Media coverage of Middle East situation among issues discussed at seminar on conflict in region

SEVILLE — The international media seminar on the question of peace in the Middle East, now taking place in Seville, Spain, reaffirmed the utility of dialogue and mutual understanding. The participants heard four speakers in the morning session and four speakers in the afternoon session of the two-day meeting.

In his opening remarks, the moderator, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, expressed his hope that the seminar would be an occasion for dialogue and conciliation rather than condemnation and criticism. Speakers addressed the questions of the role of the media in the conflict, and the role of culture, literature and education in facilitating the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Ambassador Miguel Angel Moratinos, former Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Council of the European Union, also spoke in the afternoon session.

Morning session

In the morning panel, journalists from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and communications experts presented their perspectives on covering the conflict in the region. The speakers who took part in the session were Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications, Executive Office of the Secretary-General; Laila Atwan, Bureau Chief, West Bank and Gaza, Abu Dhabi TV; Daniel Ben Simon, Journalist, Ha’aretz; and Teresa Aranguren, Reporter for Telemadrid, Spain.

Edward Mortimer, speaking first in the morning panel, said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict showed that the ideal of a totally neutral and objective journalism was unattainable. He observed that one could not just report the facts, but it was really about selecting what the journalist thought was worth reporting and interpreting it to the audience. There was always a process of shaping the picture and conveying it. It was important to seize the reality and convey one’s own understanding of it with complete honesty, he said.

Mr. Mortimer gave an account of his experiences in covering the conflict as a journalist in the 1970s. The perceptions then were that journalists had to have a balanced, even-handed position, he noted, but this notion itself was subjective, in that it presupposed two positions between which a “balance” had to be struck. Over the last 30 years, the European perception of the conflict had changed and he felt that whereas in the early 1970s there had been a lack of understanding of the Palestinian position, now it might be the Israeli point of view that was inadequately reflected. He expressed his concern about the distance between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The second speaker in the panel, Laila Atwan, described her personal experiences covering the conflict, of soldiers shooting children, children throwing stones, and the anger of the people. Ms. Atwan emphasized the importance of balanced reporting, to write not only about violence against the Palestinians, but also violence against Israelis.

Ms. Atwan described her experiences in areas in the region where violence was occurring, including in Jenin, Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. She advised journalists to go and see for themselves what was happening so that whoever read their articles would believe what was written. It was not possible to write an analytical article without going to the place where violence was being carried out. This was best done using effective images and good words, and telling the whole story of both sides of the conflict.

Daniel Ben Simon said that when the Intifada began three years ago, the Israeli media used the word “killed” when reporting about suicide attacks. Then they started to use “murdered”. This became “assassinated”, he stated. But now the term being used was “slaughtered”. He said that when the latter word was used, it brought back memories to Jewish people. The pictures of blown-up buses reminded them of when the Jews were being exterminated. This had an influence on the Israelis. This was a tragedy, noted Mr. Ben Simon, because it was reverting back to the old rhetoric of the Jews against the Arabs — almost a tribal killing.

Mr. Ben Simon described two Israeli priorities in today’s world: security and social problems. Three years ago, only 30 per cent of Israelis said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the main threat to their security. A whole new picture had emerged since the summer of 2000. He said that there was a sense today that the partitioning of land was inevitable. Most Israelis would understand an attack in the settlements, but not in the Green Line. “The Green Line has never been greener”, he said, and the separation fence had been born out of a public outcry. People were not talking about peace and reconciliation any more, but of a “divorce” between the two sides.

Teresa Aranguren described her experience in a basement in Beirut in 1982 when a message was delivered to Yasser Arafat from an American congressman. The message was that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a two-State solution. Today, said Ms. Aranguren, we were in the same situation as in 1982. She asked the participants: what is the message the press wants to transmit? She noted that there were now more front-page articles on the conflict than in the last three decades. She often reflected on the increased tendency of the media — mainly television — to offer messages that created a sensation. She said that it was not possible to understand the conflict by reading the news on the Middle East.

She noted that lists of the dead saturated public opinion; it often happened that at least 10 people had to have been killed in an attack before it could reach the headlines. She said no story on the conflict could be understood without significant background information on the problem at hand. Ms. Aranguren felt that memory was a key aspect of the conflict. What journalists were trying to convey after all these years of sensationalism was that the conflict had no solution. This hid the fact that the conflict did have a solution — the solution of two States.

In a discussion with media representatives attending the seminar that followed the initial remarks, several speakers emphasized the need not only to talk about the present situation in the region, but also to address the issue of what could be done, and come up with some ideas to contribute to peace. Ms. Aranguren argued that Palestinians had to have an understanding of the memory of Jews and Israelis, while Israelis needed to understand the memory of the Palestinians.

During a discussion on the use of language, Mr. Mortimer stated that words had a life of their own, and were very dangerous. Every word that was used about the conflict became a weapon. He gave the example of the use of “wall” or “fence” when referring to the separation fence being built by the Israelis.

Afternoon session

In the second panel in the afternoon, key cultural figures from Israel and Palestine discussed the role of culture, literature and education in facilitating the dialogue. The speakers who took part in the second session in the afternoon were: Ahmad Soboh, Deputy Minister of Information, Palestinian National Authority; Ronit Matalon, Israeli novelist; Dimitri Diliani, Spokesperson and Co-Chair of the International Affairs Committee, People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy; and Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications, Executive Office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Mr. Soboh said that were it not for education, the Palestinian people would not exist. Education was also vital for achieving an independent Palestinian State. He felt that a key to resolving the conflict was absolute respect for, and recognition of, the rights and culture of the other party.

