BBC’s cruel excuses for ignoring Palestinian hunger strikes

10 January 2013

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The BBC didn’t find newsworthy the mass protests in solidarity with hunger striking Palestinian prisoners.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

For almost 170 days, Samer Issawi, held without trial, has been refusing food in an Israeli jail. Aged just 33, he is now skeletal and his family says his life is on the line.

His fellow prisoner, Ayman Sharawna, is also refusing food. Like Issawi, he is being held by Israel under administrative detention, a system which ignores all due process and interns civilians without charge, trial or sentencing for an indefinite period of time.

Both Issawi and Sharawna are protesting against their arbitrary imprisonment and the brutal conditions under which they, and other prisoners, are held.

Their protest, a peaceful weapon of resistance against Israel’s occupation of their land, has been ignored by the largest state-funded global broadcaster in the world, the BBC.

This is despite the fact that it is not an isolated act of resistance, but part of a mass nonviolent uprising in the form of hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners that began in September 2011 and was further fueled in December that year by Khader Adnan’s refusal to take food.

Inspired by Adnan, other prisoners, both male and female, began hunger strikes. Then, on a single day in 2012 — Palestinian Prisoners’ Day — 1,200 Palestinians held in Israel’s jails began an open-ended hunger strike, a figure which quickly grew to an estimated 2,000.

The men and women refusing food included Palestinian members of parliament, imprisoned by Israel as part of its attempts to crush Palestinian civil society. Mahmoud Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national football team, jailed, like so many others, without having been charged or tried for any crime, also joined the hunger strikers.

True to form

The BBC, true to form, shunned this extraordinary mass revolt by the Palestinians against the Israeli regime which rules them without their consent.

During the weeks of television and radio silence with which the BBC greeted the simultaneous hunger strike of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) wrote to the BBC’s Director of News, Helen Boaden.

In its letter, PSC pointed out: “In the same period, the BBC has given prominent coverage to the hunger strike of Ukrainian politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, but has ignored the Palestinian MPs [members of parliament] imprisoned by Israel who are on hunger strike. There has also been extensive coverage of Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, but no coverage given to the 2,000 Palestinians who are expressing their opposition to an imposed regime by refusing food.”

More than 5,000 PSC members and activists sent email messages to BBC editors asking for the ordeal of the hunger strikers — some of whom, such as Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, were bleeding from their eyes and gums and vomiting blood — to be covered. A protest demanding the BBC end its silence was held outside the corporation’s headquarters in central London.

Four weeks after the mass hunger strike began, BBC Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly produced a short report which was aired on television’s News at Ten and News 24, and on a 6pm BBC Radio 4 news bulletin, all on the same day (“Palestinians rally for hunger strikers,” 11 May 2012).

This proved to be the full extent of the BBC’s mainstream broadcast coverage of hunger strikes by 2,000 political prisoners which, if they had taken place in, say, Iran, China or Syria, would hardly have been ignored in the same way.

Bias by omission

On 29 June, Boaden replied to PSC to say she was satisfied with the scale of the coverage and did not agree with PSC’s assertion that the BBC’s failure to give due weight to the mass hunger strike was bias by omission.

Boaden then proceeded to lay out the stringent criteria which the BBC feels Palestinian hunger strikers have to meet in order to be granted coverage on its taxpayer-funded airwaves.

She wrote: “[Hunger strikes] tend to be reported when the hunger strikers are on the point of death or in a grave state of medical crisis; when the hunger strike presents a critical political challenge to the imprisoning authority; and when the strikes inside prison provoke widespread hunger strikes on the outside. Furthermore, there are gradations of hunger strike which influence outcomes.”

According to Boaden’s sliding scale of hunger strikes, the Palestinians’ mass protest ranked as a “managed” hunger strike, because some of the prisoners had taken salts intravenously.

She added: “One of the most important factors in determining the level of coverage was the failure of the hunger strikes to capture the imagination of the Palestinian public. While the Palestinians did not consider the partial hunger strikes or managed hunger strikes important enough to take to the streets in any great numbers, BBC News did not give the campaign prominence.”

