The role of the international media in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

The following text is from a seminar presentation, “An Overview of the Role of the International Media Regarding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict”, given by Siham Rashid, Director of the Public Relations Department, Palestinian Counseling Center (PCC) on 29 August 2003. Hosted by the Alternative Information Center (AIC), the seminar was titled “A Middle East Without Wars and Oppression is Possible: An International Seminar on the Palestinian Struggle and Globalization”.

Introduction

When asked to do this presentation regarding the role of the international media, I had an illusory vision of the simplicity of this topic with my focus automatically perceiving the role of the media in one dimension — the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As I began to research the role of the media, I found an abundant amount of information from articles about the Global Media Giants — a global commercial media system dominated by a small number of super-powerful, mostly U.S.-based transnational media corporations to articles on Fundamentalisms, media, and the new McCarthyism: how demagogues are hijacking Washington, DC. Other headlines focus on Silencing the Press and Journalists Find “Calm” When Only Palestinians Die.

I believe that in order to understand the role of the media and the media business, and its influence on public perceptions, a seminar such as this one should be dedicated to this issue solely. In order to understand the role of the media, one must start at the micro-level — when media systems were generally national in scope (1980’s) to the macro level where today the global media system is now dominated by nine giant firms[1]. (McChesney, Robert, W., The Global Media Giants; The Nine Firms that Dominate the World, November/December 1997). The global commercial media system works to advance the cause of the global market and promote commercial values, while denigrating journalism and culture not conducive to the immediate bottom-line or long-run corporate interests. It is a disaster for anything but the most superficial notion of democracy.[2]

However, due to the limited time, I will focus my presentation on the role of the media regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict, with some references to previous struggles and the role of the media.

Western mainstream media has portrayed the Israel-Palestine conflict as a conflict revolving around security and terrorism, with Israel being the victim. So for many people, the conflict is understood as a conflict of land and borders between two peoples who have equal claims, not as a conflict between an oppressed and oppressor and colonized and colonizer.

It is essential that the media begin to portray the conflict as it is- one people- the Palestinians, being colonized, and Israel, the colonizer. The media has helped blur the reality of the situation through the misuse of terminology and even worse, by distorting basic facts regarding the core of the conflict- which are colonialism, racism, and severely uneven distribution and lack of balance in power relations.

We must think in terms of the power structure and power relations. Israel has the capital, the technology, and military superiority. The essential thing now is that Palestinians have strategy and a methodology of reaching the media and making sure it gives the Palestinian side of the story.

The international media has the ability to affect change and it is a potent weapon and a resource that should not be underestimated. The silence of the international media on many issues has meant international ignorance and complacency and the attention of the international media on other issues has given those issues prominence on the world scene.

The role of the international media in the civil rights movement, in the anti-apartheid movement among others cannot be underestimated. Part of the reason, and some have contended that the main reason the civil rights movement succeeded in its initial phase was due to what was happening on the international scene and what was exposed internationally of the racism that was taking place in America. The international media pointed out the hypocrisy and contradictions in an America going to war to fight Nazi racism while it had institutionalized racism against African Americans at home. The international media revealed that an America preaching tolerance and multiculturalism was preventing African diplomats from using the same facilities as other diplomats because of the color of their skin.

In a book on the role of international events in the success of the Civil Rights Movement, Azza Layton notes that incidents such as hotels not allowing Africans, and particularly an African diplomat, from staying there simply because of the color of their skin dramatically affected world perceptions of America. It exposed the daily life conditions of the average African American in a segregated America. The entire world began to look at and understand the plight of the African American much to the displeasure and embarrassment of the US government.

The embarrassment and apparent hypocrisy was so great that it forced the American government to do something about the situation of African Americans at home and made them acquiesce to the demands of the movement. This is not to underscore the importance of the actions and the strategy of the Civil Rights Movement itself, being incredibly organized and unified with affective leadership. Both factors, the movements’ strategy and leadership at home, and the exposure of the hypocrisy and the international embarrassment, lead to the success of the movement.

Media bias against the Palestinians is partially due to deliberate actions by Israel and partially a lack of effort on the Palestinian side. Many people have tried and continue to work and change media perceptions of the conflict, but overall, there is a sense of helplessness.

The message Palestinians want to get across - basically the core points about the conflict that are practically ignored[3] are:

  1. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian land has continued for more than 35 years and continued through out the Oslo peace process (from 1993- 1997).
  2. The human rights situation did not improve as a result of the peace process and has severely worsened since the New Intifada began in September 2000.
  3. Israeli land confiscation and settlement of Palestinian land has not ceased for a single day.

