Covering Palestine

Media correspondent David Cass examines the experiences of the Palestinian media and finds that it is increasingly struggling to stay objective

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By  David Cass Published  January 13, 2002

A different Israeli perspective|~||~||~|I had been planning to write something about the Palestine media, such as it is, for the past several months. Now I understand why some call what’s happening in the Territories ‘the forgotten war.’ I, like most writers and broadcasters working in the international field, have been forced to focus on events a little further to the east with the result that the disaster happening in the Eastern Mediterranean has not received anything like the coverage it would otherwise merit.
The catalyst was, for me, a remarkable piece of editorial opinion published on the first day of Eid (Sunday 16th December) in a Jewish newspaper, the Ha’aretz Daily, by a Jewish commentator by the name of Gideon Levy.

Entitled “It’s in our hands”, the eloquent and well constructed argument puts a new perspective into the current public relations campaign of the same name by the Israeli government. Levy takes the slogan and basically stands it on its head. Yes, he says, our future is indeed in our hands…

In his second paragraph he writes as follows: “Despite what is said and heard in our public from morning to night, Israel bears a large measure (albeit, not a full one) of responsibility for what has occurred here over the past months; and it also holds the keys to extract the sides from their current predicament.”

I shall quote Levy further but if you wish to read his article in full you should check out the haaretzdaily.com Web site, if it’s not blocked by your ISP! This kind of Jewish journalism is rare. He may be condemned in Israel for writing it but it would be right and proper for him to find a readership in the Arab world.

He continues: “The united chorus and brainwashing that has imposed the full brunt of the responsibility for what has happened on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority has worked wonders. Most Israelis have, in fact, been convinced that the tragedy that has transpired was unavoidable. But another explanation of the events, another truth, could yet come to the fore. Unwittingly, the patriotic public relations campaign could help reveal it.”
||**||Palestinians: victims of terror|~||~||~|
Then follows a precise description of how and analysis of why the violence in the territories and Israel has escalated since the sixty days of quiet which preceded a wave of targeted killings of Palestinians, leading up to the assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud by the Israeli security forces.

At last, here is a Jewish writer getting it right. As his article unfolds he makes it abundantly clear that he sees the Palestinians for what they are: oppressed, occupied, attacked and desperate. He writes of “harsh provocative actions and the arrogant flexing of muscles” and he is, of course, writing of Israel.

He writes of Palestinians being killed by Israeli mines and says “…they are not the victims of a regrettable accident; they are victims of terror.”

I could write hundreds more words but Levy’s article is not the point of mine – only the bedrock on which it will, I hope, be built. I will quote him once more for those who cannot access him in full.
After questioning the Israeli government’s intentions in calling on Yasser Arafat to wage war against terror at the same time as degrading the Palestinian authority, humiliating its security forces and giving him no political incentive to do so; after asking the blunt question, ‘is it what Ariel Sharon wanted all along, to return Israel to Nablus and Hebron’, he then calls on Israel to reverse its policy of conquest and intimidation and to resume peace negotiations without any preconditions.

Only then does he place real responsibility on the Palestinian leadership. “Such declarations would,” he writes, “put Arafat’s real ambitions and intentions to the test. Furthermore, they would pose a challenge to Sharon. If Israel’s prime minister really wants a peace arrangement, as he frequently says he does (even though his acts so far have undermined this declared objective), such moves would provide him with a golden opportunity to put his money where his mouth is.”

I read this as I was preparing to talk to Maher Shalabi, chief executive of the Palestine Media and Communication Company about the challenge and difficulties of covering the Intifada. He is in the unique position of covering the Palestinian side of the troubles from within.
||**||In the thick of it|~||~||~|
I do not mean that he travels there from the relative safety of Jerusalem each day. He lives there; his reporters and camera crews live there. They really are covering the story from the inside.
Shalabi set up the company less than two years before Al Aqsa; the Middle East was in a period of hope and relative peace and the prospects were good for a new and vibrant facilities house with a mission to get the story of rebuilding the territories out to a waiting world.

Shalabi is an optimist. You have to be to set up that kind of operation when you know full-well that you are simply an observer and facilitator; and that your business is entirely dependant on your ability to make and deliver images around the world.

As I key in the telephone numbers, I am well aware of the Israeli air strikes on the Palestinian Authority’s communications capabilities. Has PMCC been knocked out just like Palestinian radio?
He comes on the line. A thoughtful, quiet-spoken man at his most excited, I am surprised at how tired he sounds and remark on it. Another man might have chided me for it.

“It’s the first day of Eid al Fitr, David. It’s supposed to be holiday and I would like to see my mother,” he says. “She lives in this same city as me and yet we are now entirely occupied with Israeli military checkpoints between every city, every village and between different neighbourhoods in the cities. We’re in the same town but I cannot even visit her.”

