by Mohammed Daraghmeh
Palestinian journalists have only one story worth covering. The events of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict generate a continuous stream of material, as well as an insatiable demand for stories - the subject accounts for nearly 90 percent of all news coverage in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian journalists are now fully occupied covering the events surrounding their nation’s daily struggle for existence.
This is not surprising given the nature of the situation here. There is constant fuel for the media machine - breaches of human rights at checkpoints, destruction of property, civilian deaths, etc. The Israelis have effectively converted the Occupied Territories into a prison where no one can move around freely, not even for work or personal reasons. The economy is crumbling and Palestinian cultural and social life is in ruins. Even sports news here has a political slant. Stories normally include details of Israeli measures taken to prevent a Palestinian player traveling abroad or the need to postpone a soccer match because of a curfew. When a Palestinian boxer won the bronze medal at the Asian Games in South Korea last year, the foreign and Israeli media reported that, despite his lack of access to adequate training facilities because of curfews, he had managed to fly the Palestinian flag in Korea. His personal dreams were seen to embody national dreams.
Freedom and Censorship
The Palestinian media have great freedom to document and publish the daily events of this conflict. Journalists have no hesitation about writing on this topic because they are sure the material will be published. On the other hand, the coverage of some internal Palestinian issues is heavily censored, with reports about the occupation normally taking priority in newspapers and on radio or TV.
It is no secret that there is more than one form of censorship in the Palestinian media. There is political and social censorship and there is personal and professional censorship, stemming from the opinions and interests of the owners and managers of the different media outlets.
Coverage of the conflict in the Palestinian media reflects the opinions of different political spectrums within Palestinian society. This sometimes includes not just exaggerated news reports, but also the repetition of fundamentalist beliefs. The severity of Israeli attacks and the inhumane occupation practices carried out against Palestinians give some journalists the opportunity to write stories which border on extremism. This is especially prevalent on the local TV stations which proliferate - there are nine in Nablus alone, and two local radio networks. Employees at local TV stations will say, “As long as we are talking about occupying forces, who have practiced different kinds of persecution and oppression against our people for decades, what is the problem if we exaggerate their aggressive deeds and incite resistance against them?”
For example, last Ramadan, I saw a game show on a local TV channel in which they asked about a Palestinian martyr who carried out an attack near Haifa. The question was: Give the date of the attack and the number of Jews killed. Of course, this question seemed disgusting, so I called the manager and he said he hadn’t noticed. Then he confessed that it was a mistake, but said it was not one worth mentioning, adding: “The Jewish people are killing our people everyday, especially here in Nablus, and this is the least we can do for them.” Despite this, he promised that such an incident would not happen again.
Media coverage in the Palestinian territories, like so many other things, goes on in parallel with Israeli actions. When Palestinians see nothing but occupation, settlements, destruction and blood, their press naturally reflects that reality. The same is true when they see hope glittering on the horizon - the Palestinian press is eager to catch the breaking news, discuss it and raise a wider debate about it.
Changing Attitudes to Attacks
Let us look at the issue of suicide attacks. They began in the middle of the ’90s, at the time when peace agreements were being worked on and the Israelis were withdrawing from the occupied cities. At that point, the Palestinian media showed no sympathy nor gave any justification for those attacks, and criticized their orchestrators. I published a story in Al-Ayyam newspaper in 1997 about an Islamic Jihad member who carried out a suicide attack in Jerusalem, in which I described him as a desperate man. The next day, the only people to object were his family.
I use this example to illustrate that a shift in attitudes has occurred and to reflect on how Palestinian journalism deals with the different issues of this conflict. When the cities were re-occupied, the attitude of the press and the public made a 180-degree about-turn. In the present climate, no Palestinian journalist can write critically about a suicide bombing, not only because he fears the reactions from his peer group, but also because he fears a society that now regards these bombing operations as a positive measure, having lost faith in any peaceful means to restore what was taken by force. Support among the Palestinian population for suicide bombings was running at around 20 percent prior to the second Intifada. Following its outbreak, that figure has risen as high as 80 percent at times.
The Palestinians demonstrated publicly against Ariel Sharon’s visit to Al Aqsa mosque and, although they technically have the right to stage a protest, the Israeli military and police forces replied with gunfire, killing seven people. They could have left the location without any loss of life, but instead they provided the first spark which ignited this explosion.
The conflict has now spread outside the normal spheres of a political conflict and entered a downward spiral of quasi-personal revenge. Few people on either side think much about conflict resolution. Instead, they focus on the number of dead each side has caused the other.
Before this Intifada, there was cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Palestinian journalists won awards for encouraging coexistence between the two nations. There was the hope that both sides could work together and develop a mutually beneficial relationship. Dozens of meetings were held between Palestinian and Israeli journalists to discuss the role they could play in encouraging coexistence. But now, in this sea of blood, our role has returned to reporting on the clatter of weapons and death.
Media and Mediums
There are four kinds of Palestinian mass media: government-run media, including weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines such as Al-hayyat Al-Jadedah; independent or semi-independent media such as Al-Ayyam and Al-Quds newspapers; opposition media including three weekly newspapers which belong to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Democratic Front; and the fourth is local media - the 50-plus TV channels and radio stations in the West Bank cities, and the Arab satellite channels like Al-Jazeerah and MBC, which reach nearly every Palestinian household.
Israeli radio’s Arabic broadcasts are also widely considered a good source of information, especially on Israeli political events. Voice of Israel became more important in the Palestinian Territories after Israeli forces demolished the transmission towers of the official Palestinian radio station in Ramallah last year.
The most influential outlets of the Palestinian media are the independent newspapers and TV stations, most of which are open and liberal. Even in the most difficult phases of the conflict, Palestinian journalism has maintained a margin in which journalists and writers have been able to criticize the handling of issues related to the conflict. This is very clear from articles which criticize, for example, suicide bombings, or oppose any kind of violence. Last year, Search for Common Ground awarded a number of Palestinian journalists its annual prize for encouraging peaceful coexistence in this part of the world. The first award went to Dr Sari Nussaibeh for an article published in Al-Quds newspaper, while the second one was given to Tawfeeq Abu-Baker for an article published in Al-Ayyam newspaper. In his article, Dr Nussaibeh advised the Palestinians to give up the right of return and focus on establishing an independent state. Abu-Baker called on the Palestinians to stop all kinds of violence, saying that many empires were brought down in the last decade without a single bullet being shot.
Before this Intifada, Palestinian journalism played a normal and positive role in the conflict, including an insistence on appeals for peace and coexistence. But after the Intifada began, many radical changes took place, as the priority shifted to covering actions and reactions on the ground.
But these changes can be seen as temporary. Journalists who believe in peaceful solutions and coexistence are still in the majority, and, importantly, are still in their positions, ready to resume their roles when Israel’s Mercava tanks are out of their streets and out of the way of the peace process.