Boaden’s reply was extraordinary. She revealed that it is not enough for the BBC that a Palestinian, jailed without due process, denies themselves food for weeks or months, risking death, blindness or permanent organ damage, in order to protest against the denial of their human rights, but unless that hunger strike provokes others, it is not newsworthy.

And if that hunger strike does provoke others, as Khader Adnan’s did, triggering a mass hunger strike of more than 2,000 prisoners, then the BBC demands that Palestinians outside the prisons must also go on hunger strike.

The elderly parents and sister of hunger striker Hana al-Shalabi and the mothers of Thaer Halahleh and Hassan Safadi all started hunger strikes, with Safadi’s mother being hospitalized, as did 50 former prisoners and supporters in Gaza. But this is still not enough for the BBC. There must additionally be people protesting in the streets in “great numbers.”

When this happens, with daily demonstrations outside Ofer prison for a part of 2012 and demonstrations across towns and villages in the West Bank that were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon by Israeli forces, when there is a constant flow of visitors to solidarity tents (including that of Samer Issawi’s family, which was recently torn down by Israeli soldiers), the BBC demands still more from the Palestinians before it can deem them worthy of space on its airwaves.

Inhumane criteria

The criteria set out by Boaden has been met many times over in the last 13 months, including the “point of death” she demands of the hunger strikers. Issawi’s health is failing and he suffered further injury after he was savagely beaten by seven Israeli soldiers at the end of December while he was shackled to his wheelchair. He has lost more than half his body weight, his family says, but still does not warrant a mention on the BBC.

Compare this to Yulia Tymoshenko or Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the Bahraini dissident, both of whom received extensive coverage on the BBC when they went on hunger strike last year, despite not meeting the strict and almost inhumane criteria set out by Boaden for their Palestinian counterparts.

Boaden’s other self-imposed demands were also met, including her insistence that the hunger strikes should present a “critical political challenge to the imprisoning authority.”

During the course of the mass hunger strike, Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, called on Israel to “take all necessary measures to prevent a tragic outcome that could have serious implications for stability and security conditions on the ground” (“Tony Blair urges Israel to keep hunger strikers alive,” The Independent, 14 May 2012).

In the aforementioned article in The Independent, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, described the state of affairs as “very dangerous,” adding: “If anyone dies … it would be a disaster and no one could control the situation.”

Members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, also recognized what was at stake. Jamal Zahalka, a Knesset member, said: “If one of the striking prisoners dies, a third intifada will break out” (“Israel warned of volatile situation as Palestinian hunger strikers near death,” Guardian, 13 May 2012).

The circumstances were serious enough for Abbas to appeal to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene. But the prospect of a third intifada does not seem to be enough of a “critical political challenge” for the BBC to end its blackout of a momentous, coordinated uprising against an unwanted, authoritarian regime.

One can only assume that this is because that unwanted regime is the Israeli regime, and the BBC has so often shown that it is unwilling to portray Israel in a negative light.

False assertions

Even in Kevin Connolly’s short report of 11 May — the only coverage given by the BBC in 13 months of the prisoners’ protests — no Palestinians were interviewed to explain the reasons for the hunger strikes. However, Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesperson, was brought on to give an Israeli perspective.

He used the opportunity to compare the hunger strikers to “suicide bombers” and falsely asserted that their protest was for an “Islamist cause.” None of this was challenged by a compliant Connolly who ended his report by dismissing the Palestinians’ overtly political cry for help as a “health crisis” in Israel’s jails.

And that is the sole coverage the BBC’s extensive news and radio network has given to the hunger strikers from Khader Adnan’s refusal to take food in December 2011 to the present day.

By consistently ignoring the Palestinian campaign of hunger strikes while giving prominent coverage to hunger strikers in other countries, by making up arbitrary criteria that only the Palestinians have to meet in order to be considered newsworthy by BBC journalists, and by then continuing to shun those hunger strikers even when the harsh criteria has been met, the BBC has shown, yet again, its bias against the Palestinians.

For a broadcaster which has conditions of impartiality written into its royal charter, that is nothing short of a disgrace.

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.

