Press freedom in Israel and the occupied territories

The Wall
The Wall (©Eric Beauchemin)

In 2004, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been intensifying in the wake of the second intifada or Palestinian uprising. Suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinian extremists and the ongoing Israeli occupation and incursions into the territories had hardened positions on both sides. Israel’s construction of a security barrier or wall was further reducing contacts between Palestinians and Israelis. Journalists could play a key role in helping to bridge the chasm between the two peoples by creating awareness of how the conflict is affecting ordinary citizens on both sides. But are the Israeli and Palestinian media doing that?

Photos: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: August 9, 2004

Transcript

The Israeli media’s coverage of Palestinian affairs has ebbed and flowed according to the prospects for peace in the region. In the mid and late 1990’s, following the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, there was a great interest among the Israeli public about the Palestinians. But all of that changed in 2000, says Dr. Daniel Dor, a lecturer at the Department of Communications at Tel Aviv University. The reason, he says, was the failure of the Camp David summit between the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO leader Yassar Arafat.

Dr Daniel Dor, Department of Communications at Tel Aviv University
Dr Daniel Dor, Department of Communications at Tel Aviv University

The propaganda notion that Barak managed to persuade the public of was that he somehow managed to prove that Arafat was no partner for peace, that the Palestinians really do not want to have peace. He offered them something that was beyond imagination. They refused and then started an intifada. From the Israeli public’s point of view – if this is indeed the case – then there’s not a lot of interest in what the other side feels or thinks. The general sense is that we have to support ourselves. We have to take care of our own security, build a fence unilaterally. The whole idea of doing something unilaterally is because we’re not in a position where we even think about trusting the other side. In this sense, the other side is really not as meaningful as it was in the Oslo years. It’s not very interesting what the other side thinks or feels because we somehow proved that the other side is simply not a partner for peace.

This lack of interest in the fate of the Palestinians has had repercussions on Israeli coverage of the occupied territories. According to Dr. Dor, there are three types of journalists reporting on Palestinian affairs. The first group is made up of a few journalists who are based in the territories, the most well-known being Amira Hass of the liberal daily Ha’aretz.

Amira Hass, Ha’aretz journalist
Amira Hass, Ha’aretz journalist (©Yossi Gurvitz/Flickr)

From the point of view of the general public in Israel, these people like Amira sold out. They have passed to the other side. Then there are people, journalists who do not go to the territories a lot but from time to time, and they are Palestinian correspondents for other media institutions. What they mostly do is talk to sources as opposed to being on the ground. And the way they do it is to talk to more sources coming from the IDF or military intelligence and so on than to actual Palestinians. That’s most of what you get. I think that anyone who has ever gone to the territories, anyone who has friends and colleagues in the territories, anyone who follows the Palestinian media and so on, knows that this perspective is simply wrong, but again, it’s very, very difficult to persuade people of this idea. And then most people who do regular journalism for example with respect to the conflict on the political level, some of them simply do not have any Palestinian sources at all.

As a result, there are no real differences in the way Israel’s three major newspapers report Palestinian affairs. Coverage on Israel’s 2 main TV channels is also similar. Israelis rarely hear about how the conflict is affecting ordinary Palestinians, says Dr. Dor. The media focuses exclusively on Palestinian politics.

You have to understand that this is politics looked at through a lens that is a very specific one. So for example, on of the things that comes back again and again, every time, is the question that is in Israeli terms a very natural question of why doesn’t Arafat stop the violence. The assumption, the presupposition there is that we’re willing to stop the violence at any given moment but we’re just waiting for Arafat to do that first. And he’s supposed to do that first because it’s terrorism and he’s supposed to stop terrorism. Now the very, very fundamental and basic understanding that Arafat cannot stop the violence more than we can, that both sides are entangled in this tragic situation together, and that for many practical purposes Israel is in a better position to stop the violence than the Palestinians because it is stronger in the field, you have to know something about Palestinian politics, not through the lens of the military. You need to understand a little bit more about what’s going on inside Palestinian society which is something that most Israelis are simply not interested in.

Israeli editors are also not interested in having their journalists dig deeper to find out what is really happening in Palestinian society. Israeli newspapers, TV and radio seem more intent on simply reinforcing people’s preconceptions, and in the present circumstances, says Dr. Dor, this is extremely dangerous.

There’s a bias that as far as I’m concerned actually actively helps maintain the level of violence of this intifada because this intifada in many ways is a long war of attrition that is about the minds of people. It is about persuasion. It is about ideology in the sense that I don’t think any of the sides has a hope of actually winning it militarily. What the two sides are trying to do is to sort of speak get the other side in terms of mentality. And I actually think that what the Israeli media does most of the time is to work to maintain the resistance power of the Israeli public, stressing again and again that we are right in this story, that we tried everything to get to peace and our offers were rejected by the Palestinians, that they are violent and we are just trying to defend ourselves. And the result of this thing is that the public forces that could stop the violence and actually get us back on the negotiation tracks do not get support from the media. I think that as long as they do not get support from the media, the chances of their success are quite small.

