Media Coverage of the Intifadah – the Logic of Power

I was watching an episode of “Diplomatic License” on CNN the other Sunday. It was hosting one of those supposedly fair and evenhanded discussions on the Palestinian Uprising (the “intifadah”).

Of course, each side was represented: on the right corner, you had the two debating champs representing the Israeli point of view, one of whom is the editor of one of the leading “current affairs” magazines in the US, and the other the head of one of the myriad Israeli lobbies. And for the Palestinian side, you had two protagonists (how admirably neutral of CNN): one was a spokesman for an Islamic organization that is as famous in the United States as the author of this article, and another who heads a Jerusalem Studies Centre that must have been established on the day on which “Diplomatic License” was recorded! And so the debate raged on and on.

Richard Roth, the program’s presenter and debate arbitrator par excellence, presided over the proceedings and portrayed an image of utmost impartiality. Equal time was given to each side to air its views, Richard acted graciously, both sides raised their issues, and the program concluded with a quote from Kofi Annan’s speech before the recent Arab Summit in Amman. Kofi Annan, god bless him, was of course a picture of justice and righteousness. His quote had something for both sides – yes, the Arabs had every right to be miffed by the continued occupation of Palestinian territories, but Israelis had a right to worry for their security.

On the other side of the world, on the same day, Slobodan Milosevic was being arrested.

In the news programs and the hastily arranged debate shows on CNN, BBC World and all other major Western news media, the storyline was simple. It was fairytale-esque. It was a good day for Serbia and all those who believe in freedom and basic human rights. The “Butcher of Belgrade,” the “dictator,” the “war criminal” was being arrested – let the world rejoice! During that day’s coverage and on subsequent days, those news media organizations were not obsessed with the need to seem impartial vis-à-vis Slobo and his band of buddies in Belgrade. The analysts who appeared on our screens were congratulating the Serbian authorities and the world on the great news, and talked mostly logistics – will Slobo live it out in a Belgrade jail or will he eventually be given over to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. And I see nothing wrong with that. A man who is a war criminal has been arrested, and in times like these, when all reasonable persons can agree on what the parameters of basic justice are, there is no need to be as obsessive as usual about impartiality.

And that’s when I realized why people in Europe and the US never really supported Palestinian rights. Since the existence of Israel, Western media has presented the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a struggle of equals fighting it out in the name of colliding causes that are at best vague and at worst indecipherable to the average viewer. Whenever there’s a crisis in the seemingly endless saga that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, analysts from both sides are woken from their sleep and dragged into our TV sets to champion their side of the great divide.

What’s wrong with that? Am I actually denouncing impartiality? Of course not. Fair reporting and neutral coverage of events are the hallmarks of a free society in which the press is not restricted by government propaganda. But even in the fairest and most neutral of media outlets, a certain practice, let’s call it a human practice, has evolved over the years: YES, you should be evenhanded with almost all issues in the world. BUT, there are certain issues on which all average human beings can agree that there is one side that is clearly the aggressor, the undoubted violator of the other party’s rights. And in such cases, it is only natural, and acceptable to the average viewer, that the media need not be fanatic about equal air time to both sides of the argument. It’s OK to show some human bias.

There are a multitude of cases in point: the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, the genocide in Rawanda, the democratic movement’s struggle against dictatorship in Eastern Europe, Kosovars pursuit of basic human rights, Kuwait’s resistance to Iraqi occupation …. Etc. In these cases, even the most respectable of media institutions allow themselves a good deal of partiality. When reporting on the fact that thousands of people were either massacred or detained in Kosovo, it was naturally OK for CNN and its viewers if each report was not immediately followed by an equally compelling piece about how Milosevic’s gangs were actually in the right and sadly misunderstood by the world!! I remember, for example, that wonderful day in February 1990 when Nelson Mandela was freed from jail. The commentary that accompanied the BBC’s live broadcast was closer to poetry than news reporting. The presenter waxed lyrical about the beauty of that moment and how the evil system of apartheid was beginning to crumble. I loved every minute of it, and I didn’t give a damn that P.W. Botha wasn’t given equal time to defend apartheid.

The common thread running through all of these cases is that of moral certainty. Of course, we can engage in philosophical discussions and argue that there is no such thing as an absolute truth. But let’s just say that there are a few issues on which the great majority of human beings can agree on what’s right and what’s blatantly wrong. In the South African case, there was a moral as certain and absolute as we are ever going to get: it is wrong for a state to be constituted and run on the basis of racial segregation. In the Kuwait example, all reasonable human beings could agree that the forceful invasion of an entire country is not a reasonable way of settling a slight border dispute. The list goes on and on until we get to the most obvious example facing the world today – the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the ongoing intifadah.

