9 June 2006
International Media Seminar Discusses Impact of Media on Middle East Peace Process
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
MOSCOW, 8 June -- The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East this afternoon held a panel discussion on the impact of the media on the Middle East peace process, hearing from panellists who addressed the role of the media in the influencing the peace process and the obstacles that they encountered.
Elena Suponina, of Vremya Novostei, a Moscow newspaper, moderated the panel entitled "Media Coverage of the Middle East Peace Process: Does the Media Have an Impact on the Peace Process?". She said that journalists needed to have a better understanding to provide information. Also, people in a war-torn region could have different viewpoints on events. The issue of how to define a terrorist and a terrorist organization had also become important, particularly in view of the fact that Hamas was listed as such and others were not. Certain groups were on Governments' black lists, and it was impossible to publish interviews with members of such groups in numerous countries.
Talal Okal, of Al-Ayam Newspaper of Ramallah, Palestine, said that, among obstacles to a peaceful settlement included when some mass media acted on behalf of various actors involved, presenting the viewpoints of radical forces. In a more positive light, when there was a clear proposition voiced by the Security Council and the Quartet, the mass media could make a difference for peace. The media should tell the people the truth, but without incitement. Media could not present just a pro-Israeli situation. By showing the true picture of the situation of the Palestinian people, the media could relieve the pressure on them.
Walid Omari, Chief of the Ramallah Office of Al-Jazeera television, said that, now, the situation was further complicated by the result of the Palestinian elections, with a two-headed leadership: Fatah and Hamas. Both of those sides, Fatah and Hamas, had accused Al-Jazeera of taking the other's side, while the Israelis' accused them of taking the side of the Palestinians. The Israelis' had fired on their offices, and had taken their press cards.
Yhia Ghanem, of Al-Ahram Newspaper of Egypt, said the media was very much in need of redefining the "print to fit" concept, versus that of "fit to print". The media should not promote a product that did not exist, or one that had not been subjected to quality control -- which would only serve to radicalize those in the area. When the media promoted a not very good quality product, people tended to shy away from even the good aspects of it.
Gideon Levy, of Ha'aretz Newspaper of Israel, said that it was the dehumanization of the Palestinians that had allowed the occupation to continue for so many years, in such a cruel way. In that dehumanization process, the media had played a major role. Fifteen Palestinians killed in Gaza received only a small space on page 19 in the paper. The fact was not hidden from the Israeli reader, but the message was there: it was not a big deal. The situation had worsened in recent years, as all contacts between the two peoples had ceased. As long as the media continued to show the Palestinians as demons, as less than human, peace would not be around the corner. Changing that situation was the first task, and came before a political solution.
After the introductory statements, a question-and-answer session was held.
Later, participants viewed a documentary film entitled Encounter Point, which followed the stories of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who refused to sit back as the conflict escalates and contained a powerful message of peace. The film, which had been screened in New York and San Francisco film festivals to acclaim, was soon to be shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, and will be shown as well in Gaza and Ramallah. This was the first time the seminar had included a film screening.
When the Seminar reconvenes at 9 a.m. on Friday, 9 June, it will hold a panel discussion on "The Impact of Regional Changes on the Middle East Peace Process".
ELENA SUPONINA, Chief of the International Affairs Division of Vremya Novostei, a Moscow newspaper, who moderated the panel on media impact, said that journalists knew that the problems in the Middle East had been the focus of the media for many years and the question of how to present them were ever present. Fair coverage was one issue. Another was whether the media had an impact on the peace process in the Middle East, and if it should have such an impact. In her opinion, journalists were bound to give full and fair treatment. Journalists, however, needed to have a better understanding, in order to be able to provide information. Also, people in a war-torn region could have different viewpoints on events. When she had interviewed an Israeli, she had immediately received pressure from the Palestinian side to present the Palestinian viewpoint, and the same had been true when she had been interviewing Palestinians, she had received pressure from the Israeli side.
The issue of how to define a terrorist and a terrorist organization had also become important, particularly in view of the fact that Hamas was listed as such and others were not. Certain groups were on Governments' black lists, and it was impossible to publish interviews with members of such groups in numerous countries. That needed to be addressed. There were many questions. However, the major purpose of the Seminar, Ms. Suponina said, was to create dialogue, even if they did not have answers to all the questions.
