On Journalism and Media
Diana Butto – This Week in Palestine Issue 97, May 2006
Watching Western television or reading newspaper reports of Palestine always leaves me perplexed. If I did not live in Palestine and bear witness to Israel’s military occupation, I would be left with the impression that Palestinians and Israelis are equals – with no occupation existing – and that this conflict simply requires “concessions” on both sides. I would be unaware that the Palestinians have, for almost 39 years, been denied their freedom and unaware that for more than five decades dispossessed of their land. I would be unaware that this conflict is between, on the one hand, an occupied party – the Palestinians – fighting for their independence, freedom and the application of international law, and on the other hand, the occupying party – Israel – which has denied freedom, independence and the application of international law to the Palestinians for almost four decades. Unfortunately, I am not the only person who would walk away with such impressions. Independent studies carried out in Europe and the United States have similarly concluded that media coverage of this occupation is tilted to the point where a significant number respondents in one survey believed that it was the Palestinians occupying Israel!
While Jerusalem is one of the major reporting centres for Western journalists, it begs the question, why does the reporting from Israel/Palestine deviate so much from the reality of the situation? The answer lies not in media bias – that is not to say that there is none or that editorial control over reporting from Palestine is not heavy-handed – but in a number of other factors that impact the way journalists cover this area. Through my experience with Western journalists, I have learned that the vast majority really want to tell the story and are thirsty for knowledge but are hindered by a number of factors, a few of which are outlined below.
Israel Frames the Issue of the Day
Western journalists often fall victim to Israel’s framing of the issues and the arguments. Take for example the recent Hamas PLC victory. Since the elections, Israel has made much of Hamas’s lack of recognition of Israel and the signed agreements. Israel, for its part, claims that it will not “deal with” the new Palestinian government and has its Western allies lined up supporting it. As a result, story after story has hit the front page of prominent newspapers and pundits have been brought in to assess whether Hamas will eventually recognize Israel and the signed agreements.
Yet, the reality of the situation is ignored. Israel has, for almost six decades, failed to recognize the Palestinians which is, in essence, the heart of this conflict. If Israel had recognized the Palestinians, it would not engage in a colonial enterprise on their land and would not continue to deny them their freedom. Ignored by journalists are the statements by Golda Meir and others claiming that there are no Palestinians, and actions by Israeli leaders up to the current day, whereby colonies are built without reference to the Palestinians. Journalists seem to have forgotten that Ariel Sharon, for his part, declared Oslo null and void within the first year of his premiership and that Kadima – a party whose sole purpose is unilateralism – was formed before there was even a hint of a Hamas victory. While President Abbas was in power, Israel failed to “deal with” him and even hinted, at times, that he was “irrelevant.” The recent past seems to be ignored and instead, Palestinians are once again on the defensive.
Terminology and Numbers
One of the reasons for a lack of clear understanding of the occupation is the misuse of terminology. (I will, for the moment, not address the term “terrorist” for which there is no clear definition but instead focus on terms for which there is a clear definition). Take, for example, the term “military occupation.” Without clearly specifying to readers/viewers that this conflict is between an occupying party (Israel) and the people it occupies (the Palestinians), journalists remove the legal basis under which Israel must behave. As an occupying power, Israel has a duty to protect the Palestinians – not experiment in its use of heavy weaponry and torture against the Palestinians. Viewed in this light, Israel’s assassination policy is not only illegal but reprehensible. I once had a long conversation with a Western journalist who lamented that during an interview with a Palestinian activist, she had used the term “occupation” incessantly. When I asked what the problem was, the journalist responded, “We are tired of hearing about the occupation,” oblivious to the fact that I, as a Palestinian, am tired of living it.
Examine also the terms “settlement” or “colony” – both of which are increasingly disappearing in Western reporting in favour of terms such as “Jewish neighbourhood” and “Jewish suburb” (both used liberally by newspapers such as the New York Times). How is the average reader to understand that these structures are illegal, that their presence has denied thousands of Palestinians rights and access to their land, that the presence of these “neighbourhoods” has led to the fortified military structures around Palestinian cities, towns and villages, and that, as a result of these innocuous “suburbs” Palestinians need to obtain Israeli permission to be able to pass these seemingly harmless “neighbourhoods”?
The term “1967 border” also seems to be fading in Western reporting. (Perhaps this is a reflection of the truth since Israel has been erasing the 1967 border for decades). Instead, journalists make academic leaps justifying to me and others that Israel’s colonization in East Jerusalem is somehow “different” from that of the rest of the West Bank, owing to the fact that Israel has “incorporated” these areas into Israel. As a result, they often under-cite the number of settlers – 220,000 instead of the true figure of 430,000+ – claiming that the difference is made up by Jerusalem settlers whose status is somewhat “unique.” What these journalists fail to realize is that for East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, it is the same occupation and denial of freedom. Simply because Israel has incorporated the areas does not mean that it has ended its military hold over the Palestinian residents of the city, who are still required to prove that Jerusalem is their “centre of life,” unlike the Israeli settlers living on their land.
