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Digital Shahid - From Broadcast Media to Citizen Journalism in Palestine

Issue 12, Winter 2010

By Gianluca Iazzolino

Settler graffiti on a Palestinian home in Hebron - picture by ScottMontreal

Settler graffiti on a Palestinian home in Hebron - picture by ScottMontreal

In January 2007, a video a few minutes long sparked stark outrage in Israel. At first it circulated on the Internet and soon after was broadcast by several TV channels around the world. It showed a woman from the Jewish settlement of Tel Rumeida, in the Old City of Hebron, West Bank, cursing a young Palestinian girl. The woman, later identified as Yifat Alkobi, was one of the 500 radical settlers dwelling in the heart of one of the most volatile Palestinian cities, where, despite the presence of almost 2,000 Israeli soldiers, the constant friction between the Jewish and the Arab communities has created a highly explosive situation. The incident was filmed with a handy camera by the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Abu Eishe family from within the metallic grid that protects her house from the frequent attacks of neighboring settlers. The footage captured the woman shouting to the girl's sister the Arabic and Hebrew term for whore, sharmouta. The word become a label for the video and it was referred to as such in the debates that stirred up Israeli public opinion. Because of the ban on traveling to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that footage gave many Israelis their first ever insight into an aspect of Palestinian daily life under occupation. For them, it was a shock. For B'tselem, a Jerusalem-based advocacy organization which relies on a network of activists campaigning for the respect of human rights in the Occupied Territories, and which produced and posted the video online, it was a success. Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke publicly about the sharmouta video, condemning the behavior of the settler and ordering an investigation. Moreover, a ministerial committee was established to address issues in Hebron, highlighting the so-called 'quiet transfer' of Palestinians from the Old City, which has turned the once vibrant area into a ghost town. Since then, this sort of grassroots reporting, otherwise called citizen journalism1 and made possible by the penetration of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the emergence of Web 2.0, has enabled and empowered many Palestinians, for the first time, to show their daily plight: to be the makers, and not only the protagonists, of the headlines.


 

This article focuses on the emergence of Palestinian citizen journalism and its impact on the Palestinian national narrative and on the perception of the conflict since the First Intifada, arguing that new and more democratic practices of communication are creating space for exploring peaceful forms of resistance against the occupation. To this aim, we first discuss the stakes in the media war between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the second part, we examine the evolution of Arab broadcast media between the First and the Second Intifada. Then we focus on the rise of Palestinian broadcast media and how their news coverage has affected the course of the events. In the fourth part, we explore the way in which these broadcast media have contributed to shaping and feeding the icon of the martyr. In the fifth part, we analyze how the Internet in the Occupied Territories has empowered a new generation of Palestinians raised in the social and political milieu which emerged from the Second Intifada, making it possible to challenge the dominant narrative of the conflict. Eventually, we describe a best practice in which ICTs are being employed by Palestinian and Israeli advocacy organizations to denounce human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories, enhancing the accountability of the Israeli army and seeking to bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian civil societies.


 

Media War

No other conflict in the world attracts so much attention as the 60-year conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the same land. It is beyond the scope of this paper to inquire into the reasons for this prominence in coverage, but practitioners often mention two elements in their analysis: the high symbolic value of the places where this struggle is fought and the powerful lobbies in the West and in the Arab world interested in having the story running (McGregor-Wood and Schenker, 2003)2

 

