Arjan El Fassed: ‘If you cannot influence the media, become the media’

Arjan El Fassed

Internet journalist Arjan El Fassed is a child of two cultures. He calls himself “a mix of the Netherlands and Palestine, the West and the East.” He prefers to answer the question, whether he feels more Dutch than Palestinian, with a metaphor. One difficult question for El Fassed is undoubtedly whether there will ever be peace between Israel and Palestinians. “I am not without hope”, he says, “when there are wars, there are always persons struggling for peace. When there is oppression, there are always persons resisting oppression. If you take notice of those forces and understand that resistance dismantled apartheid in South Africa - and peace movements have stopped wars - you cannot be but hopeful.”

El Fassed sees for himself also a task: to challenge prejudice against Palestinians and media bias. Through the Electronic Intifada (a site which he co-founded with several others in February 2001) he hopes to challenge distorted coverage. “If you cannot influence the media, you have to become the media”, says El Fassed. He says that more and more journalists and correspondents have found the way to their site.

How would you describe a normal day of work of somebody who is active on the Internet?

“My daily work is at LAW, a human rights organisation. I have set up a unit which combines lobby and media. I organise press conferences, provide correspondents with information and raise awareness. Work through the Internet is part of that. I work on Electronic Intifada besides my daily work for LAW. Although these activities do correspond with each other, they are different. I am active much longer on the Internet.”

What else did you do on the Internet?

“In 1996, I was part of Freedom, the first mailing list directly hosted in the Palestinian territories. Through this list Palestinians and others both inside Palestine and in other parts of the world set up discussions on a wide range of topics. Until 2000, I participated in and initiated a number of email activist projects. One of them was an action against Burger King, which had an open restaurant in a settlement. A similar campaign was also conducted against KAPPA/Benneton, that wanted to open a factory in a settlement. We managed to prevent that. I was also part of setting up various websites.”

You’re half Palestinian and half Dutch. Do you still have family living in the Middle East?

“In Israel I don’t have any family. I do have family living in the occupied Palestinian territories, in Nablus, Ramallah and East Jerusalem. Additionally — which is not strange for an average Palestinian family — I have family living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the United States and Holland.”

Does your family take the streets in Ramallah and East Jerusalem?

“Not in Ramallah. There my family are mostly confined to their homes, living under collective house arrest imposed by the Israeli army. My family in Nablus is not allowed to leave their home. In short periods of time, when the army temporarily lifts the curfew, they have to quickly get supplies, before the Israeli occupier starts shooting. I was in Ramallah a week ago. The last time I visited my family in Nablus was in May. Since June 21, Nablus has been completely closed from the outside world, nobody is allowed outside.”

Did you visit the occupied territories yourself? If yes, when exactly?

“From the time I was very young, I used to visit Nablus and Ramallah on family visits. During those visits I was exposed to the meaning of military occupation, discrimination and apartheid. In the summer of 1988, during the first year of the previous Intifada, I took the streets with my cousins. After completing my studies, Political Science in Leiden, I moved to Nablus and lived there between 1996 and 1998. I worked for a research institute and later for the Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights. At that time I did research on human rights violations committed by the Palestinian Authority, including torture, deaths in detention, and freedom of expression. After this, I worked two years for a Dutch development organization. I returned to the occupied territories in May 2001. Since then, I have been working for LAW, an organisation that provides legal aid to victims of human rights abuses, documents human rights violations and cooperates with Amnesty International, the United Nations and others.”

On which moments do you (still) feel Dutch?

“I feel as somebody with two backgrounds, a mix of Holland and Palestine, the West and the East. If you ask me whether I feel more Palestinian than Dutch then I’m forced to answer with a metaphor. Imagine, you have two children. You love both dearly. However, one of them is ill. Logically, you give more attention to your sick child, which, in my case, is my Palestinian background, hoping that this child is not permanently disabled. My hope is that both children would be healthy. If both are healthy I can feel myself at home.”

Who else works on the Electronic Intifada?

“Ali Abunimah, Nigel Parry and Laurie King-Irani. Abunimah is a Palestinian, living in Chicago. He is a media activist and vice-president of the Arab American Action Network. Parry is the former webmaster of Birzeit University. He lives in St. Paul, Minesota. King-Irani is former editor of The Middle East Research and Information Project.”

And contact with them takes place by e-mail?

“Most of the time by e-mail and MSN-chat. Sometimes we organise telephone conferences.”

How many visitors come to the site on busy days?

“We don’t count the number of visitors, but the number of page views. On a busy day it could reach 16.000. That means in a busy month approximately half a million.”

Recently, Electronic Intifada launched V2.0. Which sections of the site are most popular?

“The diaries, the op-eds and the so-called coverage trends. On the new site we offer various ‘wire services’, such as a human rights wire, a development wire, and activism wire, with news on these topics. Because we recently started with these feeds, we cannot say how popular these are. The number of page views and the popularity of various sections of the site depends on the political situation and current issues.”

The Electronic Intifada offers ‘satire’, mostly very anti-Israel. I remember a piece on an Egyptian popartist who had released a CD with the song ‘I hate Israel’. A good satire is when you not only deal with the ‘enemy’.