TALAL OKAL, of Al-Ayam Newspaper of Ramallah, Palestine, said that there were certain problems that prevented the free exchange of the media, for example, journalists were put in jail, and that put serious restrictions on the freedom of the media. Visiting Israel was one such freedom. Another aspect of the problem was that information had to be presented objectively.
For some time now, the Palestinians had taken the strategic decision to launch negotiations on the Middle East conflict, and Arab society had had the same reaction. The mass media should be actively involved in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict and should give some impetus to the process. At the same time, they should play a crucial role in reporting on those who could help attain the peace. The peace process was multilateral, which involved many aspects. Negotiations relied on the creativity and the willingness of those in the region to look for compromises. In that regard, the mass media could play a positive and active role as it could present the positions and viewpoints of those involved.
Other problems on the road to a peaceful settlement included when some mass media acted on behalf of various actors involved, presenting the viewpoints of radical forces. When they had a clear proposition voiced by the Security Council and the Quartet, in such a case, the mass media could make a difference. If some believed that Palestinians were under pressure and that, because of that they would accept any solution, that would only lead to a social explosion, which could be triggered by mass media. The media should tell the people the truth, but without incitement. Media could not present just a pro-Israeli situation. By showing the true picture of the situation of the Palestinian people, the media could relieve the pressure.
WALID OMARI, Chief of the Ramallah Office of Al-Jazeera television, felt that, first, the risks the media was facing from both sides had to be understood. He had been working for Al-Jazeera for over 20 years. He had had his car burned, as had other Al-Jazeera employees. Al-Jazeera had also suffered a media firestorm from both Fatah and Hamas. They had been accused, for example, of conspiring with the United States Government. Their offices and their media van had been burned. After broadcasting the confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Ramallah, the gunfire had reached the Al Jazeera offices and damaged them. He had been kicked out of the Palestinian Authority headquarters, and the offices in Ramallah had been shut down repeatedly.
Al-Jazeera had also suffered from the Israeli side, in particular from settlers' actions, as well as in security checks from Israeli officials, he said. Throughout the Palestinian elections, the real challenge had been how to deal with two different authorities in conflict. Both had claimed absolute right to the same land. The situation had been further complicated by the result of the Palestinian elections, with a two-headed leadership: Fatah and Hamas. Both of those sides, Fatah and Hamas, had accused Al-Jazeera of taking the other's side, while the Israeli's had accused them of taking the side of the Palestinians against them. The Israeli's had fired on their offices, and had taken their press cards. He said he knew other journalists had been experiencing the same.
YHIA GHANEM, of Al-Ahram Newspaper of Egypt, said that the title of the panel, which was in the form of a question, brought to mind even bigger questions, ones that might serve as a guidelines for journalists in the region. If peace was a product, were journalists supposed to market it as such? When the Egyptians had called for peace in the last century, almost everyone had had a positive response. Yet, when the same media related peace to economic well-being and prosperity, people lost faith in media peace-preaching. Such attempts were taken as a product of imperialist forces hoping to cash in.
The media was very much in the need of redefining the "print to fit" concept, versus the "fit to print". The media should not promote a product that did not exist, or one that had not been subjected to quality control -- which would only serve to radicalize those in the area. When the media promoted a not very good quality product, people tended to shy away from even the good aspects of it. One example was the articles on bilateral business ventures between the Israeli and Palestinian businessmen, which had only served to embarrass the Palestinian businessmen that were named.
GIDEON LEVY, of Ha'aretz Newspaper of Israel, said that the Israeli media was fulfilling a criminal role in covering the occupation. The year 2005 had marked 38 years of occupation, or twice the number of years with it than without it. No one could claim that it was a temporary phenomenon that was about to disappear. Israeli media could be compared to any in the world, with regard to their technical ability or the liberty that they enjoyed. The problem was that it told its readers the truth, and only the truth -- but they only told one truth. The story that was not told was that of the occupation that was taking place, not 15 minutes from where they lived. There was a unique coalition in Israel; the writer did not want to write, the reader did not want to read, the publisher did not want to publish. Only history would tell what role that media had had in shaping the Israeli moral standards, in which one Israel could live peacefully, when such horrible atrocities were taking place just around the corner.
