The Role of Media in Human Rights Disasters

I received the following in an email from Jewish Peace News. It is a stark reminder of the critically important role that the media and news outlets play in disseminating information about human rights disasters. Whether in Israel, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, The USA, China, South or North America, Asia, or Africa, investigative journalism can have a major impact on the conduct of governments in regard to military action and other matters of humanitarian concern. From The Jewish Peace News Network:
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One morning, in 1992, when I was working on the staff of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, we received notice from our contacts in Gaza of a new tactic adopted by the Israeli armed forces. After numerous court cases had stalled (though not prevented) their use of home demolitions in retaliation for Palestinian individuals' alleged involvement in attacks against Israelis, the army experimented with the following alternative: claim that persons wanted for perpetrating alleged attacks are hiding in their family homes, notify the families (at about 5am) that they must evacuate immediately and use tanks to shell the homes, supposedly in order to "flush out" the wanted persons. At the time, this was a highly significant development because it trashed even the meager (and in hindsight largely misplaced) hope of defending human rights through recourse to Israel's High Court of Justice.

After formulating a press release, we spent the day negotiating with the Hebrew press, trying to get it to report this information coming only from Gazan sources (which we knew to be reliable). One of our contacts, at the news desk of a major evening paper, was closely related to a government minister and she immediately called him to verify. His answer was brief and dismissive: "I don't believe it." Not only did the paper shelve the item but over the next few days it did not report on any of the developments following the shelling which---in this newspaper's version of reality---had never taken place.

In the following piece from Haaretz, Gideon Levy describes the version of reality currently being produced by Israel's media, one which is totally devoid of direct reports from the Gaza Strip.

For me, in 1992, knowing and understanding what was really going on meant finding, following and assessing an array of alternative sources. While Levy is totally justified, in my view, for exposing and condemning the passive and perhaps criminal collusion of Israel's media, many non-government and alternative organizations continue today, as then, to publicize directly what the established media fails to report. Aside from giving a sense of the slanted UN-reality presented by Israeli media coverage and consumed by most Israelis, Levy's article underlines the importance of the wide scope of activism collecting, reporting and transmitting systematically hidden information.

Rela Mazali

Racheli Gai added:

It's very common (almost a cliche) to point out how open Israeli newspapers are, and how so much stuff which one dares not mention in the U.S., for instance, gets discussed in mainstream Israeli media. While this has a grain of truth - it's mostly limited to opinion pieces, and - as Levy's piece shows - isn't particularly true of ongoing coverage (or lackthereof) of the "facts on the ground".


Twilight Zone / A great darkness has fallen

By Gideon Levy
Last update - 23:35 08/03/2008

Operation Warm Winter ended without a single Israeli journalist setting foot on the Gaza side of the Erez border crossing with Israel. Even the military correspondents, who usually recount the brave acts of our forces from inside their jeeps and armored vehicles, were not taken this time to report on the raids in Jabalya and Sajiyeh. A handful of other correspondents, those who are still interested in what the Israel Defense Forces leaves behind after its campaigns of killing and destruction, stayed home. They have been holed up in their houses for over a year and a half already.

Don`t believe the microphones you sometimes see in TV reports on Gaza, adorned with the logo of the Israeli television channels. They are meant only to deceive us. Don`t believe the meager reports in the press from Gaza that are written by Israeli correspondents. They are all done by phone, with all the limitations that involves. Not one local journalist, neither Jewish or Arab, neither Shlomi Eldar nor Suleiman al-Shafi, neither Amira Hass nor this writer, has passed through the Erez terminal since the end of November 2006.

The press in Israel is under a major blackout: The IDF is not allowing it to do its job. Gaza, an hour-and-a-half drive from Tel Aviv, is outside the range of journalistic coverage. Daring Israeli correspondents have traveled to Iraq and Lebanon, Syria and Iran, to report to their readers what is happening there - but not to Gaza. It`s as though the Strip, which is central to our diplomacy and security, and where everything that happens affects the Negev and the rest of the country, has been declared a closed military zone, as though it were beyond the Mountains of Darkness.

We were in the refugee camp in Jenin during the height of Operation Defensive Shield, we were in Bethlehem when it was besieged, we were in Gaza when armed gangs walked around on every street corner, we were in Beit Hanun when Israel shelled it with artillery, we were in the home of Salah Shehadeh the day after the one-ton bomb was dropped on it, we were in the house of the paralyzed girl on a respirator, Maria Aman, the day after most of her family was killed by a criminal missile. One stormy summer`s day IDF soldiers even fired at our car in Tulkarm. But we haven`t been in Gaza for months.

This blackout on the actions of the IDF and the Shin Bet security services, and the fact that the Israeli press is forbidden to cover what is happening in the Strip, has been accepted with exemplary silence. The press bowed its head, submissive and obedient, as in the bad old days when it maintained other disgraceful silences, from Qibya to Kafr Qasem.

