Whether it's about Syrian refugees, Syria or Iraq, the truth is sometimes better left unsaid. It all depends on the country in which it is said. One thing is certain: In these troubled times, censorship and self-censorship are thriving.
Expressing outrage at someone else's behavior is a classic way of letting oneself off the hook. A few weeks ago, when migrants were sent back to Turkey from Greek islands for the first time, I got a call from a news outlet based in a Gulf country. The young journalist on the phone spoke perfect French (she was Moroccan) and hoped to get the immediate impressions of a European on the subject.
"Is Europe not compromising its principles by acting this way in regards to refugees?" she asked me. I had just seen the latest news. Most of the deportations were of men from Pakistan and Bangladesh who didn't meet the definition of refugees; on the contrary, they were economic migrants.
After highlighting this nuance, I also made an ironic remark. Was a Gulf country really giving morality lessons to Europeans on this issue? How many refugees had they welcomed on their territory?
The journalist became nervous. To reassure her, I told her that for the remainder of our interview, I would refrain from making any unkind remarks on the political openness of Gulf countries toward refugees.
She seemed reassured. But five minutes later, she called me back. In the end, her television network wouldn't use my comments, because they were "non-compliant with the editorial policy" it wished to adopt. My nuanced remarks were over the top. They wanted "European outrage, clear and simple."
It is unusual to encounter such ingenuousness and honesty, especially from a news outlet broadcasting from a non-democratic country. But is there such a fundamental difference on this issue between democratic systems and authoritarian regimes? I've already faced this "editorial policy" diktat in perfectly democratic countries, including mine, France. In 2003, after the start of the war in Iraq — which I initially supported, having been (wrongly) convinced that Saddam Hussein's regime was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, but which I later opposed — I was contacted by one of the largest American newspapers.
The editors were hoping to get the off-the-cuff thoughts of a Frenchman who "had shown understanding for George W. Bush's politics," for their weekend supplement. I made sure to clarify that my position had evolved since the taking of Baghdad, but they didn't seem to give my warning much notice.
I wrote the requested article within the deadline. A profound silence ensued. Troubled, I took the liberty of calling the editors, who reacted with evident discomfort. Suddenly, my contribution wasn't so urgent; they no longer knew if and when it would be published. The piece was no longer appropriate for the slot it had been chosen for.
After spending all night writing to meet their deadline, I refused to let the matter drop. I told them this "incident" would be the perfect topic for a column, for my regular opinion piece in The Financial Times. It wasn't necessary to go any further: the editors backtracked. Of course, it was all a misunderstanding, my piece would be published as planned in the weekend supplement.
Ultimately, to get a piece that contradicted the newspaper's editorial policy published, I had to resort to a form of democratic blackmail: "You can censor me, but do you really want me to expose your behavior in a newspaper that is read worldwide and enjoys exceptional prestige?"
More recently in France, I faced the editorial policy issue with a major regional newspaper, one for which I have the utmost respect and whose values and choices I generally share.
This time, the sensitive topic was the war in Syria. Should we support the rebels and go as far as providing weapons to the most moderate of them? I thought so, but this was obviously not the editorial policy of the newspaper. Here again, I had to fight hard to get my opinion published. In a compromise with the editors, we determined it would be made explicitly clear that the opinion was strictly my own and did not reflect the views of the newsroom.
It's perfectly legitimate for a newspaper, or more generally any kind of media, to have editorial policies that translate into a specific view on a given topic. The problem is knowing how far to take this logic. The desire for consistency and the goal of presenting the theories we espouse in the most convincing way because we believe in them, are one thing. But there are also other important considerations, such as offering diverse points of view, or regional points of view, that are just as firmly held. It's good to know what other people think, whether they live close by or far away.
And at this level there are, or at least there should be, clear differences between democratic and non-democratic societies. The episode with the Gulf media outlet, if somewhat comical despite the tragic nature of the topic at hand, had something refreshing about it, mostly because of the journalist's absolute naivety.
But it was also indicative of an interesting evolution in the relations between Europe and the Gulf countries, which are currently feeling defensive and are all too glad to denounce any flaws they can find in the behavior of European countries.
This is precisely why it's important not to confuse editorial policy with censorship and self-censorship. At the end of the day, that's where a major structural difference between democratic societies and authoritarian regimes still lies.
*Dominique Moïsi is a French political scientist and a senior advisor of the French Institute of International Relations.