As Nigel Parry of the Electronic Intifada stated in a recent article, in a conflict over land, you can’t keep taking more land and get away with claiming that you’re working to solve the conflict.[4] It is important to ask why the world was so shocked when the new Intifada began. The shock was a result of the ignorance concerning the worsening of daily life conditions for Palestinians since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.[5] With the signing of Oslo, many hoped that there would be sincere efforts to end the occupation. Instead, Israel continued unabated with its racist policies including land confiscation, arresting of political dissidents, the infamous torture in the Israeli prison system, settlement expansion, uprooting of Palestinian trees and crops - basically agricultural destruction, the shooting - killing and injury of unarmed demonstrators, and home demolitions. As I said, this continued unabated from 1993 to 2000. So why was the world shocked when the Palestinians decided that there was no hope in the promises Israel was making as evidenced by their creating facts on the ground the entire time there was so-called peace and calm in the occupied territories. This is because the media continued to report about the meetings between Israel and the Palestinians but did not report on what was happening on the ground.

Examples of media distortion of basic facts

CNN’s position regarding Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land:
CNN states “What Palestinians see as the military occupation.” This is like talking about the conflict in South Africa and stating “What Black South Africans see as Apartheid.”[6] This is denial of the basic facts of the conflict.

Who are the foreign correspondents and what do networks say regarding the Palestine-Israel issue? According to a study on foreign correspondents in Israel by Dr. Joel Cohen, a lecturer in communications at the Academic-Technological Institute of Holon and a research fellow at Bar Ilan University, the background of these journalists makes it very easy for them to relate to the Israeli position and have a bias against the Palestinians. The study, much of it published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, found that[7]:

  1. Most of these correspondents live in Israeli controlled parts of the country meaning:
    1. there is very little exposure to Palestinian society
    2. Palestinian sources are not consulted for their reaction to events before publication.
  2. Two-thirds of these journalists come from Western Europe and North America (being Western it is easier to relate to Israeli mentality.)
  3. Most have lived in Israel for many years (averaging 10 years each)
  4. Some are veteran Israeli journalists who provide reports to the international media on a permanent basis.
  5. About 91% defined their knowledge of Israel as “good,” while only 41% said they thought their knowledge of Arab countries was on a good level.
  6. 57% said they had a “good” level of knowledge of Judaism, while only 10% said they had a “good” level of knowledge about Islam.
  7. 54% are completely fluent in Hebrew and 20% have a working knowledge of the language. Only 6% are fluent in Arabic, while 42% said they could “get by” in Arabic.

The fact that these journalists do not actually go to the scene of the action and rely on Israeli government reports, and live in Israel amidst a society which views the Palestinians as threatening makes fair reporting nearly impossible. In America especially, the negative view of the Arab world and Islam and the cultural familiarity with Judaism makes it easy to accept the view that the Palestinians are at fault and Israel is the victim.[8]

On a more international level an article in the Washington Post in August 2002 cited the following statistics of a study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The study found that 78% of the on-air evaluations of Israel on the ABC, NBC and CBS evening news shows were negative. The study shows that Palestinians fared even worse with 92% of the comments being negative. In terms of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, 96% of the time the coverage was negative.[9]

Who did the newscasts blame for the violence? The Palestinians were faulted 42% of the time and the Israelis 33% of the time. When the coverage was more specific, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was blamed 30% of the time, the Israeli government 14% of the time and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon 9% of the time. Finally, as for the conflict itself, Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip received twice as many mentions as the suicide bombings however, the bombers were singled out as instigating the conflict twice as often as Israel’s use of force.[10]

In terms of Palestinian journalists for Palestinian press based in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they are very rarely granted Israeli press cards which cuts them off from travel inside Israel and to Jerusalem, between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and makes them vulnerable at checkpoints controlling access to areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip during increased times of conflict.

In November 2000, Ha’aretz reported that:

Since the beginning of the current violence in the territories, the Government Press office (GPO) has refused to issue or renew press credentials for Palestinians who work for foreign news media based in Israel, and the step has become long-term policy to combat alleged pro-Palestinian bias in reporting.[11]

In addition, Israeli troops regularly target Palestinian and sometimes foreign journalists. The Palestinian Authority also has created a climate of self-censorship by regularly arresting journalists. In addition, the Palestinian Authority has invested very little in media relations as opposed to very organized and well-funded Israeli media campaigns.

Israel’s reaction to so called pro-Palestinian reporting

The Israeli government last month cut off all links with BBC stating that it “systematically demonizes Israel and carries reports “verging on anti-Semitism.” Any news media that doesn’t serve Israeli interests is subject to threats and harassment. Last year CNN was nearly removed from the service offered to Israeli’s by a satellite provider. Both CNN and BBC are accused of being pro-Palestinian.