“We also have other pieces. If you read all of al-Bassaleh, the satirical online magazine, you will also find pieces on the Palestinian Authority and the Arab regimes. Al-Bassaleh, which will get a new look on our new site.”

Why are reports on Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets, described on your site, less ‘biased’ than in the mainstream media? Aren’t journalists, by definition, subjective observers?

“We don’t claim that we’re not subjective. Journalists are indeed subjective. Just like historians. It depends on which sources one uses, which books you read and with which persons you talk. Since we feel that Palestinians deserve the permission to narrate their own story, as they have experienced, the site contributes to a better picture of reality. Journalists often use our contacts - also because hardly any correspondent speaks Arabic, while most correspondents are fluent in Hebrew, and hardly enter the occupied Palestinian territories, and so don’t talk to the average Palestinian. Additionally, correpondents often only use information provided by the Israeli army, often without any critical view or verification. I saw a number of texts, which were literally copied from the IDF-website. Also, correspondents often cite Israeli (often army) radio and Israeli newspapers. We provide information, contacts, etc., as a tool for journalists.”

Why do journalists uncritically reproduce the Israeli army’s website?

“Because these journalists refuse to enter the occupied territories but still have to bring news! One correspondent who I have often noticed literally copying the IDF site is Salomon Bouman, correspondent of [the Dutch daily] NRC Handelsblad.”

Is Electronic Intifada less biased than other Palestinian news sources, such as the Palestine Chronicle or Palestine Media Watch?

“I don’t think the issue is whether one is less or more biased. It’s about the reputation one has built as being credible and factual. We obtained that reputation. We have a huge network of contacts and we offer information in a credible way. The media knows how to find us and knows we are here to offer a contribution to complete the picture of the conflict, something that has been denied to Palestinians for years, which has delayed any solution to this conflict.”

Do you think the site really influence media coverage?

“The site influences in different ways. It offers alternative news and reports which you won’t find in mainstream media. The site offers multimedia, not only text but also images, video and other support material. We feel that when you can’t influence the media, you have to become the media. That combination describes our role exactly.”

The Dutch correspondents, Wouter Kurpershoek, Connie Mus and Joop Meijers have settled themselves in Israel. Do you think their coverage is ‘better’ than than of the media that don’t have their own persons there?

“It depends. Wouter Kurpershoek [NOS, Dutch TV news] doesn’t live in Israel. He often comes for various short periods. He is a correspondent that has worked in various countries and have reported on many conflicts. He is, in my view, a professional journalist. Connie Mus, contrary to other correspondents, travels often through the occupied territories. He doesn’t have a personal bond with either Palestinians nor with Israelis. He is a Dutch correspondent. His coverage is not biased. However, Joop Meijers has a personal bond with Israel. He was affiliated with the Dutch Zionist Federation and his daughter worked for the Israeli army. In such a position, it is impossible to offer unbiased coverage. You can see that in his work.”

On your weblog you cite the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish, who wrote: “your life and your cause bound up together. (…) it’s the essence of who you are.” Can you imagine a time when you will stop struggling for the Palestinian cause?

“That is only possible, when that one child, my Palestinian background, is completely healthy. This question is not only about ending the occupation and returning the refugees, but also internal issues, such as my belief in social justice, equality, and so, the point that Palestinians can live in freedom in the land of their fathers and grandfathers, in which children can go to school, and do not have to be locked up in their homes with Israeli tanks positioned in their streets. When this conflict is solved, when Palestinians and Israelis are treated as equal human beings and apartheid is dismantled, there will be other problems. Just visit South Africa and other post-conflict areas.”

The conflict seems hopeless. A solution seems so far away. Do you still believe in a Palestinian state?

“I believe in a just solution. Despite the fact that Palestinians living inside the bounderies of Israel are daily discriminated, they live relatively peacefully next to Israelis. Israel does not recognise the existence of more than 40 Palestinian villages. Palestinian land has been confiscated, homes have been demolished. These unrecognised villages do not have access to water, electricity and other services. These Palestinians are calm. Imagine that these Palestinians, those living inside the borders of Israel, are treated as equal human beings. I believe that this also works for Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories. If you’re not oppressed, you don’t have to resist. By increasing and expanding settlements on occupied territory, repressive measures and land confiscations, Israel has made the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible. The situation for Israel is a choice between democracy and apartheid. In South Africa, we already saw that apartheid failed. I do have hope. Where there are wars, there are people who strive for peace. Where there is oppression, there are people resisting that oppression. If you pay attention to those forces and understand that through resisting oppression, apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, and understand that peace movements have stopped wars, then you cannot but be hopeful. If I pay too much attention to governments, the European Union and the American administration, and listen to the silence in which human rights are violated and double standards continue to be applied, then I can only be cynical.”

© Laurens Lammers, De Internetjournalist

Links:

  • The Electronic Intifada
  • Diaries on The Electronic Intifada
  • Homepage Arjan El Fassed
  • LAW - The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment
  • Al Bassaleh