Comments

You are incorrect when you say that the BBC is state funded, the BBC is funded by the TV License, it has to be paid by everyone who ones a TV and i'm not paying it at the moment out of protest of what th BBC is doing, it is a criminal offence to have a TV or equipment which let's me recieve TV prgrammes.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T...

Seems surprising that the bbc radio 4 / world service finds time to present regular storied around the jewish history such as anniversary of the Kinder transport anniversary or yet anther story around the holocaust but fails to tell us stories happening now such as the Palestinian hunger strikes. The holocaust was a dreadful episode of history but there have been many since. Stories that clearly presented to evoke a sympathetic view of Israel and therefore silence any critical of Israel today. The Palestinians are having their own holocaust right NOW....Its called the Nakba. But coverage is zero... Funny that isn't it?

Whilst the BBC is not officially the "state broadcaster" in the communist sense, it is usually referred to - even by itself - as that. It's worse than being taxpayer funded, because you can go to jail for not paying the licence even if you do NOT watch TV, or watch all other stations, even those you pay extra for. Taxation is based on earnings, not the ability to earn, as the BBC fees are payable on the ability (ie having a receiver in the premises). The UK must be the only nation on earth where the state can jail you for not paying to watch TV (even if you don't) and there are many people in UK jails for that reason. A state broadcaster in reality, if not officially. And totally biased towards Israel and against Palestinians, as evidenced by hundreds of cases of "bleeping", lying,
slanting and favouring. The Israeli official spokesman is on the BBC more often than many of its senior staff, but no more than three or four Palestinian spokesmen have been on over the last two years, and they are bullied and shouted down.

Your comments are totally inaccurate. The licence fee system is based on having a working system of relaying LIVE televisual transmissions and USING it for that purpose. That is the sole criteria for having to pay the licence which is actually VERY cheap for what the BBC produces and means it is MORE independent from the state than ANY other public broadcaster in the world.
People who knowingly evade the licence fee while actually watching TV are FINED. It is very rare to go to prison for it so no need to exaggerate.
Despite its real faults (especially on this issue of Israel) it's stil the best in the world.

Best Documentaries and natural history programmes anywhere, if you don't count anything pro Zionist or anti Palestinian or even worse not saying anything about the subject at all, which is like saying there's no problem, the three monkeys, hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, come to mind, utterly cowardly by the BBC!!!

Sorry, it may seem irrelevant, but British TV is not the best in the world and has sadly deteriorated to the point where I no longer watch it. German TV is much better, particularly 3sat and arte, which is a collaboration between France and Germany - a bit like Channel 4 before it went downhill.
More importantly, Ms. Boaden's reasoning is absolutely sickening and unacceptable on every level. She should be kicked out of her job. There is a two-tier state of being in Britain and it has a lot to do with tight social circles (how many people know or socialize with a Palestinian?) and the incessant lobbying - if you don't inform yourself about the facts on the ground you are a perfect victim for the Israel lobby's version of anything.

i will no longer watch the BBC!

That's a rather immature comment. Complain to them but (in the UK) watch WHAT instead? Murdoch's Sky News? LOL

The tax payer is forced to pay a licence fee to the BBC in order to have and watch television. I am often disgusted by the obvious bias against Palestine and the support for Israel. The pressure by Israel on governments and companies around the world to allow then to treat the Palestinians the way they do is very alarming. The BBC should give the British people free and unbiased reporting, especially considering we have no option re funding them. They used to be a most respected organisation, it is now reduced to a less reliable source of information and I find it offensive to watch their biased news chanel.

Only right-wing people oppose the Licence Fee for TV in the UK. It's the most progressive funding system for public broadcasting in the WORLD. It is the ENVY of the world.
Of course the BBC have a very poor recent track record on the Israel Palestine conflict - but I would like you to use your mind for a moment, exercise it, and tell me WHAT western broadcaster or any western media outlet print, online or any other (or virtually ANY mainstream politician) that hasn't given the Israeli state view a far greater amount of coverage than that of the Palestinians.
If you use it as a means of threatening the existence of the BBC then you are simply a FOOL - which is no help to Palestinians. Ultra-leftist nonsense.