Straight to the point. This conversation is not going as I expected.
I wanted to talk about business but I find the need to offer the crumbs of comfort and hope that I saw in Gideon Levy’s article. He is not to be consoled.

“No, this is not a breathrough,” he says. “OK, so one Israeli says his own government is a terrorist. He is one among five million. Look at the peace groups in Israel. They don’t really have a voice or they are suppressed. No, this is not a breakthrough.”

Now I am disappointed too. My optimist friend does not sound like an optimist any more. I still believe that getting into large print in Ha’aretz Daily is a significant moment – and if it only makes some people close to leadership think there is another way then it will have been worthwhile.
||**||“No longer objective…”|~||~||~|
So we move quickly to the real point of the call – how you conduct broadcast media business when your neighbour and occupier is trying to destroy your infrastructure and communications with the outside world, leaving only the international media like CNN and BBC to tell the story.

PMCC is basically a facilities house, offering camera crews, editing and studio facilities and, crucially, satellite uplink services to anyone who wants, or dares, to report on the ground inside the Palestinian territories.

Shalabi himself presents two Arab-language commentary programmes a week. His reporters and crews supply daily news reports to television stations in English and Arabic.

He explains how, notwithstanding the almost daily rocket attacks from F-16s and Apache helicopters, there are now some 300 Israeli checkpoints blocking routes to and from all Palestinian occupied areas; how Israel is now controlling Palestinian journalists to the extent of insisting that they register with (and therefore pay their tax to) the Israeli employment department.

There is also the issue of technicians. Shalabi says the Israelis refuse to allow Palestinian TV technicians even to register, using the argument that there are plenty of qualified technicians in Israel.
It does not need a huge imagination to understand that this alone ensures that few reporters actually get into the heart of the teritories to cover the story from the Palestinian viewpoint. Only now do I begin to understand the restrictions being placed on PMCC. He says: “We are fighting for our jobs here, to cover the story in the right way.”

That brings us to the question of objectivity. I remind him of my comments, made during my time at Dubai’s Business Channel, about the partisan nature of his reporters’ contributions and the subjective reporting to which I objected – the use of “we” clearly identifying the reporter with the story, the use of inflamatory terms like “martyr” to describe the likes of suicide bombers.

We discussed it regularly. The situation in the Palestinian territories was not nearly so desperate then as it is now.
“As a Palestinian,” he says, “I have to say I am no longer objective. I am a part of the story. I see my role as reporting this side of the story as I see it.

“It might seem in the eyes of a western journalist not to be objective. I know that the American journalist might come here and see two sides. I see only one side. I see an occupying force with a strong army and modern equipment attacking desperate people armed with little more than hand arms and explosives with which to kill themselves.”
||**||Arafat cut off|~||~||~|
I ask if he’s not getting close to condoning the suicide bombers? “Not at all. I am against bombing people in the street but I have to ask ‘why do they do this?’ You might call them terrorists – and they are because they attack helpless people (civilians) in the street. But what do you call those people flying the F-16s and Apaches – or those people giving them the orders to go bomb civilians?”

Does this not begin to sound remarkably like Mr Gideon Levy? He gives me a brief history lesson about the low level of violence in the three-and-a-half years between the Oslo accords and the start of the Intifada, a period in which he characterises the palestinian Authority as ‘moving towards peace with open hearts.’ Also a period during which the Israeli settlements doubled in number.

As a Palestinian and a media professional, he feels let down by the United Nations (for failing to make a succession of Security Council resolutions against Israel stick), by the Western world and by the Arab world. Everybody knows this. I tell him he’s beginning to sound like a propagandist.

“They have already knocked out the Palestinian radio service and they may very well destroy Palestinian TV by the time your article goes to press. Never mind that they have confined Yasser Arafat to a single square kilometre, now Israel wants to cut off communications between Arafat and his people. This, surely, is not right?”

We did not talk about cashflow, P&L accounts, client base or projections. This is a business fighting, like its troubled ‘country’, for survival.

We did not talk much about the practicalities of dodging bullets in pursuit of your trade. The near impossibility of being a committed Palestinian trying to tell your side of the story came through every sentence he spoke.

Actually, the last time I talked to Shalabi the business was looking quite healthy. He was feeding pieces daily to broadcasters around the world – western stations were as anxious to take his material as the Moslem/Arab world. I suspect that it will continue to thrive once the troubles are over.

He and Gideon Levy agree on so many things, including the fundamental belief of every journalist – that the pen really is mightier than the sword. Says Shalabi: “There is no way for the bullet to win. Only peace will win. If they don’t understand that and we don’t understand that we will just keep killing each other.”||**||

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