With the failure to report these issues accurately, reality becomes blurred: without an “occupation” without “colonies” and without “settlers,” this conflict can be easily viewed as one in which Palestinians hate Jews and Jews hate Palestinians.
If It Bleeds, It Leads
Israel’s methodical strangling of the Palestinians is rarely reported. The daily closure policy, the ongoing land confiscations to build Israeli-only colonies and roads and the incessant construction of the Wall are now seen by many Western journalists as a “routine, un-newsworthy” activity. Yet, it is this methodical, daily activity that lies behind the acts of violence that are reported.
Instead, television and newspaper reporting is peppered with violence. As I quickly learned when I moved to Palestine, “If It Bleeds, It Leads.” But not all acts of violence make the lead. Palestinian suicide operations always make the news whereas Israel’s use of military weapons against a stateless, army-less population does not. When the next suicide operation occurs (as undoubtedly will happen) Israeli deaths will certainly be reported, whereas the killing of Palestinians that leads to the suicide operation will not. Instead, newspaper and television reports will use phrases such as “break in relative calm” or “break the lull in violence.” Ignored will be the scores of Palestinian deaths.
As a resident of Gaza, I live with the daily shelling and bombing emanating from Israeli tanks and F-16s. The sound is constant and unnerving. Its targets are random, as seen by the latest victims. In one week alone in April more than 2,000 tank shells were fired. Approximately 16 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israel’s military action. The reporting of these killings was often hidden in a line of an article referring to the new Hamas government. When I called up the bureau chief of one of the major Western outlets to complain, he stated, “There is a low-grade military conflict here now and we cannot report every Palestinian death and certainly not the death of ‘militants.’” When I asked whether he would report the death of 16 Israeli soldiers killed within two weeks, he responded, “Yes….I see your point.”
The failure to report Palestinian deaths is often the result of the failure on the part of journalists to travel to the Gaza Strip or throughout the West Bank. “Nablus is a trek,” I am told, whereas Tel Aviv can be visited in an afternoon. The presence of an increasing number of Israeli military checkpoints makes it difficult for journalists to visit areas outside of the Jerusalem/Ramallah/Bethlehem envelope and makes it even more difficult for journalists to meet their deadlines. As a result, Nablus is a planned visit, whereas Tel Aviv is not. Hence, Palestinian deaths are a line in a story; Israeli deaths are covered in depth.
That said, the ongoing slow conflict, devoid of bloodshed, is something that all journalists should be covering. Over the past 39 years, Israel has constructed more than 150 Jewish-only colonies (with approximately 430,000 Israeli settlers) on 60 percent of occupied Palestinian territory. These colonies are connected by a network of by-pass roads, open only to Israelis bearing Israeli license plates. By contrast, the 3.5 million Palestinians on whose territory these colonies are built are relegated to small reservations (akin to Bantustans) and are required to obtain Israeli permission to travel from one reservation to the next (akin to the “pass laws” of apartheid South Africa). Despite the presence of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians are controlled by Israel. These, coupled with Israel’s perfection of the closure regime and its strangulation of Gaza, are all issues that should not continue to be ignored.
The Palestinian Government
Without knowing more about the region, it is easy to believe that the two sides, Palestinian and Israeli, are equal, for the structure of the Palestinian government fails to reflect the reality of the occupation. The Palestinians, like the Israelis, have a President and Prime Minister. They even have a Minister of Tourism and a Minister of Telecommunications. However, unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian leaders require Israeli permission to be able to function. All Palestinian leaders must seek Israeli permission to move within their own land and all are subject to Israeli checkpoints. And, in the case of the Ministries of Tourism and Telecommunications, have absolutely no control over the areas they are to develop (namely borders and the electromagnet spectrum).
Western journalists are largely unaware of the power imbalance between these two governments. The Israeli regime, for its part, can plan and develop. It can impose curfews when it desires, build settlements when it chooses and erect checkpoints when it wants. In short, Israel has control over virtually all aspects of Palestinian life. The Palestinian government, for its part, is simply unable to do the same – not because it is “weak” as has been claimed, but because it is a government that is under military rule, controlled by a different regime. The Palestinian Authority has never had unfettered control over significant territory. Even in the Gaza Strip, where the Israelis have evacuated their settlements, Israel continues to control the area where even the importation of flour and medicine is subject to Israeli whims. What also do not help are the statements by Palestinian officials that lead people to believe that the Palestinians are equal to the Israelis. Statements such as, “We will not allow Israel to isolate us,” or “We reject Israel’s Wall,” only serve to fuel the impression that the Palestinians and Israelis are equal. Perhaps, instead, Palestinian leaders should state the reality, “We are a government representing a people under Israeli military rule. Our powers are limited by that military rule. We seek only our freedom and expect that the international community will not hold Israel above international law or view us as beneath it.”
Some of the issues mentioned in this article can be addressed through two means: (1) systematic information campaigns aimed at educating journalists and (2) holding journalists accountable for their failure to report this issue correctly. In short, until we do so, journalists will fail to ask Israel when it will end its military occupation, and instead ask the Palestinians when they will learn to accept it!
Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer. She previously served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department and an advisor to President Abbas.
Last updated 11/05/2006