Diana I totally agree with you, the BBC used to be, in my opinion, pretty unbiased on most subjects, but has recently taken a far more pro-Israeli stance, I remember Jeremy Bowen being removed from Palestinian reporting after the Israeli's complained of his pro-Palestinian reporting and it has gone down hill ever since, what we need from the BBC is a balanced view, giving a unbiased views from both perspectives.

The BBC has NEVER been unbiased on the IP conflict. It has ALWAYS leant heavily towards Israel. And you mistake Bowen being removed from the IP conflict when it was Orla Guerin.
If you don't even know the FACTS about internal BBC machinations around the IP conflict then you should avoid comment.

He became the BBC's first Middle East Editor when the position was created in June 2005 after the 2004 Balen Report on the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to provide a broader perspective on wider Middle East issues and to add context to the reporting of events on the ground.

On 11 May 2008, Bowen and his camera operator again came under fire in Mount Lebanon. Nobody was injured and the incident was caught on camera.

In April 2009, the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust published a report into three complaints, including one by CAMERA, brought against two news items involving Bowen. The complaints included 24 allegations of breaching BBC guidelines on accuracy and impartiality of which three were fully or partially upheld. The BBC Trust's censure was based on articles about Har Homa in the 1960s, how the Six-Day War affected the Middle East, and an article on the aftermath of the aforementioned war Jeremy Bowen has voiced opposition to the censure, calling it a result of a "campaign group" who he called "the enemies of impartiality". Although there was no finding of anti-Israel bias against Bowen, Antony Lerman writing in The Guardian said that he should have used clearer language and been more precise in some aspects of the piece. Also, on a claim that was found to be lacking in accuracy because it was not properly sourced, the committee accepted that Bowen had been provided with the information by an authoritative source. A website article was amended and Bowen did not face any disciplinary measures

What do you define as bias?

I find a lot of the back and forth about whether the BBC used to be "the best in the world" or whether its license fee is the most progressive terribly subjective. Neither here nor there if you ask me. But there is no doubt that there used to be much more room for an anti-imperial and left-wing point of view. Let's not forget that people like Tariq Ali worked part-time at the Beeb as a producer for some very excellent documentaries, and people like Edward Said were consulted fairly regularly too. Quite a few left-wing playwrights (and this a bit off topic) like Howard Brenton, Derek Jarman and the like were hired frequently for the BBC's cultural programs. That's not to say that there hasn't always been a push to silence points of view that are "too radical" or what have you. I bring this up because the hard push to the right started under Thatcher, and this is being discussed more now since the revelations of Jimmy Savile's sick little dalliances. There were clearly some people who participated in covering them up -- an the questions now are just how far the rabbit hole goes.

On that note, and back more to the issue at hand, does anyone recall what the nature of the coverage was for the Irish hunger strikers in H-Block back in the early '80s? Obviously, Thatcher herself was content on letting Bobby Sands and company starve to death, but how did the BBC cover it, if at all? Seems to me that this might be a fair comparison and something of an accurate bellwether for how far the Beeb has drifted over the decades.

I have refused to pay the mandatory license fee for months now as I refuse to fund a biased, pro Israel company. Same as I refuse to buy ANY product that comes out of Israel. It is the only way to make anyone listen. I have been called anti-Semitic, a holocaust supporter and many other unfair things but I intend to stick to my ideals. This world has no place in it for apartheid! We stopped it in South Africa and we will stop it in Israel. I do not believe that Israel should be wiped out, it has a right to exist but so does Palestine. If Israel continues to build its illegal settlements the two state solution will be impossible. Netanyahu argues that the peace process is stalled due to Hamas but this is an excuse. Settlements continue to be built and more and more land is being stolen from Palestine eg. Bab Al-Shams or E1 as Israel calls it! Its confiscated Palestinian land yet when Palestinians try to build on it over 500 Israeli soldiers drag them off and beat them! Didn't see that on the BBC did we? Israel is not interested in peace so whats the answer? Boycott everything that has to do with Israel! Its the only language they understand!