Press Releases

                                                                                                                     18 June 2004

    Concluding Session of International Media Seminar Takes up Media’s Role in Quest for Middle East Peace

    (Received from a UN Information Officer.)

    BEIJING, 17 June -- The Israeli press was a free press, until it came to the story of occupation, when very few Israeli journalists told the real story, the International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East heard this afternoon as it took up its final topic -- media’s role in the quest for Middle East peace. (The seminar was organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information.)

    Introducing a panel of print and television journalists for the concluding discussion entitled “Public Opinion and the Search for Peace: The Role of the Media”, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, said he hoped the panellists would address themselves to the question of whether the media facilitated or hindered the Middle East political crisis. He said that with roughly 40 per cent of the world’s population spending nearly a quarter of their waking hours listening, the media was clearly very important in shaping public opinion.

    The panellists this afternoon were: Gideon Levy, Editor and columnist, Ha’aretz, Israeli newspaper; Walid Omary, Senior Correspondent, Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, Ramallah, West Bank; Amina Frense, News Producer, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC); Ntipoom Navaratna, Columnist, Thai Rath, Thailand; Seema Mustafa, Political Editor, The Asian Age, India; David Rieff, political analyst and contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.

    Suggesting that an ordinary Israeli could not get the real picture from the media about what was going on, Mr. LEVY said that the Israeli media, for the past two-and-a-half years, had mainly played an irresponsible, if not a criminal, role. The Israeli media was very professional and almost always told the truth, but not the whole truth. What was worse was that the average Israeli did not know what was being done on his or her behalf -- the soldier at the checkpoint, the soldier who demolished the houses in Rafah, who had prevented a woman from giving birth in a hospital -- all on the Israelis’ behalf.

    He said the narrative was that Israelis were the real victims, that Palestinian entity almost did not exist. Most Israelis did not know about the cruel, brutal occupation. There was a kind of self-censorship in the Israeli media, which was much worse than government censorship. The Israeli press was a free press, until it came to the story of occupation. What was happening in Israel’s backyard was taboo; that story was not being told.  The only way to keep that brutal occupation going was by dehumanizing the Palestinian, by ensuring that the Israeli soldier never saw the old lady at the checkpoint as human and very much like his own grandmother.

    In the discussion that followed, the journalists spoke about the ongoing self-examination of their role and the need to have the courage to describe things as they were. They worried about the possibility of blurred vision, losing touch, reporting only what a government and its people wanted to hear. And, they worried about their ability to influence or change direction. The view was also expressed that a journalist’s role was critical, but not necessarily as an activist.

    Ms. MUSTAFA said that journalists should be able to rise above governments and report a story correctly and project reality as it existed. Journalists had to make a choice about whether they stood for right or wrong, justice or injustice, equality or inequality, war or peace. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they had to ask whether the demand for a homeland was right of wrong. The onus on the media was tremendous. The danger was its failure to report the truth, to report the real story.

    Before the seminar concluded, several participants expressed appreciation for the enlightening two-day meeting. It was suggested that Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, hardly ever met any more and had only the image, in Israeli eyes, of Palestinians as suicide bombers, and in Palestinian eyes, Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints preventing them from getting on with their lives. With so few meeting points for the two sides, and the good, old peace conferences a thing of the past, many thanked those at the United Nations and in the Chinese Government who had created the rare opportunity to see each other without weapons, without the body language of the soldiers.

    In closing, Mr. THAROOR said that, after two days of intense discussions on the role of civil society in promoting a just and lasting Middle East peace, it had been agreed, first and foremost, that the views and actions of ordinary people counted. Political leaders might make policy decisions, but those decisions must have the respect and endorsement of ordinary people, if the desired outcomes were to be achieved in the long term.

    He noted that participants had talked about how best to inform the world-at-large and the people of the region, through the media, about what was happening. Israelis and Palestinians must be encouraged to participate in the wider debate on the issues of crucial importance to them, their children and the future of their societies, and the media could help encourage that participation.

    Discussion had also focused on how civil society initiatives, such as the Geneva Accords and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Initiative had challenged the accepted political wisdom by addressing thorny issues that could not be avoided if a just and lasting peace were to be attained, he said. Those had stimulated debate, not only in the Middle East, but also within the international community.