There are a number of inalienable truths about this conflict that should not be obfuscated by any respectable media organization. First, there is the fact of forced evacuation and ethnic cleansing. The armed groups that created the Jewish state in 1948 precipitated the forced exodus of over 750,000 Palestinians. Israel has refused to allow the return of those refugees, who are now estimated to number 1.5 million. There is a moral certainty that those who are kicked out of their homes and lands have an indisputable right of return. Any argument to the contrary is at best morally bankrupt and, at worst, downright sinister.

Secondly, the state of Israel is founded on the notion of religious superiority. Any Jewish person wherever he or she may be living at present and regardless of his or her specific history or national heritage has a right to immediate citizenship in the state of Israel, in effect a right to supplant the local Arab population that has been there since time immemorial. The argument is sometimes formulated on the lines that Jews originally lived in the land of Palestine and were forcibly evacuated there-from thousands of years ago – hence, every Jew can now return to his or her original home. Well, let’s leave for now the obvious point that if this were true, then the same logic would apply more strikingly to all the Palestinians who have been forced to leave their homes by the returning Jews only 53 years ago – in fact, some of those Palestinians still have the keys to their houses! But let’s just look at this argument in the context of the world we live in. Imagine if every country in the world granted immediate citizenship to anyone who claims that his ancestors used to live there hundreds or thousands of years ago. The world would be surely thrown into chaos. Spain would have to grant citizenship to all Arabs on the basis of the fact that Arabs lived and ruled in Andalusia for hundreds of years before being kicked out 5 centuries ago; all Americans of non-Indian origin would have to evacuate the USA forthwith … The potential list of absurdities that would proceed from this warped logic is endless. In fact, the logic of citizenship in Israel can only be comprehended if one accepts that Judaism is a superior form of religion. According to the rules of this religion, the land of Palestine belongs to the Jews. This religious commandment overrides all other national, religious and historical claims that any other group of people may have over Palestine – that’s the only way in which one can accept that Jews have an exclusive right to this land.

Thirdly, there is the fact of the illegal occupation of Arab lands in 1967. This is so indisputable even the United States has never questioned the United Nations’ resolutions calling for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza strip and the right of self-determination for the Palestinians living in those territories. Fourthly, there are the means and methods used by Israel to perpetuate its illegal occupation of these Arab territories. I would argue that no people in history have ever suffered under occupation as much as the Palestinians. Examples of Israeli state terrorism can be seen on our TV screens on any given day; soldiers in tanks throwing bombs in response to helpless stones thrown by an oppressed population living under occupation, soldiers ganging up on detainees breaking their bones with the back-ends of their rifles, children shot intentionally on the head, and, last but not least, the demolition of houses in order to expand illegal settlements or to teach the innocent family of a suspected freedom fighter a lesson.

And these are just some of the basic facts about this conflict. And that’s without getting into some other current issues regarding which most Western media outlets evince a shameful ambivalence. For example, Ariel Sharon, the current Prime Minister of Israel. Ariel Sharon is a war criminal. He is directly responsible, amongst other ignominious things, for the murder of at least one thousand innocent people in the Sabra and Chatila camps during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And that’s not just according to some Arab or international sources; the Kahan Commission, formed by the Israeli Government to investigate the Sabra and Chattila massacres, reached the conclusion that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the atrocities, and requested the then-Prime Minister of Israel to fire Sharon from his Government post.

Yet, despite all of the above, most Western media institutions refuse to place the Palestinian conflict in the human and moral context in which it belongs, the same context in which they gladly place cases such as the anti-apartheid struggle and the Milosevic-induced massacres in the Balkans. Well, it’s not for want of moral justification. It is simply a case of the media reflecting the balance of power in our times. Israel, for a multitude of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, is the favorite child of the United States, the world’s greatest power. Consequently, the world is subjected by and large to a Western media spin on the conflict which reflects the policy of this age’s Roman Empire and its main allies. In the same breath, we are told that Mandela is a hero, yet the 13-year-old boy who braves the tanks and gun-fire in Ramallah to throw a defiant stone in the face of aggression is just part of a “cycle of violence” or, even worse, an innocent boy manipulated by his parents to go and die for a vague cause. The sense of outrage at this ridiculous degradation of a struggle for freedom cannot be overstated.

In that CNN program, Richard Roth ended the neutral segment on the conflict by praising the neutral Kofi Annan for being the only one in the Arab Summit to see the “Big Picture.” I plead with those reading this article to keep their eye on the big picture despite all the half-truths, contrived impartiality, hazy commentaries and downright manipulation that cloud almost all coverage of the intifadah in Western media. The storyline is simpler here than in the most basic story you read to your children at night. There are people in the Middle East who are currently being denied the right to return to their homes, whose land is occupied in defiance of all international laws, who lost the right of citizenship in their own homeland because they don’t belong to the right religion, whose houses are being demolished, whose bodies are being shattered by the bullets of occupation and arrogance. Let the newscasters and commentators strike their pose of fake evenhandedness in line with the present power balance, but please make sure that you as an intelligent observer stand on the right side of history. Empires and their propaganda machines come and go; the ideals of freedom and justice are eternal.

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