Another constant problem is that the media always reiterates that this conflict is complex, very unique, and therefore not easily understood by everyone. Therefore, many journalists and news networks speak of ‘maintaining balance’ when reporting on ‘both sides’ of the story. In an article by Sune Segal, the author contends of ignoring facts on the ground as, “Insisting that the 50-50 method would indeed convey a balanced picture of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is thus simply tantamount to ignoring the facts on the ground, for example, the all encompassing and real control that Israel exerts over the Palestinian population and resources in the Occupied Territories and the ensuing imbalance between the military, geographical, political and economic circumstances under which the two populations live their daily lives.”[12]

The author goes on to state, “Allow me here to submit an analogy: I would argue that pointing to the 50-50 method as an appropriate approach to covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be compared to a situation in which the international press would have accommodated the late South African apartheid regime, had it demanded that each story about the sufferings of the black population be countered by a story on the fear experienced by the white population or about violence against whites perpetrated by blacks; it can be likened to claiming that had the international press focused to a larger extent on the sufferings of the white population during the days of apartheid, they would have conveyed a more balanced and fair picture of that conflict.”[13]

In addition, in a column published in the Los Angeles Times, Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote[14]:

“The preponderance of responsibility lies with Israel and with an international media that continues to obscure the basic realities facing the Palestinian people, and continues to treat the death of Israeli soldiers enforcing a brutal occupation as somehow more outrageous and barbarous than the killing of many times as many Palestinian teenagers who were resisting occupation.”

Basic important facts

In looking at ‘both sides’ of the story, the international media must not overlook some of the basic important facts[15]:

  • There are nine million Palestinians in the world; five million are refugees or displaced persons
  • In the 78% of Palestine that is now called Israel, 1.3 million remaining Palestinians are nominally citizens but do not have equal national and social rights
  • Israel now occupies the other 22% of the area. In the 22% of the land, Israel planted 400,000 Jewish settlers, an illegal action under international law
  • In terms of weaponry: Israel has 3800 tanks; 1500 large artillery pieces; four submarines; 15-20 warships; an estimated 200-300 nuclear weapons and 2000 combat airplanes
  • Palestinians have none of these
  • Israel has 175,000 regular troops and 430,000 reserves with obligatory and lengthy military service
  • Palestinians have no army
  • Israel and the Palestinians have police forces - each numbering around 30,000 - however, Israel has managed to dismantle the lightly armed Palestinian police

    Given all the above statistics, Since September 28, 2000 to August 23, 2003 (over 2,600 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces) and over 700 Israeli have been killed. Over 40,000 Palestinians have been injured and over 5,000 Israeli’s have been injured. No Israeli has been tried or detained for the killing and/or injury of a Palestinian.

    Finally, it is estimated that since March 29, 2002, (15,000 Palestinians have been detained 6,000 of who remain in prison. Out of this 6000, 1,700 Palestinians are under administrative detention meaning they have not had a trial, and are imprisoned without charges being brought against them.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, the information and statistics presented indicate that media have tremendous power in setting cultural guidelines and in shaping political discourse. Alternative media continues to provide statistics, stories and research not found among the mainstream media, therefore, this does not relinquish the obligation of journalists interested in fair reporting from their ethical duty to provide the facts — the truth about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as other conflicts world-wide.

    It is essential that news media along with other institutions be challenged to be fair and accurate in reporting to their viewers, listeners and readers.

    Recommended Websites

  • Electronic Intifada - electronicIntifada.net
  • Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting - www.fair.org
  • Palestinian Academic Studies Society for International Affairs - www.passia.org
  • Miftah - www.miftah.org

    Footnotes

    1. Time Warner, Disney, Bertelsmann, Viacom, News Corporation, Sony, TCI (Tele-Communications Inc.), Universal (Seagram) and NBC (General Electric)
    2. Ibid.
    3. Parry, Nigel, Introduction to Media Coverage, pg. 2 – Electronic Intifada
    4. Parry, Nigel, Introduction to Media Coverage, pg. 1 – Electronic Intifada
    5. Ibid.
    6. Parry, Nigel, Introduction to Media Coverage, pg. 2 – Electronic Intifada
    7. Parry, Nigel, Introduction to Media Coverage, pg. 4 – Electronic Intifada
    8. Parry, Nigel, Introduction to Media Coverage, pg. 5 – Electronic Intifada
    9. Negatives Add Up in Mideast Coverage, Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 5 August 2002
    10. Ibid.
    11. Parry, Nigel, Introduction to Media Coverage, pg. 6 – Electronic Intifada
    12. Segal, Sune, Covering Violence, Palestine Monitor
    13. Ibid.
    14. Rabbi Michael Lerner, Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2000
    15. Qumsiyeh, Mazin, Israel-Palestinian Asymmetry, June 10, 2003, The Palestine Monitor.