The awareness of having all the cameras pointed at them has fostered the strong belief, among both Israelis and Palestinians, that the “struggle over the news media can be just as important as the battle on the ground” (Wolfsfeld, 2003: 5). Media serve different functions, even though both sides pursue the same purpose – attracting public sympathy for their cause, underlining their own rightness and the enemy's brutality – as they compete, in front of an international audience, for the role of the victim. Israel is concerned with convincing its Western allies of the legitimacy of its actions, exerting effective damage control to reduce the exposure of the Israeli army's operations or, when inevitable, promptly framing them according to the Israeli government's official story line. At the core of this attitude is the belief, widespread in Israel, that the international press holds a strong bias against the Jewish state and its policies towards the Palestinians. Conversely, Palestinians see the media as an equalizer to be used to compensate for their objective weakness with a powerful tool to enlist the support of third parties, especially amongst European civil society and in the Arab world (ib: 6). In this often gruesome contest of suffering and pain, visual communication plays a crucial role. Palestinian leadership in particular has been accused in many instances, especially by pro-Israeli commentators, of pushing youths to clash with the IDF when cameras are present to gain international sympathy (Podhoretz, 2001). As a matter of fact, striking images, especially involving kids and teenagers, have indeed achieved the goal of stirring emotions, in particular at the early stages of the first Intifada, when the eruption of the conflict was covered by Israeli and non-Arab TV stations. Back then, footage showing Israeli soldiers using huge stones to crush the bones of two young Palestinians in handcuffs gained international support for the uprising (Andoni, 2001) – support which partially evaporated following the waves of suicide bombings that hit Israeli public places after the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP). No images, though, have ended up symbolizing the pit of despair in which the peace process had fallen less than ten years after the Oslo agreement as much as those of the child Mohammed al-Durrah shot dead in his father's lap and of two Israeli soldiers mob-lynched in Ramallah. Following this last event, the Israeli government prohibited its citizens to travel to the Occupied Territories. The Israeli army changed its attitude towards foreign reporters and crews to such an extent that, in the first year of the al-Aqsa intifada, journalists were shot at (Enderlin, 2003). The distinction between information and propaganda became increasingly nuanced, even in Israel, where foreign media had some freedom of movement to cover the army's operations within the Occupied Territories. The Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) ceased to issue permits and press cards to Palestinian reporters, cameramen and fixers working for international broadcasters. According to Charles Enderlin, then correspondent of France 2, whose crew filmed the killing of Mohammad al-Durrah, “the general atmosphere created by the sentiment that the foreign press is the 'enemy of Israel', led to some companies and journalists being individually targeted” (ib.: 62). During Operation Defensive Shields, in March-April 2002, the IDF cordoned off entire areas of the West Bank, denying the media access to the front line. Despite the prohibition, some journalists succeeded in sneaking into theaters of military operations and were able to film the events, although only from the Palestinian side. This eventually turned into a blow for the Israeli army, which had censored the footage of the combats filmed by the only Israeli crew allowed in the areas (ib.: 63). Since then, the army has invested considerable resources in honing its own image, setting up training in media handling for soldiers dispatched to the Occupied Territories and creating a combat unit of “fighting cameramen” carrying video cameras in the field to report the Israeli side of the story. The spin doctors in charge of Hasbara, as Israelis call information for the outside (Said, 2001), have thus elaborated techniques and procedures to prevent the leak of details that could undermine the Israeli army's boasts about its ethical code of conduct. Two techniques in particular are worth mentioning: the first is the label 'low signature' for operations which can hardly be captured by the press. The second is awareness of 'news cycles' when carrying out delayed retaliations, based on the assumption that an immediate Israeli armed response to a Palestinian attack would draw all news coverage, turning the victim into the aggressor in the eyes of international public opinion. The subtler and most common tactic, though, remains putting death on or off camera according to whether the casualties are on one's own side or on the enemy side, dignifying the former with detailed biographies and depriving the latter even of the names.

 

As mentioned above, the first Intifada was covered only by Israeli and foreign broadcast journalists. Local journalists, employed in print media, were hired to work with the correspondents as translators, field guides, fixers and TV producer assistants, roles to which they attributed patriotic value. When leading a reporter to the place of a major clash or arranging interviews with politicians and fighters, their purpose was often to support the national cause and further the storyline of the Palestinian David against the Israeli Goliath. As a side effect, this collaboration led to the development of local expertise in an industry that, during the same period, was undergoing profound changes in the entire Middle East. Journalism training courses sprung up in the Occupied Territories and many young Palestinians started looking at the journalist profession not only as a viable career, but also as a way to fight for a free and independent Palestine.

 

At the local level, a number of cable broadcasting initiatives were launched in 1987 in the north of the West Bank. The only national broadcaster Palestinians could ever remember, Jordanian TV, had been replaced after 1967 by Israeli television stations, whose programs were in Hebrew except for a couple of hours every day when they switched to Arabic (El-Obeidi, n.d.). Only those who lived on the hilltops could receive Syrian TV and get a sense of how the Arab world was covering the occupation, probably with a hint of disappointment. Until 1991 Arab television stations shared a similar government-run model, whose main function was to be a tool of propaganda, controlled by the national ministries of information. The agenda was imposed on the editors and, as for the coverage of events related to the Occupied Territories, the only news worth reporting was often that in which it was possible to mention the particular regime's leader. The role of the Palestinians in the struggle was overshadowed by the leadership speaking out in their favor. The guideline for every Arab newsroom was: Never show the Palestinian problem to be bigger than the leader who claims to speak and act on behalf of Palestinians (Rinnawi, 2003: 59). In September 1991, the private broadcaster MBC went on the air in Arabic from studios in London (Ayish, 2001). It targeted the Arab world in a Western style and paved the way for other broadcasters. Satellite TV networks were created in Italy, in Lebanon and in the Gulf states, where Qatar-based al-Jazeera started broadcasting in 1996. The goals changed, as these private broadcasters no longer served a government-dictated agenda but were profit-driven and therefore eager to please a more demanding Arab audience. The Palestinian issue did not lose its appeal. On the contrary, broadcasting the suffering of the Palestinians not only burnished the pan-Arab credentials of the transnational Arab TV networks but was also successful in terms of viewers. Nationalism paid off, especially if it was associated with sensational images and flamboyant language. A new rhetoric thrived on the news coverage carried by Arab media, which made the second Intifada “the first televised conflict where Arab transnational TVs set the agenda for Arab (and often Israeli) audiences” (Rinnawi: 57). If the conflict was reframed as the “al-Aqsa Intifada”, it was due essentially to Arab satellite TVs, which adopted the powerful symbol of the al-Aqsa mosque to underline the connection between Ariel Sharon's walk on the Temple Mount and the ensuing violence, thus encouraging the identification of the entire Arab and Muslim world with the Palestinians.


