Cyber-Activists Deploy Internet Technology to Short-Circuit Middle East Media / Military / Policy Machine
‘The Revolution will not be televised’ - but it will be web-based. That, at least, is the hope of four activists who joined forces last November to create an unprecedented new web site, The Electronic Intifada.
Even before its official launch on February 23th, the site had been lauded in the Dutch morning newspaper “De Volkskrant,” and had received praise from iconoclastic columnist Alexander Cockburn, who wrote in The Nation that “Even the relatively better-informed mainstream accounts fail to convey the brutality of [Israel’s apartheid policies]. There are a number of excellent news outlets for those who want unjaundiced reporting….The Electronic Intifada…is trusted.”
The Electronic Intifada aims to enable a growing, worldwide network of human rights and media activists to challenge myth, spin, and distortion about Palestinians and Palestinian rights disseminated by Israel’s official spokespersons and allied pro-Israeli organizations in North America and Europe. Embodying the principle, stated on the site’s contact page, that “the intifada was never about individual power, but about collective power,” the four activists, Scotsman Nigel Parry, Diaspora Palestinians Ali Abunimah and Arjan El Fassed and I collaborated over the Internet on the Electronic Intifada’s development for five months before introducing the site last week with the battle cry: “You have permission to think critically!” The site’s launch announcement, widely distributed to thousands of email addresses throughout the world, generated over 200 subscribers to the Electronic Intifada’s email alert service in just 48 hours.
Other than searing but hasty images of violence, the most significant dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—historical, legal, political, and economic—are rarely covered in-depth, if at all, by the mainstream Western media. Ironically, the media has also neglected another, key dimension of the conflict: the media itself. The advent of the Internet has highlighted the media’s direct and indirect roles in reinforcing representations of and policies towards Palestinians, allowing enterprising individuals throughout the world to log-on to sites reporting direct from Palestine, thus allowing them to compare the nature and depth of indigenous coverage to that of the major international news outlets. The Internet also allows activists and media critics from all points on the globe to join efforts to challenge media representations underpinning the dynamics of the conflict.
In September 1996, Nigel Parry, then webmaster at Bir Zeit University in the occupied West Bank, helped to launch the first-ever web site reporting live from an active war zone, during the fighting that broke out over the tunnel incident in Jerusalem. That experience taught him that “the main reason that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has carried on as long as it has is simply because the Israelis have learned very well the importance of winning the war of words. Since the Internet became such a phenomenon, this has become a key new arena in which to carry on this war of words, not least […] because it overturns the tables on the traditional power structure of media.” The Electronic Intifada allows Palestinians to narrate their own experience, history, hopes and goals, direct and unmediated to an international audience accustomed to apprehending Palestinian realities only through Israeli media filters.
The four founders of The Electronic Intifada had been crossing paths and sharing ideas for several years—largely through the Internet. In Chicago, Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian graduate student and the Vice President of the Arab American Action Network, had made his mark on media monitoring in the late 1990s by single-handedly challenging the mainstream US media’s daily depiction of events in Israel-Palestine through a series of email letters that he made available to activists throughout the world on his own website, “Ali Abunimah’s Bitter Pill,” at www.abunimah.org. Abunimah’s archive of protest letters is now linked to The Electronic Intifada site.
Meanwhile, Arjan El Fassed, a Palestinian political scientist, media activist, and human rights specialist living in the Netherlands had also distinguished himself as an effective cyber-activist, spearheading boycott campaigns against Burger King and Benneton for opening franchises in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and producing a prodigious amount of Op-Eds and letters to editors of papers in Europe, the US, the UK and Canada. El Fassed is also a co-founder of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right of Return Coalition.
Having lived and worked as a researcher, editor, journalist and translator in Israel/Palestine and Lebanon between 1991 and 1997, I had returned to the US and assumed the editorship of Middle East Report in early 1998, at which time I befriended Parry, Abunimah and El Fassed through a Palestinian email discussion list. We quickly became cyber-friends and colleagues, conducting brainstorming sessions, critiquing each other’s work, and writing to each other regularly to express our dismay at the continuing lack of critical media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the persistence of US and Israeli efforts to achieve “peace” while bypassing any question of justice and all instruments of international law.
Our dismay quickly transformed into outrage upon the eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, sparked by Ariel Sharon’s provocative walk-about on the Haram Ash-Sharif. As the death tolls climbed and images of Palestinian children falling in hails of Israeli bullets dominated television news reports, we all found ourselves putting aside our own personal and professional lives to respond to mounting requests from journalists, other activists, scholars and policy analysts for information, on-the-ground contacts, and international legal documents to challenge biased and inaccurate Western media representations of the confrontations.
Upon realizing that the Israeli Government had mounted its own carefully orchestrated media campaign to spin news reports to its own advantage, we realized the time had come to respond in a more coordinated and comprehensive manner. Parry, particularly disturbed by Israeli attempts to assign the blame for Palestinian children’s deaths to their parents, not the Israeli Army, suggested last October that we create a new web site that would centralize information and resources while also providing concise and factual rejoinders to Israeli myths and spin techniques. The site’s fact-sheets and media activism sections would offer clear directives empowering activists to challenge media representations in an informed and effective manner at the local, national, and international levels. Further brainstorming led to a commitment that the site would be a much-needed “cyber-clearinghouse” of links to relevant international legal documents, human rights reports, UN resolutions, maps of settlement building, verifiable statistics on deaths and injuries.
Apparently, the Electronic Intifada has filled a need. A week after its launch, the site has received a large number of messages expressing gratitude and appreciation, such as the following posts:
“Keep up the excellent work! I know that may sound hollow, but I figure you probably get enough hate mail that you deserve to have some good!”
“Thank you so much for your website! It is a marvelous resource, and very well put together.”
“I just wanted to write and say what an excellent site you created with your colleagues. I especially liked the section on media activism and how to deal with the media. Take care and continue the hard work.”
In addition to providing crucial resources for media and human rights activists, the Electronic Intifada also hopes to provide valuable services to journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues, such as the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the US Government’s uncritical and massive military and financial support of Israel despite its continuing pattern of grave human rights violations, and the Palestinian Authority’s deficiencies, as seen through Palestinian eyes.
In the first email alert sent to subscribers, we emphasized that: “Our job is to help journalists, editors and producers, by letting them know we are not against them but instead wish to see them perform their jobs to the best of their abilities. We can help them out by acting as sources for information and by offering considered responses to their work. When they get it wrong, we will be there to patiently explain how what they have published or broadcast doesn’t match up to what we know. When they get it right, we will be there to thank them.”
What most journalists consistently “get wrong” is ignoring the key reason that Palestinians have risen up: to protest the painful and unjust realities of a 33-year old Israeli occupation of their country. In establishing the Electronic Intifada, we hope the Internet will give voice not only to concerned media activists, but more importantly, to Palestinians so long deprived of the opportunity to narrate what it is like to live under the world’s last occupation regime, which subjects them to a harsh, interlocking system of daily human rights violations. The injection of new voices and perspectives into tired media depictions and stale political debates may well provide a revolutionary catalyst for changing the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is represented and conceptualized, particularly in those countries whose policymaking greatly influences daily life for Palestinians under occupation.
Laurie King-Irani is the former editor of Middle East Report