He said that Israel suffered something much worse than Government censorship; they had self-censorship, which was much more dangerous, as no one resisted. Whether Israelis would have supported the occupation if they did know, he was not sure. He liked to tell himself that, if the Israelis only knew, they would do something. At other times, he said to himself that in their heart of hearts they did know and ignored it. What he did know was that, if one day, a historian went to the archives of Israeli media looking for answers to the 38 years of occupation, he would not be able to understand what had happened in those very dark years.
The process of dehumanization of the Palestinians was what had allowed the occupation to continue for so many years, in such a cruel way. He had found that answer one day, by looking around at the checkpoints: no roof, no water, only mud and dust. No evidence of human habitation. The soldiers could do what they did, because they were told that the actions they were taking were not being done against human beings. And, in that dehumanisation process, the media played a major role. Fifteen Palestinians killed in Gaza received only a small space on page 19 in the paper. The fact was not hidden from the Israeli reader, but the message is there, that it is not a big deal. And the situation had worsened in recent years, as all contacts between the two peoples had ceased. Israelis only saw Palestinians when they came to blow themselves up. The media was playing a crucial role in showing the Palestinians as demons, or something less than human. As long as that continued, peace would not be around the corner. Changing that situation was the first task, and came before a political solution.
A speaker asked to what extent was the media focusing on civilians and looking at themselves as agents of change? Also to what extent could the media address the imbalance in coverage, specifically, the fact that the Israeli media had much greater resources and access?
Mr. GHANEM agreed that journalists had a role to play as agents of change, and that everyone had to work together.
Mr. OMARI said that everything had become yet more difficult after the establishment of Kadima party in Israel, saying that they had no partner with whom to negotiate, and the coming to power of Hamas, who did not want to deal with Israel. In such a situation, what role was there for the media? The media was suffering from both sides, and the real challenge was how to deal with authorities of the occupiers and occupied, and two different societies.
One speaker, agreeing that the Israeli press was extremely free, asked Mr. Levy to clarify his comment that the Israeli media had failed to educate the public about what was going on in the occupied territories, because Mr. Levy himself and other colleagues of his had certainly done so. Who then, if most Israelis had a good sense of values, inculcated the youth with the notion that Palestinians were less than human?
Mr. LEVY, responding, said he had been brought up in Tel Aviv in a not very political home. He knew how little he had been told about 1948: very, very little. He knew how many lies he had been told about 1948. It had never crossed his mind for decades to ask who had lived in those ruins by the side of the road. He spoke from experience; Israelis believed that either what was done to the Palestinians was in the sacred cause of security, or because the Palestinians were not human. It was a gradual process, it did not happen in one day. There were so many agents involved: the media, the education, the army, the homes, the legal system -- which told citizens that there was one set of laws for Jews, one for Arabs --- and the Government agencies. All of those agents worked together towards one objective: the occupation project.
A speaker observed that the situation in the Middle East was being watched by everyone all across the world. Could a balance be found between telling the truth bluntly, and showing the positive side?
Mr. OMARI said that they were living in a world of double standards, and so it was hard to answer such a question, while no one was even trying to impose the Security Council resolutions on the subject -- solutions that the international community had agreed to. The question was not only how to educate the people: the circumstances dictated and the circumstances were not the same. There was occupier and occupied. Elections did not mean democracy, not for the Israelis and not for the Palestinians.
A speaker said that the problem was the same in every country: journalists were only interested in conflicts. He represented a trade union that was working in the Middle East region, with Palestinians and Israelis, but the media had never contacted them. That was because they were trying to build something between the two peoples, instead of always focusing on the conflict situation. As a trade union, they only had coverage when there was a strike. The media, he felt, should give more attention to positive developments.
A speaker said that he came from the university environment, which was a kind of microcosm. His students came from all over the world. When they came, their socio-cultural group was obvious. But, after a while, those differences were swept aside. He wondered if the universities could have role in getting young people together and changing their opinion.
Mr. LEVY, responding, said that that was a nice sentiment, but that any chance of getting a Palestinian and Israeli student together was no longer possible. The only way to meet a Palestinian now was to go to the wall. If you took a Palestinian student from a middle class background and anybody else from anywhere in the world, the Israeli and Palestinian would have more in common, but there were greater forces at work.
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