The Media as Mideast Mediator

By Lily Galili

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Last month, as the violence raged unabated, more than 400 Israelis and 100 Palestinians gathered in front of Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem to create a human chain in support of the peace process. The demonstration, newsworthy in its own right, also featured the unique spectacle of a group of gay Palestinians holding up signs proclaiming “Queers for Peace.”

Chances are you didn’t read about it. Nor, for that matter, did most Israelis and Palestinians. That’s because the media, with few exceptions, did not cover the demonstration.

More than simply being a matter of editorial discretion, such stories reveal the difficulties of reporting in the Middle East. But while technical obstacles and personal convictions understandably limit the constructive role media can play in the conflict, journalists have a special responsibility not to succumb to battle fatigue.

Israeli journalists, weary and cynical, feel pathetic covering yet another peace demonstration, worrying that another bombing will “kill” the story even before it gets published. But our Palestinian colleagues, who are often harassed and forced to work under siege, don’t even begin to deal with that dilemma. Some of them just know that they are not supposed to cover such stories. Some feel that their readers are not interested. Some simply have no permit to enter Jerusalem.

Palestinian journalists, who function in a non-democratic environment, are subject to severe censorship that can threaten not only their jobs but sometimes their personal freedom and safety. Israeli journalists, although seemingly free, follow a certain code of self-imposed censorship. Sometimes their inner voice tells them that after a thousand days of bloody intifada and more than 800 victims, Israelis have lost interest in nice stories about good Arabs.

Some critics claim that during the last three years, Israeli journalists compromised their professional integrity by becoming “too patriotic”; some claim just the opposite, and blame the media for over-emphasizing the Palestinian stories. Still, even compared to other societies with freedom of the press, most of the Israeli media usually does a decent job. It’s really hard to remain “objective” when the journalist — on both sides — is also a potential victim and a witness to the endless plight of his own people.

The journalistic ethos to get both sides of the story is often overshadowed by the national ethos of both Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian media are openly engaged in building a nation and a national identity, and in the process they often cross the line into incitement against the neighboring society whose identity so informs their own. The Israeli media often respond by reinforcing their own national ethos, sometimes at the cost of facts and truth.

The nature of the conflict makes journalistic integrity — and the importance of preserving it — even more acute. Since part of the conflict takes place in the sphere of symbols and myths, journalists play an active role not only in covering the stories of today, but also in writing the narrative of the future.

Things also get complicated on a practical level. Israeli journalists have to take great personal risks in order to get the other side of the story in the territories. And since mobility in Gaza and the West Bank is limited, they are often accompanied by Israeli army officials or semi-official Palestinians, both of whom promote their own agendas.

These are not the best of circumstances for real journalism.

Most Palestinian journalists, for their part, are simply denied access to Israel. Those who have access often feel threatened just by being Arabs in Israel. Any effort by a Palestinian journalist to get to the scene of a bombing and broadcast in Arabic in the midst of an angry crowd can be a risky business. Most of them don’t even bother to try. In private, they also admit that their audiences do not care.

All of the above is bad news for the profession — but it gets even worse. Truthfully, “getting both sides of the story” is temporarily not that important. Hard information — facts — is available to both sides, if they only cared to listen.

The human aspect of the story, the more difficult one to get, has unfortunately also become less significant. Both societies, engulfed in their respective tragedies and dramas, have lost interest in the plight of the other. This component of the conflict is nonexistent in Palestinian media, and minimized in the Israeli ones, as if acknowledging the other as a victim weakens the exclusivity of the claim to victimhood by each side.

With the moods of the Israeli and Palestinian publics swinging between angry desperation and resigned exhaustion, only facts on the ground can change public perceptions. For better or worse, media can play only a limited role in stopping the violence.

For the time being, though, Israeli and Palestinian media are left with no less an important task: supplying basic information to their audiences about the various peace initiatives and offering reasoned analyses. This would serve to reinforce the feeling that there is a way out of the morass, and to help both Israelis and Palestinians form informed opinions before peace agreements are signed on their behalf. Another important role for the media is to expose the destructive effect the never-ending violence and grief has had on their respective societies — a mission that is rarely fulfilled.

In retrospect, Israeli media played a negative role in the Oslo peace process. Not only were journalists not critical enough, they actively spread misperceptions. Instead of presenting the Oslo accords as a political agreement, they promoted it as a process of reconciliation — which it was not.

The public easily detected the distortion. A few months after the Rose Garden signing in September 1993, I visited Bat Yam, a working-class suburb of Tel Aviv. My not very scientific study in the streets showed that people, even those who supported Oslo, were angry.

“We know that we have to make concessions, but why do you media people have to rub it in?” they asked me angrily. “Why do you have to show Yasser Arafat as this great family man all the time? Is that really all he is? Why don’t you report honestly about the ongoing incitement in his speeches?”

They were right. We did not report on the Palestinian leader’s incitement, because it did not fit our mental picture.

I hope we’ve learned our lesson. When, according to recent studies, all institutions of democracy in Israel, especially the media, keep losing credibility, we can regain it not by trying to please the public, but by being honest with them. Only then might there be more room for effective Op-Ed diplomacy, for influencing public opinion.

Our more immediate role is to bypass the manipulative use politicians make of public opinion. They present themselves as custodians of people’s deepest needs and dreams, while they rarely understand them. It’s now up to the media to learn from both peoples what it is that they really want and what they are willing to forsake. Making this basic information known to both sides might be the most important role media can play now.

Lily Galili is a senior writer for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

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