He emphasized that the occupation of the Palestinian territory was the main cause of the conflict, and any other problems were symptoms of this. The struggle to end the occupation should not cause death or injury to any civilian, Israeli or Palestinian, he said. Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians was essential, he said, and he noted that the two societies had a great deal of work to do to respect each other and to engage in dialogue. He said that the Geneva initiative was vital and it should be supported and developed in greater depth.

Ms. Matalon stated that during the last three years, Israelis and Palestinians had been caught up in a reality governed exclusively by the rhetoric of blood and vengeance. She said that Israeli writers had been protesting for dozens of years against the occupation of the Palestinian territory, and the degradation of Israeli society as an occupying society. She felt that the change in the struggle strategies of the Palestinians, the growing emphasis on suicide bombings, made it more difficult for writers to protest the occupation.

Ms. Matalon spoke about the deterioration of both Israeli and Palestinian societies, which were falling into a dark pit, losing moral scruples, and losing their human face. She said that the Palestinian suicide bombers were damaging their own society, no less than Israeli society. The Israeli missions of liquidation and killing in the West Bank and Gaza also damaged Israeli society.

Mr. Diliani, speaking about the imperative need to promote a culture of peace in the region, noted that paving the road to final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians had become one of the most problematic puzzles yet to be solved by the international community. He said that the creation of a visible and determined peaceful attitude towards the Israeli army activities in the occupied territories was conditional upon the realization by the Palestinian individual of his or her role in the current conflict. This could only come about through empowering the Palestinian people and raising awareness among them on issues of peaceful resistance and democracy, he said.

He said that through empowerment, awareness about peaceful methods of resistance, and the realization of the price to pay for peace, the conditions should be right for the introduction of a grass-roots final status agreement between the two peoples. “As a matter of fact, this grass-roots mobilizing towards peace does already exist”, stated Mr. Diliani, and he cited the continuing success and growing number of members of the People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy, now numbering more than 60,000 Palestinians, and the existence of a similar campaign on the Israeli side with 85,000 members. This was a force that could pressure both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume talks on final status issues, he said.

The final speaker in the panel, Mr. Mortimer, stated that if a person listened to the news in New York, he or she would think that nothing good was happening to solve the conflict in the Middle East. The panel showed the opposite, he said. Mr. Mortimer noted that the media could do a better job of reporting non-violent actions that were taking place in the region. He emphasized that in order to change the dynamic of Israeli politics, the Palestinians had to engage in the use of non-violent resistance. The more people killed in Israel, he said, the less the Israelis would listen to people such as those who were in the meeting room. Israel had to be confronted with a non-violent strategy, said Mr. Mortimer.

During a discussion following the statements by the panellists, Mr. Soboh, responding to a question from the audience, said that the Geneva initiative to resolve the conflict was a working tool between and for both parties, and one which would become more global. Asked by a Palestinian participant how panellists could condemn suicide bombings when there were no other remedies for the consequences of the occupation, Mr. Soboh said he condemned all violent attacks against Israeli and Palestinian civilians. He said there should not be a contest to see who could kill more or who was suffering more. Mr. Diliani informed the participants that the People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy was the first organization to recognize the Geneva initiative.

Statement on role of European Union

Ambassador Miguel Angel Moratinos, former Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Council of the European Union, addressed participants on the role of the European Union in the peace Process. He reflected on the title of the seminar, “Towards a Two-State Solution”, as illustrative of the paradox the region was experiencing today. Without the achievements of recent years, in particular the Oslo Accords, a seminar with this title could never have been convened, he said.

Mr. Moratinos said the current scenario was a tragic one; neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis had the will to move out of the crisis. Violence was part of the daily media package, he noted, with stories of Palestinian suicide bombings and military incursions by the Israelis. A Palestinian State had to be a viable democratic and peaceful State, said Ambassador Moratinos. It also had to achieve economic viability, with a political basis founded on respect for minority groups with a sound framework for political participation. It would also be necessary to achieve the demilitarization of the area, he said.

The international community was focusing attention on the mechanism to foster progress and move out of the violence against Israelis and Palestinians. This gave birth to the “Road Map”. There was a great sense of impotence, noted Ambassador Moratinos, and a sense that the Road Map would not lead to concrete results. However, he said that the Road Map — in relation to previous international efforts — had certain virtues. It had an established schedule and an established series of obligations to reach its destination.

“Today we can see that a viable democratic and peaceful Palestinian state is on our doorstep”, he declared. But, he added, Europe could not look on with its arms crossed. It had an important level of responsibility in resolving the conflict. There was a growing concern in Europe that something had to be done. Responding to a question from the audience about the Geneva accord, Ambassador Moratinos expressed his view that this was a good initiative and that it should be supported by all concerned.

The international media seminar, which is being sponsored by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Regional Autonomous Government of Andalusia, has brought together more than 40 present and former policy-makers from Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, international experts, United Nations officials and representatives of international media. The seminar will continue tomorrow, 22 October, with panellists discussing the question of the implementation of the Road Map and on the role of civil society in achieving the vision of the Road Map.