 

Reconciliatory news is no news”

A series of journalist workshops held in Jerusalem and Ramallah led, in 1994, to the creation of the Palestinian Broadcasting Company (PBC), the first Palestinian TV born with the main goal of representing the official position of the recently created Palestinian National Authority (PNA) on the peace process. It was a government-run media outlet which exhibited since its inception a disturbing paradox: although it was an emanation of a leadership which had just signed a commitment to peace, it was still a militant media for which “reconciliatory news (was) no news.”(Dajani, 2003: 40) The news coverage focused on drumming up international support for the Palestinian cause, “giving only skimpy attention to the burning political and economic challenges facing the Oslo peace process” (ib.). Objectivity once again succumbed to the concern of appealing to the audience in the name of the interest of the nation – a nation which had never ceased to be at war. This attitude was amplified by the spread of local TV stations, which had reached the number of thirty at the time of the second Intifada. The urge to promote a political stand took over the one of providing a public service. Furthermore, the influence of local political forces, often opposed to Fatah, imposed on the news coverage a slant not only against the DOP, but also against the Palestinian leadership which had signed an agreement with the Israeli occupiers, even when the IDF was withdrawing from the urban areas. Israel remained the enemy and, in order to promote popular mobilization against the occupation, exaggerating facts and figures seemed legitimated by the decades of inhumane practices (Daraghmeh, 2003: 14). However, it is worth noting that, before the al-Aqsa Intifada, there were some windows of opportunity for reconciliation, and some cautious steps were taken in that direction. In the middle of the 1990s, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad started sponsoring suicide attacks, most broadcasting and print media criticized those actions and their orchestrators, portraying the people who had carried out the attacks as desperate (ib.). This tendency mirrored a public opinion in which, according to official Palestinian figures, support for suicide bombing was limited to around 20 percent (ib.). The popular backing for attacks on Israeli civilians jumped to 80 percent following the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, an attitude largely reflected in (and fueled by) the media which, in return, pursued a storyline consistent with the dominant narrative. The gradual erosion of Fatah's dominance in the 1990s, which culminated with the victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections and the takeover of Gaza in 2007, produced a polarization in media which nevertheless left little space for critical voices. Not only at the peaks of the violence, but also in the interlude between the establishment of the PNA and Sharon's provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, media outlets stood firm on the premise that there was “only one story worth covering” (ib.: 13). The backdrop to this assumption was not only the fact that the Israeli occupation affects every aspect of Palestinian daily life, but also the heavy censorship of particularly sensitive internal issues, unless they are raised as politically motivated attacks by one side on the other, such as corruption, the many shadows on the leadership of Yasser Arafat, or taboos such as the one-state solution3. The censorship, though, is not merely political but also social, and revolves around the very possibility of offering the audience views which challenge the dominant narrative. That was especially the case when Palestinian cities were reoccupied and the IDF launched operation Defense Shield in 2002: media rallied rank and file behind the official line. An embryonic Palestinian peace movement was inhibited from emerging and gaining visibility, squeezed between the brutality of Israel, which exacerbated what started as a non-violent resistance, and the response of the Palestinian armed groups, which flourished over pictures of graphic violence and inflammatory statements (Gordon, 2010). Authoritative voices calling for an end to militant violence were marginalized in the media and war dominated the Palestinian public discourse as the only reaction to the occupation. Even intellectuals such as Ramzy Baroud, editor-in-chief of the Palestinian Chronicle, deemed non-violence to be “doomed for failure" adding that the "savagery of the enemy is what in fact determines the level of resistance"(Eid, 2008).

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1An alternative definition is grassroots journalism, and it is based on the assumption that people without a professional background in journalism can use electronic tools and the Internet to produce and disseminate news or simply fact-check what is reported in the mainstream media.

2According to Andrew Steele, the BBC's Middle East Bureau Chief, another reason is the fact that “people here are like us. It's racist, but we care more about Jews and Arabs being shot dead than we do about Bangladeshis who drown in a flood, because that's much more remote, it's much more distant”(interview by McGregor-Wood and Schenker, 2003)

3In June 2009, the Brussel-based Internation Federation of Journalist condemned a crackdown against media in Palestine after both the PNA and Hamas ordered their security forces in the West Bank and in Gaza to detain a number of journalists accused of siding with the rival faction. One month after, the PNA ordered to close down the al-Jazeera desk in Ramallah because of allegations of 'incitement and false information.” The Qatar-based TV was accused of holding a bias against the PNA for having aired innuendos on the participation of President Abbas in a plot to kill late leader Arafat. The ban was lifted few days later (IFJ, 2009).

4Interview with Yoav Gross, video coordinator at B'tselem, 15/12/2009