< Covering a Conflict: A Brief History


Friday, February 10, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Arab-Israeli conflict surely is one of the most covered, hardest to cover stories of all time. News consumers, especially in America, often believe they already know this story. They know in each instance where wrong was committed, where justice was done. But responsible reporters aren't supposed to bring unbreakable assumptions into the field, so this week I'm reporting from Jerusalem to learn how local reporters on both sides of the divide cover themselves and each other. First stop, the city of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority. We've come to see Waffa Abd el Rahman, whose news media organization Philistiniat [ph] monitored the Palestinian media during the last election.

WAFFA ABDEL RAHMAN: The first problem that the journalists here face is their own self-censorship where they draw lines. It's deeply rooted when it comes to the Palestinian media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: At first, those lines were drawn by the Israeli military censors who once reviewed all their work. But after the Oslo Accords of 1993, those censors packed up and left the West Bank, leaving the Palestinian Authority, run by Yasir Arafat's Fatah party, in charge.

WAFFA ABDEL RAHMAN: When the Palestinian Authority came, they came from an Arab culture where the Arab regimes are doing the censorship. So of course, they almost copied the Arab regimes here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Currently there are more than 60 local radio and TV stations in the Palestinian territories. The newspapers aren't widely read. During the past parliamentary campaign, most of the Palestinian media over-covered Fatah candidates, says Abdel Rahman, but that doesn't seem to have hurt the newly-elected Hamas party, a group known for good works in the P.A. and suicide bombings in Israel.

WAFFA ABDEL RAHMAN: Actually, this raised the question - is our media influential or not? I would say the most effective way to influence Palestinian public opinion is word of mouth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The second most effect way, she concedes, is through the widely watched Arabic-language satellite channels, first among them, Al-Jazeera.

WALID AL-UMARI: More than 67 percent of the Palestinians, they prefer to watch the news through Al-Jazeera, compared with other channels.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Walid al-Umari is Al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, based in East Jerusalem. In the dark days of Fatah, he says he was frequently harassed when he reported on human rights violations or corruption within the P.A. But when Fatah weakened, the power of the press grew. Now, he says, it's the freest in the Middle East, a reality Hamas has to confront one way or the other.

WALID AL-UMARI: Even the people inside the Palestinian Authority, they understand very well the freedom of the media. And if they want us to cover the confrontation with the Israelis and with the Israeli occupation, they must understand that we have also to cover the confrontations and the problems inside the Palestinian society.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a time when the P.A. and its media stood arm in arm, the time of what's called the Second Intifada, initiated in a wave of violent protests in September of 2000 in the old city of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, followed by widespread demonstrations, clashes with Israeli military, attacks on Israeli civilians and targeted killings of Hamas leaders and other Palestinians.

KHALED ABU AKER: During the Intifada under Yasir Arafat, there were almost no pressure on how the media covered the story.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Khaled Abu Aker is a Palestinian journalist who edits an Arabic-language website and reports for the New York Times.

KHALED ABU AKER: The Second Intifada created a situation where journalists from the two sides stood next to the fighters, whether it is the Palestinian journalists who stood next to their own fighters, or the Israeli journalists who stood next to their own soldiers, as if they were part of that war.

DANIEL BEN SIMON: I just serve in the army for, you know, one month a year. I could not be a journalist eleven months a year and one month not be a journalist.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Ben Simon is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, widely regarded as Israel's best-reported paper, despite being left of center. He says the Second Intifada, which brought the fight over occupation to Israeli doorsteps, engendered a kind of post-traumatic stress in the public and the media.

DANIEL BEN SIMON: Eleven hundred dead. Eighty percent women and children died in the most horrible ways. You cannot play the independent journalist. You know, my paper - I mean, I remember that Zeev Schiff, who is the chief commentator, he wrote now it's time to retaliate and to kill as many as we can. I said Zeev, how could you write something like that? He said, "you know, I was a kid, an orphan in Belgium in the times of the Holocaust, and this is exactly - 70 years later I'm back there. And I feel the same helplessness." Now, he's the chief commentator. He's a very smart guy, but he lost it. [SNAPS FINGERS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Simon says that Israeli journalists, once brash enough to bring down governments, were slammed by the public when they raised questions about leaders, as when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was running for office.

