During the period of the Cold War, North America and Europe never became war zones and the battle for ideological domination shifted to the non-European world primarily West Asia (Middle East) and Southeast Asia. This led to untold suffering for ordinary people in these areas. Whereas Southeast Asia has now settled for a relatively peaceful order, many regions of West Asia are still riven by strife and uncertainty.
Robert Fisk (12 July 1946 – 30 October 2020) was a legendary journalist and author who penned down meticulously the sufferings of millions of people reporting not from secondary sources or keeping a safe distance from the theatres of the war but from the battle front, endangering his own life. He was attacked many times, once even with the possibility of losing his life.
Fisk’s journalistic career began with covering the conflict in Northern Ireland as a London Times correspondent in 1972. His reports annoyed British authorities as it tilted towards the republicans. He earned in the process a massive following. Out of his reports he published a book The Point of No Return: The Strike which Broke the British in Ulster in 1975. In his Ph.D. thesis he explained the issues connected with Irish neutrality during the Second World War. Later on, he took up Irish citizenship.
He also had a stint in Portugal during the 1974 Carnation Revolution (April Revolution), which not only ended the authoritarian regime in Portugal but also led to the demise of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. But the most important evolution in his journalistic career was his appointment by The Times as its Middle East correspondent in 1976.
For the next forty-four years from Beirut where he witnessed fifteen years of Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), he reflected on the unfoldment of history in the region full of bloody conflicts, ethnic cleansing, wars, revolutions and uprisings. His parting of ways with The Times came in 1988, when he sent a report on the US warship Vincennes having shot down an Iranian civil airline. Fisk’s scoop was not published because by the time the report reached the newspaper editorial office the ownership of the newspaper had gone to media Mughal Robert Murdoch. He was also advised to take up more balanced reporting. Fisk switched to left-leaning British newspaper The Independent, where he spent the rest of his journalistic career (His contributions to both newspapers were re-published in The Statesman.)
As part of his journalistic requirements Fisk travelled extensively. That included Algeria, Libya, the Balkans and Turkey, strife torn homelands of Kurds and Afghanistan. What made his reporting different from other journalistic accounts was his understanding of both colonial and postcolonial history in comprehending contemporary conflicts in West Asia. He was trenchant in his criticism of the Western powers led by the USA and Israel as their policies and machinations had humiliated local people fuelling their anger.
Even when he was grievously injured after being attacked by Afghan refugees in Pakistan he wrote that this “brutality entirely the product of others, of us – of me who had armed their struggle against the Russians, and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the war for civilization” just a few miles away and then bowled their homes and ripped up their families and called them ‘collateral damage’.
In 1982, Fisk was amongst the few journalists to enter the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila where more than a thousand unarmed people were massacred by pro-Christian, Lebanese militia in the presence of Israeli armed personnel. He described this as a war crime. In 1993 in Sudan, he was the first Western journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden, whom he subsequently met twice. The title of his article was “Anti-Soviet Warrior puts his army on the road to peace”.
Laden in the first interview revealed that he was a construction engineer and an agriculturalist. But instead of taking the road of peace he became the most dreaded terrorist who successfully planned and meticulously executed the killing of 3,000 innocent people in the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. Laden praised Fisk for his neutrality. The latter tried to remain neutral but severely condemned the brutal attack and also reminded the need to highlight and investigate the motivation of the attackers.
Fisk examined in detail the Israeli-Palestinian animosity, the US led invasion of Kuwait and Iraq and the US entry into Afghanistan. He was critical of the former as he pointed out that there were no weapons of mass destruction. The US bombing of Kosovo under NATO auspices and other involvements of the USA in the Middle East were examined critically by him. Though he was critical of the USA, he was a frequent visitor and popular speaker in the USA. He analysed war but despised it as he was a proclaimed pacifist.
Regarding being neutral as a journalist, Fisk had this to say “if you watch wars the old ideas of journalism that have to be neutral and take nobody’s side is rubbish. As a journalist you have got to be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer”. His magnum opus The Great War for Civilization (2005) chronicled critically the relationship of former colonial powers with the ordinary people of Arabia. His journalistic outpouring was always controversial and divisive. Some even blamed him for self-promotion and for being biased.
The most serious controversy came up during the ongoing civil war in Syria. Fisk accompanied the Syrian army while fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian independent militias. However, though he was critical and condemned the Syrian army’s atrocities before, he exonerated President Assad in 2018 for lack of evidence of using chemical weapons in Duma. A follow up book to the Great War for civilization would be published posthumously which would cover the period of US intervention in Iraq to present times.
Fisk was winner of many journalistic awards and is widely revered in the Arabian Peninsula. He was a critic like IF Stone. His journalistic accounts were not based on official briefing as these did not fully and properly reflect the actual situation. His account of the protracted civil war in Lebanon was published as Pity the Nation, a phrase that he borrowed from Khalil Gibran (18831931). He referred to reporting that was not based on first hand accounts as ‘Hotel Journalism’. He looked to journalism as search for truth and his enduring legacy is the dedication of his entire journalistic career to search for roots of conflicts and war.
The writer is a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi