Conflict Reporting 2010: Lessons from Israel


The Israeli authorities are capable of both best and worst practice when it comes to respect for press freedom. Despite military censorship, its press still enjoys latitude that is unequalled in the region. Reporters Without Borders, 2010.
Days after the ‘fatal flotilla’ off the coast of Gaza, some 30 young journalists from around the world flew into Israel for the ‘Media in Conflicts Seminar’ (MICS). Aiming to ‘improve’ foreign coverage of the conflict, the workshop featured a raft of journalists, academics and officials – all of them Israeli.

It was a chance “to learn how to create a balanced and professional coverage,” claimed the organisers at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, while building a network useful to both sides: Israelis and foreigners alike. To deepen this bond, 12 Israeli students were embedded with the foreign journalists, sharing rooms in a hotel just outside Tel Aviv. 

First impressions: for a seminar organised by students this was a slick operation. Professional, affable, willing to listen and keen to kindle debate. First concern: who funds this workshop? Participants paid their own travel costs, but for the rest the seminar was clearly sponsored by the Israeli government (our ‘graduation certificates’ bear the seal of the Israeli Ministry for Public Diplomacy—a nice touch creating a sense of ‘belonging’). 


So the agenda was clear, but what of the basic premise? Of more than a dozen speakers, there were no Palestinian or Arab voices, apparently due to three cancellations. This was problematic, especially in such a complex, emotive conflict. Coverage cannot be balanced by definition if it’s one-sided.
The basic position of the organisers seemed to be that international media is already biased against Israel, so this was an opportunity to give their side and rebalance perceptions. But is foreign media incapable of reporting the conflict in a detached and meaningful way? Is it overwhelmingly biased or even anti-Semitic?
Back in 2002, during the second Intifada, the BBC was accused of anti-Semitism by the Jerusalem Post in an article reprinted in The Guardian. 2009 saw a similar story involving the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. And most recently, DC press corps veteran Helen Thomas was forced to quit after telling Israelis “to get the hell out of Palestine”. This is just a snapshot, but it shows several healthy debates, showing little tolerance for anti-Semitism when it does occur.
Additionally, some of the Israeli students were clearly critical of their government’s actions and of course journalists were, in theory, able to seek the other side of the story by talking to Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Balancing assumptions
Before applying for the seminar, a friend who has previously worked in Israel advised me against taking part. Having checked a few of the speakers, he said it would be full of propaganda from Israeli hawks. Instead the week began with a dove: Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz. A former reporter and civil rights activist he criticised the ‘shallow coverage’ of the conflict but also the rigid stance of the Israeli government. Besides photojournalist Itai Anghel (interview coming soon), he was very much in the minority.
On the other side of the spectrum was a range of speakers, including army spokesperson Avital Leibovich and lecturers Guy Bechor and Kobi Michael. There was also Ariel Halevi, who runs seminars on ‘Effective Pro-Israeli Advocacy’ (although his workshop for MICS was politically neutral).
One critical moment came after a fact-packed speech on the religious agendas of terrorists. Jonathan Fine played three Internet clips: executions by Hamas, presumably their Fatah rivals being machine gunned, thrown from roofs, or burned alive. The audience was given five seconds’ warning beforehand, then afterwards told to ‘enjoy the coffee break’. 
The decision was widely condemned, but it certainly galvanised the audience. It turned an abstract debate into something that physically affected us—which is key to conflict reporting. There was, however, no mention of Israeli brutality: of civilians killed by the Israeli army. 
Another problem: Boaz Ganor claimed that human rights organisations only criticise Israel and never Hamas. This is misleading. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have slammed Hamas on several counts, including the Gaza war in 2008/2009. It is up for debate whether they focus too much on human rights breaches by Israel and too little by its enemies, but it is wrong to claim that Hamas is never criticised by foreign NGOs and media. (Incidentally, international war crimes tribunals are more than reticent about targeting Israeli generals and leaders—take the case of Arial Sharon for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982.)
Further tensions: on the one hand Kobi Michael said that Israel is a special case. He called it “irresponsible” to compare the Arab-Israeli wars to conflicts such as Northern Ireland. Why? Because the conflict is existential for Israel. Because it’s about identity and belief. Because half its Arab neighbours refuse to recognise it. (And in some ways like the European Union, its role in the world is questioned more and more as memories fade of World War II.) 
On the other hand, Jonathan Fine painted the conflict as the frontline in a global jihad, saying that terrorists aim to explode a ‘dirty bomb’ in Europe within 2-3 years. Perhaps in time for the 2012 London Olympics. (Implications: ‘they hate you as much as us’, so ‘be afraid’.) Fine added that moderate Muslims in USA and Europe would prefer to live under classical Sharia law if given the chance. Sharia is already used in civil and family disputes in the UK – with some clear problems – but do all Muslims, even moderates, want to live under Sharia?
What do Muslims want?
A survey of 500 British Muslims in 2006 showed opinions split down the middle: 40 per cent in favour and 41 per cent against Sharia.
Seeking more context, I spoke to US journalist Seema Jilani, who said “I certainly wouldn’t want to live under Sharia law. Nor would most progressive Muslims living in the Western world. There are definitely extremist factions and other people who do want Sharia, no-one would argue that. But to say that the majority or that modern Muslims want it, I don’t agree. If that were the case, why did it take such a massive revolution in Iran to get Sharia law imposed? People like my parents came to the USA partly because they feared Sharia might come to Pakistan at some point, and they didn’t want any part of that… Then look at Lebanon where there is a large Christian minority – around a third of the country. Lebanon is considered part of the Arab world, but at no time will it ever endorse Sharia because the Christians would never allow it; and the Muslims there are also happy with that.”
Further, in 2008 Gallup carried out a survey in 35 Muslim countries, representing 90 per cent of the global Muslim community. The basic findings: ‘substantial majorities’ want a compromise between Western freedoms and Sharia law. In Jordan, 54 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women want Sharia as the only source of legislation; in Egypt, 70 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women; and in Iran, 12 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women. Incidentally, another poll found that 46 per cent of Americans think the Bible should be a source for legislation, while 9 per cent (representing almost 30 million people) want it as the sole source for legislation! Crusader spirit lives on.
Journalists as weapons
The seminar achieved three things: it gave us a lot of political and historical background, created a global network of interested journalists, and raised important questions about the role of the media. It taught us that to write balanced and accurate accounts, journalists need a deep understanding of the complexity of any given conflict.
But essential to this is talking to multiple actors, presenting all sides of the story, then allowing your audience to make up its own mind. In war every story is a trial, weighing competing claims for the truth. Good journalism means doing justice to your story, subjects and audience—as stressed so eloquently by Itai Anghel.
A friend from Haaretz put forward another view of the MICS workshop: ‘So the point is to mend foreign perceptions rather than for Israel to change its ways?’ A little cynical, but it chimes with my first impression—that the seminar assumes a foreign bias to begin with, and therefore mounts a robust defence of Israel to rebalance the media landscape.
Overall, MICS was a positive experience; but claiming to provide balanced coverage while presenting just one side of the story is a kind of manipulation. All journalists need to resist pressure, either direct intimidation or indirect manipulation. Major problems arise when either side tries to control the media for its own agenda. So be careful what you write – but also what you leave out. Censorship of the Israeli press, for all its sophistication, does not and should not extend to the foreign press.
As journalists “we are our own weapons…,” says award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk. “We must defend ourselves and defend our profession and not allow ourselves to be used. Because if you are used, once you throw your credit away, you can’t get it back. Once you are compromised, that’s it.” If your sympathies define your reporting – if you want to ‘shape’ a conflict and not give equal coverage to war crimes wherever they occur – follow a seminar in ‘Effective Political Advocacy’ and go into PR instead.

MICS 2010 in quotes:

Jonathan Fine
“Your words have a heavy payload, so be careful what you write.”

Kobi Michael:
“The creation of Israel was a historical justice.”
“Reconciliation is a Judaeo-Christian term. There is no such word in Arabic.”
“Some conflicts cannot be resolved, especially where identity issues are involved.”

Boaz Ganor:
“There is no humanitarian problem in Gaza.”

Guy Bechor:
“Israel is a function.”
“What you see in the media is unreal.”
“In conflict, the secret is to manage the problem, to control it and not try to solve it. Neither peace nor war, but stability based on deterrence.”

Itai Anghel
“The situation of the media is horrifying…”
“I see less and less people doing the fieldwork.”
“In terms of access, chaos is heaven for me.”
“As a journalist, the important thing is being there [in the conflict zones].”
“In the Third World, they fear the media. So it’s good not to look too professional. If I’m in the same shit as them for a week, anything is possible.”
“It’s better to work alone. With a professional crew you miss a lot. A big presence affects the reality around you.”

Ron Ben-Yishai:
“The journalist’s mission is not just storytelling, but to bring out the truth and reduce the appetite of decision-makers for war.”
“The presence of journalists among fighting forces usually reduces atrocities.”
“Objectivity is a dirty word.”
Image above: Howard Hudson, Qalqilya, 2004.

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