Qalandia checkpoint
Qalandia checkpoint

Palestinian journalists face a different set of problems. But they share one particular problem with their Israeli counterparts: checkpoints. Since the outbreak of the second intifada and the suicide bombings, Israel has imposed exceptionally tight security measures. At border crossings like this one, Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners can wait for hours to enter or leave the occupied territories. I spent 3½ hours one day trying to enter Israel from the Gaza Strip, and another 2½ hours at a checkpoint within the Gaza Strip. These delays, which often depend on the whim of the soldiers manning the post, can last even longer. Palestinian journalists have to contend them every single day, says Nabil Khatib, a professor of mass communications at Bir Zeit University and the bureau chief in Israel and the occupied territories for the Lebanese satellite station, MBC.

Nabil Khatib, professor of mass communications at Bir Zeit University
Nabil Khatib, professor of mass communications at Bir Zeit University

Even accredited journalists cannot have a special status that would allow him by the Israelis to move freely to do his work as journalist. The Israeli army will not allow him to move as most of the Palestinians who are not allowed to move from their city to another city, from city to another village. So the lack of freedom of movement, basic freedom of movement, is the main obstacle for the Palestinian journalist to do a good job. They stuck in the main cities and in the main cities, they report boring stories about different statements of politicians but not the real life of their own people.

The reluctance of Palestinian journalists to go out and report on real issues affecting real people is not only the result of the physical restrictions imposed by the Israelis. It’s a legacy of the occupation.

For 27 years, the Palestinian press used to be only under the Israeli military occupation, where we had to go every midnight to the military censor in Beit Agron Street in West Jerusalem to show the newspapers and he’s free to cancel whatever he wants. And this became a bad tradition, but it is a strong tradition where the journalist will have his own censorship in order not to have surprises at midnight.

Israeli military censorship still exists, but only for Palestinian publications appearing in Jerusalem, including the main Palestinian daily al-Quds. In the areas under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, there is no official censorship. But, according to Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, the reality is quite different.

Bassem Eid, Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group
Bassem Eid, Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group

Since the Palestinian Authority arrived in ’94, tens of journalists were arrested, were beaten, were kept in jail for a long-term imprisonment without charges. Their equipment damaged or confiscated, and I think that the Palestinian Authority message, it was so clear since the beginning: that you must have to know on what to write and about what to write. And this is how the PA succeed to impose a kind of limitation on the freedom of press.

Since 2000, the Palestinian Authority’s control over the press and all other sectors of society has weakened because of Israel’s efforts to marginalise Yassar Arafat. As a result of the breakdown of the rule of law, says Dr. Khatib, Palestinian journalists are doing their work in an increasingly dangerous environment.

If a journalist would be reporting in a way that is not suitable for X, this X will be sending somebody masked, armed to hit him, to beat him, to damage his office, etc. as a message to this particular journalist and to other journalists to stop doing so, to stop reporting in a good way. This happened 10 times this year. Only one case was uncovered on who did it and how, etc. And I think there was no very serious investigation on why it happened. Part of it was an attack on the office than I run for al-Arabiya news channel. I mean, 10 cases, the most severe of them was killing of one our colleagues in Gaza.

The growing chaos means that the media is not dealing with important issues facing Palestinian society. Bassem Eid cites a recent case in point.

We just published a big report on the internal Palestinian violence, which we call it intifada. And unfortunately that report never mentioned in the Palestinian media, even that the report has a huge publicity among the international media. So, sometimes the Palestinians believes that our dirty clothes, we should have to keep it and not to try to put it out. If we the Palestinians want to be a complete society, like any other societies, I think that we must have to start cleaning our house from inside rather than to focus on the outside.

Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group
Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group

The director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group is also incensed at the blatant propaganda on Palestinian television, which, he feels, is only further inflaming passions in the occupied territories.

When the Israelis killing a child, a Palestinian child, then you know the picture of that child start running probably for 24 hours on the TV. I think that it is completely against the ethics of journalism, and we shouldn’t have to use a killed body of a child for our political interests. He was killed. He was killed. What to do? To run his picture for 24 hours? I don’t think that we will bring that child back to life.

Dr. Khatib agrees that this type of propaganda is regrettable. But he feels that there is an even more dangerous development in the media landscape: Palestinian journalists are simply becoming irrelevant. According to research he recently carried out, 70% of Palestinians say that pan-Arab satellite stations are their main source of information.

This is creating a situation actually where the Palestinians are detached from their reality because they are getting information from the non-Palestinian media about the conflict but not about themselves as a society. I will give you an example: if you would say that the major criteria to judge the governmental, internal policy is the budget for example, the Palestinian budget would be approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council and next day it will appear as a 50-words item on the second or third page of the Palestinian newspapers. They would not follow the debates about the budget and how the budget do reflect the internal policy of the government, whether it’s good, how much they devote for education or health, etc. This is a catastrophe because this leads to a situation where the Palestinians are not informed well about their daily life and about the way the government is ruling the country, meaning that if they would have the chance to vote for political elections, they don’t know according to which basis to judge people and to vote. This is a situation that very dangerously affecting the democratic process and emerging democracy in the Palestinian territories where the whole nation is not well informed about its own issues.