Palestine Monitor, 22 October 2010
Comedian Mark Steel said that if the Israeli army blew up a cat’s home, the following day headlines would scream that the unfortunate animals were smuggling semtex for Hamas. Steel was referring to the Gaza flotilla and subsequent cover-up, but ironically that tragedy marked a tipping point away from Israeli PR hegemony. Today, there is more coverage from a Palestinian perspective than ever before.
Little credit can be given to mainstream media. The BBC ignored the flotilla until there was a body count and followed up with a disgracefully biased documentary. Fox News would only show IDF videos. The disparity in media resources between the sides is even greater than their military means, slanting material before it reaches international audiences. There are 23 Israeli national daily newspapers in five languages and its state TV channels are broadcast internationally. Of the three Palestinian dailies, two belong to political parties, all are exclusively Arabic language and the largest individual circulation is 20,000.
Yet perceptions of the conflict are changing and the reason is internet coverage. Live streams from the flotilla hosted on Witness Gaza and Viva Palestina gave testimonies to millions around the world that could not be confiscated. When Bassem Abu Rahmah was killed in Bi’lin, footage made it to youtube and the IDF were forced to investigate. When conventional journalists were barred from entering Gaza during Cast Lead, brave bloggers ensured the massacres did not go unreported.
The attention generated by internet coverage has created a self-perpetuating cycle. International visitors come to Palestine to learn more. They publicise their stories, most commonly through the internet. Their testimonies attract the next wave of witnesses. A generation ago it was common for Western students to take a year out in an Israeli kibbutz, now they volunteer in the West Bank.
Online representations of Palestine range from the angry travelogues of individual bloggers to polished agencies with reporters across the territories. The creation of new voices has already leveled the playing field, to the point that international pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups wage Wikipedia wars, re-writing pages to suit their narratives. The advantage Israel derived from its print media has been partly negated, with its best-read newspapers now making their content available online and publishing blogs to capitalise on the net’s reach and immediacy.
The challenge is to establish and maintain credibility. At the Palestine Monitor we follow what has been our guiding principle since 2000; expose life under occupation. We are well served by the historically poor coverage of Palestinian issues, in that there is a wealth of material to be uncovered. We cannot claim to be impartial, but scandals are so common that there is no need for distortion.
Other dedicated news sites take objectivity more seriously, even if they share our sympathies. The Jerusalem Media & Communications Centre originated as a resource for journalists based in Israel, providing access to Palestinian sources that would have otherwise been overlooked. Today the JMCC has its own voice, publishing breaking news, but its values have endured. “We can be critical of Palestinian policies, but we provide news from a Palestinian perspective” says JMCC managing editor Omar Rahman, “there are plenty of Israeli news sources giving their perspectives. We give Palestinian society a voice”.
The proliferation of voices through the internet brings problems. Anyone who has read a comments page will realise the web is awash with irresponsible publishing. Racism, incitement and sickening references to the holocaust can be found on personal blogs supporting Palestinian liberation. Besides their moral degradation, these sites are a gift to Israeli watchdogs, which use them to taint Palestinian causes. Sites like Palestinian Media Watch, established by former Israeli government negotiator Itamar Marcus, trawl Palestinian media in search of anti-Semitic material. The faintest trace makes it to their well-trafficked site, re-enforcing violent stereotypes of Palestinians, even when it is as absurd as ‘Mahmoud Abbas visits terror village’.
Activist groups like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) suffer greater defamation. The longest serving activist group in Palestine has been accused of terrorism by Israeli critics. Yet their media department is a widely used reference point for recognised news sources both sides of the separation barrier. Evie Soli, head of ISM media, believes that strictly neutral reporting has maintained their website’s credibility. “If Palestinians are throwing rocks at a protest I include that. We don’t protect them, once you start using personal opinions it’s a problem.”
ISM’s messages are heard, but similar groups have suffered from an image of being generic representatives of the radical left, contributed to by their web presence. Pro-Palestine anarchist sites often conflate anti-occupation material with staple left-wing vendettas against globalisation and the arms trade, an approach disparaged by Edward Said for fear that the movement’s identity would be lost.
Visible association with the left has been a success in terms of trade union support. The Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement, backed by hundreds of unions across the world, facilitates campaigns against the occupation and its supporters. Their co-ordination of large-scale international events is enabled by their popular online forum, which gives details of their campaigns, background information and tips on getting involved.
While political campaigns like these are valuable, alternative material is required to better represent Palestinian society. Typical web coverage of Palestine devotes too much space to occupation issues, neglecting its rich social and cultural life. Greater efforts should be made to teach the world about Dabke dancing, kanafeh and the potential of Nablus as a tourism destination.
Venetia Rainey, journalist and author of the independent blog Westerner In The West Bank, feels narrow coverage does Palestinians a disservice. “Discussing only politics reduces Palestinians to pawns in the peace process game. We must not let people be dehumanised and media could be doing much more in that respect.”
It could also be doing more to connect Palestinians with the foreign readership most important to them, Israelis. American journalist Phillip Weiss’ Mondoweiss is an honourable exception, juxtaposing oppositional material so that Palestinians are given not only a voice but answers, exposing them to the alien Israeli perspective and vice versa. Mondoweiss is known for facilitating mature debates, free of the defensive hysteria which characterises so many discussions of the conflict.
In the west, Israelis tend to win these debates. Self-representation in Israel is such an art that a new word was invented for it; hasbara, loosely translating to ‘the Israeli truth’. Until recently, the word ‘inadequate’ could summarise Palestinian efforts, but thanks to the web an opportunity now exists to hear both sides.
Join the debates at http://mondoweiss.net/