DANIEL BEN SIMON: The first time, in 2001, he was accused of corruption. Haaretz came up with the big headlines about corruption of the Prime Minister, that he will be indicted. We thought that our paper was doing the right thing. We lost hundreds of subscribers. Not only that, but Sharon added another five points.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Prime Minister, Sharon left the right-wing Likud party to form Kadima, a centrist party that would carry out his plan for disengagement. Then he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma, leaving the unknown and untried Kadima in charge.

DANIEL BEN SIMON: And suddenly we have something which stands in total contrast to the character of the people, a party with no elections, which was formed in dark rooms. I'm ashamed, and as an Israeli who is used to people who are debating, but suddenly we are tired of politics.

RAZI BARKAI: There's no real left in Israel now. There's no real right-wing in Israel now. Everybody wants to be center. And it's boring.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Razi Barkai is the host of a leading political talk show on Army Radio. He says the media played a part in that drift towards a fuzzy, amorphous middle.

RAZI BARKAI: Because it's not a secret that most of Israeli journalists came from the left, what you call, in the States, liberals, okay?


RAZI BARKAI: But I think Israeli journalists have lost their romantic view towards an agreement with Palestinians. Israelis are tired. They are tired of Palestinians. They are tired of Jewish inhabitants in Gaza and the West Bank.


RAZI BARKAI: Right, the settlers. People got fed up, and ideology has become something irrelevant.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amnon Lord is editor of the rightist weekly Makor Rishon. A former lefty turned righty, he says, after he realized the Oslo Accords would not lead to peace. He says the media have been happy to follow Sharon's lead in ignoring or demeaning the settlers. Take the demonstration just this week in Jerusalem in support of settlers who clashed with Israeli defense forces in the settlement of Amona. The two largest papers, he says, buried it. Only Haaretz, to which he doesn't even subscribe, paid attention.

AMNON LORD: There was a special report about the moderates among the settlers, how they felt betrayed by the way the evacuation of Amona was carried out. And in a way, yes, I think that Haaretz with the extreme leftists also keeps, I think, a higher standard of journalism which enables them to show other sides of the settlers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For many years, Gidon Levy has covered the misery of the occupation for Haaretz. As a result, he is widely hated by the right. But he sees their point about the settlers.

GIDEON LEVY: The pioneers of yesterday are the criminals of today, and you can see it in the media from left to right. If there is something like this, all of a sudden, the settlers are the big enemy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if increasingly centrist Israelis are indifferent to the settlers, Levy says they're increasingly indifferent to their own sufferings too.

GIDEON LEVY: They deal with it now in different ways than five years ago when it was for three days of mourning and different music. And today there's an explosion. Five, ten, fifteen people are killed. Two, three hours of reports. And here we are with the next subject.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: He says the average Israeli is an avid media consumer, but -

GIDEON LEVY: Does he really know what's going on in the dark backyard of his state, namely in the occupied territories? My answer is no.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does he want to know?

GIDEON LEVY: No, he doesn't want to know. The journalist doesn't want to write, and the editor doesn't want to publish, and the publisher doesn't want it to be published, and the government doesn't want it to be published. It's a rare coalition, from wall to wall, almost, in which nobody wants to inform and nobody wants to be informed, which enabled such a brutal occupation to exist for so many years, without really bothering the Israelis, which on their behalf all this is happening.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Aker says his people don't have that luxury.

KHALED ABU AKER: But you cannot say, "Oh, we are fed up. We know that our lives are controlled by Israel." If someone want to travel outside his city, need to go through an Israeli's checkpoint. If Palestinians need fuel, it should come from Israel. If they want food or vegetables, it should come from Israel. So every Palestinian know that their lives depend on Israel. And therefore, the interest in what's going on in Israel will continue. They don't close their eyes and pretend they don't see the Israelis. They see them every day.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Unfortunately these days, mostly all they see are settlers and soldiers. But as a journalist who trains journalists, he sees more than that. He sees something to aspire to in the famously adversarial Israeli press, even if it is in momentary retrenchment. If you were to direct the journalists that you're training towards a news outlet that you think has it just right, what would that news outlet be?

KHALED ABU AKER: You know, Al-Jazeera is a good example. Israeli press is another example. Many people won't like using that example, but the Israeli media managed to pressure politicians, and mainly prime ministers, to resign, or to put them on trial. This is what I want to see in the Palestinian press. When I look at the Israeli media and see how Israeli politicians are accountable, I feel jealous. And I keep dreaming of having a situation where we'll be almost similar.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For On the Media, this is Brooke Gladstone in Jerusalem. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]