    Clearly, he said, there was some way to go before the question of Palestine would be answered. Those at the United Nations believed that the Road Map would serve as a sound basis for that journey, but its implementation would require the political will, not only of political leaders, but also of the people. And, civil society had much to contribute in that regard. He hoped that members of the press would use their creativity and professional skills to contribute to peace in that long-embattled region, by giving the world information it needed, as well as hope.

    Highlights of the Panel Discussion

    Ms. Mustafa urged journalists to speak as journalists and not fall into the trap of speaking as “jingoistic” supporters of governments. A sad reflection was that the three countries priding themselves on being the strongest democracies in the world, and where the media was free, had failed the people completely. The American media had failed on Iraq. The Israeli media had failed on the Palestinian question, and the Indian media had failed completely on the issue of Kashmir and in promoting peace with Pakistan. If those had been independent and not acted as embedded journalists, the governments would have been forced to take corrective measures and perhaps the stories would not have been so ugly and full of suffering.

    Mr. NAVARATNA, Columnist, Thai Rath, Thailand, said his columns were read by about 15 million people each morning. But the Thai media used to duplicate the news from CNN, BBC, Reuters and so forth. So the 62 million people of Thailand had been exposed only to the views of the western media. A country composed of 94 per cent Buddhists was far removed from the events in the west and the Middle East. Yet, his Government’s Middle East policy had been designed according to the western media.

    In the past five years, he said, students had been sent to study journalism around the world and they returned with different views and know-how. During the bombing in Afghanistan, his reporters were at the border. During the fighting in Iraq last year, he and his team were in Baghdad, so they saw things through their own eyes and reported that to the Thai public. As a result, Thai policy and public opinion had changed much. The mass media in Thailand had had an impact on government policy and on public opinion. In the past, Thai people had let their Government set policy on the Middle East, in favour of the Israelis, and had ignored the Palestinian plight. The problem had been that the mass media in his country and in South-East Asia had synchronized itself with the west.

    Mr. OMARY, Senior Correspondent, Al Jazeera Satellite Channel, Ramallah, West Bank, condemned the killing of 30 journalists in Iraq since the war there. Peace in his region was absent now. Bloodshed had become the policy of both sides. The new theory was that the power was in civil society. If that was true, then there was a role for journalists and the media in that formula. Their role could either build confidence or damage it. In the Middle East, the real challenge for both local and international journalists was how to manage two different kinds of authorities and two different kinds of communities.

    Ms. FRENSE, News Producer, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) said she had been very moved by Mr. Levy’s intervention about the average Israeli who did not know what was going on in the Occupied Territories. It reminded her of people’s claim during the holocaust that they had had some idea of what was going on, but they really did not know. Could people today really claim they did not know? Her role was as an advocate for freedom -- of expression and movement. That was the cause for which some had taken up arms and died. It was not possible to turn her back on what was happening in the Middle East. True adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights meant “putting your money where your mouth is”.

    Mr. RIEFF, contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, said that Israel was a domestic issue in the United States, so it was not covered like a foreign affairs story, but like a domestic issue. That had partly to do with the presence and influence of Jewish America, but more largely to do with the strategic military alliance between the United States and Israel. That was much more complicated and intimate than was usually acknowledged. The United States was by no means Israel’s only strategic partner. He was sitting in a country that might be “morphing” into such a partner, but not on such a scale. There was also the allegiance of evangelical Christians to the Israeli cause. And the perception that Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups had singled out Americans, Israelis and Jews had created a powerful sympathy in America for Israel.

    He said that all of those elements had profoundly affected media coverage. In the last two or three years, mainstream news had tended to move farther away from a blind support of Israeli positions. That was a so-called “third rail” issue, which referred to the rail on the subway lines in New York that could electrocute a person. Covering that story, a journalist understood that there would be controversy. The Middle East was a very controversial domestic issue. Newspapers reflected the views of governments, but also of populations. Coverage of the story in the United States had been a fair reflection of the state of thinking in the American mainstream.

    A Palestinian reporter speaking from the floor said journalists in the Middle East had become slaves to the situation. The picture was so grave and bloody that they had lost faith at their ability to influence events or change their direction. His children and Mr. Levy’s wanted to join their respective armies. It had not even been possible to influence his own children growing up under occupation. When one of them answered the telephone, and there was an Israeli friend on the line, his child had heard the tone and would yell at his father, calling him a collaborator.

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