On journalistic responsibility: Media and Palestine

Tensions between Western liberalism and imperialism have deformed mainstream journalism’s outlook.

A journalist's responsibility is first and foremost to try to establish the facts, writes Bishara [AFP]

Palestinians can be a drag sometimes – even paranoid. They reckon all Westerners are out to get them. And judging from their reaction in recent days, it’s clear they never met a media channel they liked. Their criticism of CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera America is a testimony of their paranoia.

It’s not like all their homeland is occupied! Or most of their people dispossessed! 

Oops. Okay, actually, it is. Yes, they are. 

Indeed, Palestine is under siege, and Palestinians are revolting once again.

But so what? Should being victims of five decades of military occupation and seven decades of dispossession put them above questioning or criticism?

It’s not like Western media is out to get them.  

Or is it? At least those Palestinians in the West seem to think so.

Complaints, complaints

The unabashed bias has led some, including Jerusalem Fund Director Yousef Munayyer, to question if “CNN has officially become Israeli state TV”. Munayyer cites CNN’s June 30 coverage of the death of three Israeli settlers, featuring three outspoken Israeli guests: Israel’s former US ambassador (who became a CNN analyst); the present Israel ambassador to the US, and Mark Regev, official spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet how many Palestinians were invited to speak about the large-scale violence and collective punishment of civilians wrought upon them by the Israeli military machine? “Zero”, according to Munayyer.

But why the exaggerated dismay! That’s, basically, as many Israelis CNN invited to speak about the missing Malaysian flight. 

Fortunately, the same can’t be said of Al Jazeera America, which does invite Palestinians to give their perspective. Yet, Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian who spoke on air, lamented that AJAM host David Shuster “was like Israel’s defence attorney cross examining me”.

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Indeed, many of Abunimah’s Twitter followers bemoaned that the interview sounded like “something from FOX news”.

Abunimah seemed dumbstruck by the question: Why isn’t Hamas expressing sympathy and expressing condolences to the settler families? Worse, instead of condemning Hamas’ unwelcomed indifference, he went on a rampage about Israel’s occupation and apartheid, acting as if this was the time or the place to make such assertions, when we were all supposed to lower the flag and declare three days of mourning just as Israel does after the death of each and every Palestinian.

OK, Israel doesn’t do that. But it does open investigations; lots of investigations leading to more investigations. At any rate, the whining doesn’t stop there; it’s also contagious. Now Palestinians and those in solidarity with Palestine are taking the BBC to a tribunal in a bid to find out why the British corporation is promoting Jerusalem as an “Israeli city”.

Why the constant nitpicking? When all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, also referred to as “Judea and Samaria” are finally back under the control of their “lawful owners”, who cares how the BBC refers to Jerusalem. Crazy.

Alas, none of this is funny. It’s rather sad considering the suffering that comes along to all those in proximity to Palestine.

Speaking of fact and fiction

A journalist’s responsibility is first and foremost to try to establish the facts. People, Israelis and Palestinians included, have a right to their opinion, but not to their own facts.

Without the facts, fiction or propaganda is more likely to complicate political issues, not clarify them. And once the facts are established, journalists must do all they can without prejudice to make sense of them in order to come as close as possible to the truth of the matter.

Is Palestine occupied? Yes. Is East Jerusalem occupied? Yes. Is Western coverage of Palestine overwhelmingly slanted towards Israel? Of course. These are verifiable facts.

Is Hamas a by-product of the Israeli occupation? Yes. Just as Hezbollah is a by-product of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, al-Shabab a by-product of Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia, al-Qaeda of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Islamic State, of the US ‘ occupation of Iraq. Historical records make that clear.

Why is Hamas inciting violence against Israel instead of expressing condolences and sympathy when Israelis die? Because they represent what they best see fit as the resistance spirit of a people under a repressive and murderous occupation. These are the facts.

Was it Hamas that killed the three Israeli settler youths?  

Journalist as policemen

There’s nothing wrong with a journalist investigating with the skill of a prosecutor in order to understand the root causes of complicated issues. Like policemen, journalists report facts, but unlike policemen, they do not enforce the law – theoretically or otherwise. 

Journalists are bound by a great duty: to trace, examine, and question the salient, indirect and all too often, the political responsibility for creating an environment conducive to violence.

In that way, a military occupation is a violence-based system managed through force; one that breeds more of the same. No act, terrible as it might be, could or should be seen separately from the larger system of violence governing an occupied territory. Separating individual cases of violence from the larger context of collective violence is morally irresponsible and journalistically misleading.

The occupation is not a theological or religious issue. Not a question of Muslim and Jew, Arab and Israeli. It’s about power, its pretexts and ramifications.

The same applies to a civilian occupation imposed by force, as is the case with Israel’s settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories which the United Nations Security Council deemed unlawful in contravention to the Geneva Convention (IV). 

Analytically speaking, when Israel continues to expand settlements, despite the onset of the peace process, one could make the case, as the Palestinians do, that those who impose settlements illegally and by force, are responsible for the violence that results from both sides: the settlers and the indigenous population.

Journalists are no diplomats

Bridging the gap among conflicting claims through compromise is not the responsibility of journalists – that’s a role for a politician or diplomat.

A journalist’s first and foremost responsibility is to highlight the relevant angles and perspectives of any event without prejudice or orthodoxy. But it shouldn’t stop there.

Journalists must question the nature of the systems of power at play, as well as their uses and abuses.  

Giving a Nazi and a Jew equal time doesn’t make for a good discussion of the Holocaust. Just as providing a racist and victim of racism equal time doesn’t make for an investigation into Apartheid. Such claims of “balance” to prove “neutrality” is at best misleading.

Likewise, providing ample time for two authorities’ spokespersons to decimate each other’s official lines makes for twice the propaganda. Bridging the gap between occupied and occupier in the shadows of occupation doesn’t make for good journalism, it makes for bad media.

Indeed, the media’s attempt at playing devil’s advocate – while it is healthy and allows for a degree of scepticism – must break out of the false dichotomy of pro and anti, to shed light on more nuanced discussions that go beyond official lines, and recycled claims and banalities.

Sensitive and controversial?

The tension between Western liberalism and Western imperialism, and discrepancy between Western values and politics, have long deformed the mainstream journalistic outlook towards the developing world. Likewise, intimidation, fear tactics and worse of all, accusations of anti-Semitism have all too often undermined Western journalism’s approach to the Palestine-Israel topic. That’s not to say there is no anti-Semitism. But its misuse by Zionist propagandists have undermined it to a large degree.

The conventional wisdom is that the Israel-Palestine topic is a sensitive and controversial issue that journalists need to tiptoe around, for fear of upsetting powerful elites, or the Israeli camp in the West. To journalists, it’s not exactly a good career move to open themselves to accusation of anti-Semitism, unfair as that might be.

Alas, there are enough bigots with prison guard-type mindsets who will literally throw garbage at anyone who dares to question the Israeli occupation until it sticks.

But that mustn’t discourage those carrying out this honourable profession to carry their work ethically. In this case, this includes the misconduct of the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas regime in Gaza.

Even if journalists are not licensed like doctors are, and face no malpractice lawsuits that bar them from practising their profession, their responsibility towards a healthier society cannot be overestimated.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.