BBC challenged for ignoring plight of Palestinian prisoners

25 April 2012

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Palestinian political prisoners are on mass hunger strike but you’d never know it from watching the BBC.

(Mohammed Asad / APA images)

“I had no idea. How could I not have known?”

I heard those words on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day (17 April) from a teacher, shocked at discovering how Israel abducts, abuses and imprisons Palestinian children — some as young as 12 — in the West Bank because they may or may not have thrown stones at Israel’s wall.

She had tagged along with a friend to a talk given in London by Gerard Horton of Defence for Children International–Palestine Section, and until that moment had been unaware of the brutalities of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Horton’s lecture focused on a new DCI-Palestine report which documents the various traumas Palestinian children regularly face during Israeli military detention (“Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted: Children held in military detention,” 14 April 2012).

The answer to her question is fairly simple: this woman — a member of the educated, professional middle-classes — did not know because she relies on the mainstream media, led by the BBC, for her news. And that media’s silence on the realities of Israel’s occupation is deafening.

Last week, 1,200 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails began an open-ended hunger strike in protest at the illegalities and injustices of their incarceration. Another 2,300 refused food for the duration of Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. Their action came just weeks after Khader Adnan ended his 66-day hunger strike and Hana al-Shalabi was released (though banished to Gaza) after refusing food for 43 days, both protesting at Israel’s use of administrative detention against them.

Several other prisoners remain on long-standing hunger strikes, including 27-year-old Bilal Diab and 34-year-old Thaer Halahleh, now into their second month without food.

Extraordinary feat of resistance

If this extraordinary, mass feat of unarmed resistance, where more than a thousand men and women are willing to starve themselves to death in the struggle for liberation from an oppressive regime, was taking place in China or Iran — or any other country not behaving in the interests of the West — it would be receiving constant coverage in newspapers and on television. We would be presented with analysis, comment, talking heads, and we would know.

But these brave men and women are Palestinian, and the oppressive regime is Israel, and so the media’s curtain of self-censorship has been drawn.

Furious at this lack of coverage, Scottish activists from the We Are All Hana Shalabi Network occupied BBC Scotland headquarters on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day demanding reasons for the blackout (“Report on Glasgow’s BBC occupation and ‘Karamah hunger strike’ march,” We Are All Hana Shalabi Network, 18 April 2012).

They were eventually met by Ian Small, a senior BBC official, who told them that the BBC aimed its coverage towards a certain demographic.

“He said that demographic was white-collar and aged over 50,” said Liam O’Hare, an organizer of the protest. “The idea that the BBC aims its coverage towards a certain section of society, when it’s paid for by all licence-fee payers, is a disgrace.”

Occupying the main lobby of the BBC building, the protestors flew Palestinian flags and shouted: “BBC shame on you, put the prisoners on the news.” Later that day, around 300 demonstrators marched from Glasgow’s George Square to the building.

“The BBC is complicit in the occupation through its silence,” said O’Hare. “When you see the magnitude of what Palestinian prisoners are prepared to do to challenge Israel’s apartheid, and then look at the media’s blackout of that, you realize its inherent bias.”

And it’s not just the mass hunger strikes that are kept from us — the mainstream media’s blackout also extends to the weekly peaceful protests by unarmed Palestinians and internationals in villages across the West Bank, protests which demand Israel ends its theft of Palestinian land and which are invariably met with tear gas, skunk water and rubber bullets by the Israeli military.

Conversely, every time a rocket is fired from the besieged Gaza Strip into southern Israel, the BBC is quick to report, freely adopting Israeli-favored terminology such as “terrorists” and “militants” to describe the Palestinians. Their peaceful, unarmed resistance against their illegal occupation is not, it would seem, newsworthy.

Violence makes news?

When the Palestine Solidarity Campaign asked BBC news bosses for the reasoning behind this selective coverage, the answer was “violence makes news.” We pointed out that there is plenty of violence at the weekly protests in the West Bank — it comes from the Israeli forces and results in frequent injuries and sometimes death. In fact, we said, violence by Israel’s military, navy and air force and by Israeli settlers in the West Bank is an everyday feature of life for Palestinians — if violence does, in fact, make news, there’s no shortage of it for the BBC in occupied Palestine.

The BBC could fill its news bulletins every evening with stories and footage of Israel’s violence against the Palestinians — the shelling and bombing of crowded civilian districts by the military in Gaza, the burning of Palestinian olive groves and torching of mosques in the West Bank by settlers, the house demolitions, with families forced out at gunpoint, in East Jerusalem.

But it chooses not to, and the rest of the mainstream media remains similarly silent. Silent, and in denying its audience knowledge of the horrors of the Israeli occupation and the Palestinians’ incredible resistance to it, shamefully complicit.

Amena Saleem is active with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and keeps a close eye on the media’s coverage of Palestine as part of her brief. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza for PSC. More information on PSC is available at www.palestinecampaign.org.