor of investigating reporting there despite state censorship and advertising pressures on media proprietors. In China, investigative reporting emerged in the 1980s with the opening up of the economy, the removal of subsidies for state-owned media, and the social disruptions that accompanied rapid urbanization and soaring economic growth.

Twenty-five years later, Tong and Sparks interviewed over 70 journalists and found that they had evolved a repertoire of tactics to evade controls, including criticizing the system or a group instead of putting the blame on powerful individuals. What sustained the muckraking impulse in China, they said, was the institutionalization of investigative practices in news organizations and the emergence of a professional ideology among journalists. “There is an evolution towards a self-conception of journalism as being some kind of public service. Journalists see themselves less and less as dependent upon political power and more as a distinct occupational grouping with a distinct function.”

It’s hard to say how Arab investigative reporting will look in 2030. It’s unlikely that the vise-like grip on Arab media will loosen any time soon. The Islamist armed groups that roam the region continue to intimidate and murder recalcitrant journalists. Much of the accountability reporting is funded by foreign money and may not be sustainable in the long run.

Still, Arab journalists are finding new ways to wedge open closing spaces. The prestige of investigative reporting continues to be high among journalists, if not among the public. The self-conception of journalists as nonpartisan watchdogs continues to be upheld by a struggling community of Arab investigative reporters and editors.

“Arab journalists feel that they should be agents of social change, so by performing this type of journalism, they feel they are part of, or working toward, change,” says Hamdy. Despite the narrowing spaces, she says, “there’s a feeling that good journalism has been possible and will be possible in the future.”

Sheila S. Coronel is Dean of Academic Affairs at the Columbia Journalism School and director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.




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