Was it too much to expect some signs of protest on the part of the media regarding the ongoing closure, whose end is not in sight? Should it accept as self-evident the explanations of the defense establishment to the effect that it is `dangerous` in Gaza and that there are warnings about journalists being kidnapped? Can anyone determine that Nablus, which can still be covered, for example, is less dangerous? How much less? And why not close the West Bank to coverage as well, and forget about journalism?

Doesn`t the powerful press have means of democratic protest at its disposal, to use to fight the evil decree? Apparently this decree is not evil in the eyes of most leading media figures. A rare coalition, almost wall to wall, seems to be very pleased with Gaza being closing off to coverage: When the readers don`t want to read, the government and the defense establishment don`t want things to be read or broadcast, and the reporters, editors and publishers don`t want to anger anyone either. They are all very pleased with the fact that Gaza is beyond the pale. Thus Israel has covered its eyes and looked away from what is happening on the other side of the fence, and a great darkness has fallen on the abyss.

The exclusion of Gaza from Israeli coverage is critical. Just when millions of viewers and readers the world over are having their perception of the country shaped by the terrible pictures being broadcast from Gaza, occasionally in an exaggerated manner, they are witnessing an almost total absence of coverage from the Israeli side. It is one thing to hear or read that the IDF killed, assassinated and prevented some action, and another thing to see the results on the ground. Someone - and it must be an Israeli journalist - also has to reach the stricken and bleeding places after the missile has fallen, the shell has landed, the bulldozer has destroyed, the water has run out, the fuel is finished and the electricity is turned off. Someone has to tell the Israeli reader that when the IDF announces that it dropped a bomb on `unoccupied huts,` as it did the day after the assassination of Shehadeh, it was in fact a house of several stories filled with residents, including many child!

The need to see and to know the results of Israel`s activity in Gaza as well as the terror of the Qassams, in which the local press incessantly wallows, does not have to be related to one`s political views - not at all. The need to know should be a natural need for both the right and the left. Yes, sometimes it is not easy to look at the results of our actions, but if we don`t know what has gone on, how will we judge and assess? Do we accept the idea that an average newspaper reader in Oslo and a TV viewer in London will see more than we do about what is being done in our name? Is it enough to cover Sderot while blatantly ignoring what is happening in Gaza, in order to satisfy the needs of the wise media consumer?

But the prevention of Israeli coverage of Gaza and the acquiescence of most local media to this situation, with almost no sign of protest, are only one part of the picture, the less serious part. The deliberate covering of our eyes has gone even further this time.

This past Sunday something important happened. Part of the local, popular press that shapes mass opinion - the Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv dailies, to be specific - decided that the killing of over 60 residents of Gaza in one day by our soldiers is not a story. The proof: There is no mention of it, not even implied, on the first pages of these two newspapers, their obvious showcase.

One`s eyes refused to believe it. Not a single word. Maariv`s first page showed a huge picture of a wounded IDF fighter, a threatening headline stating, `In the cross hairs: Hamas` leaders,` plus information about the number of Qassam and Grad missiles that fell on Sderot and Ashkelon, and a promise: `It`s not war yet.` As if to say: We`re only in the `promo` stage. Only on the margins of page 3, in tiny letters, was there a first mention: About 95 Palestinians killed since Wednesday. A first picture of the killing and the outcry in Gaza on page 6.

Yedioth goes even further, as if to say: Everything that Maariv can do, we can do better. Not a word on the first page about the dozens of Palestinian dead. Only a huge picture of a wounded soldier being evacuated by helicopter (when in Gaza the ambulances do not even have gas to allow them to evacuate their wounded). The headline: `Hundreds of fighters deep in Gaza,` a promise that `this is not `the` major operation,` a confession from the mother of one of the two soldiers who were killed (`I dreamed that they were informing me that my son had been killed`), and the number of rockets landing in Sderot and Ashkelon. The first mention of Palestinian dead appeared only on the margins of page 3, in small letters.

`A city without defenses` - that is, of course, Ashkelon. There is nothing else in the region, and not a single picture, please note, not a single image in Yedioth of the killing and suffering in Gaza in all the pages of the newspaper - except for a tiny photo of a demolished house. Among all the photos of Sderot and Ashkelon, the heart-rending confessions and the human-interest reportage about the fear and the relatively light destruction in these two cities, there was no room to print even one photo of bleeding Gaza? Of one wounded child? Of one fearful mother, as in Sderot? One picture that would illustrate to some degree, at least, the dimensions of the mass killing we have sowed? One picture like those that adorned the first pages of most of the newspapers in the world that day? No. Not here. Not in `the newspaper of the country.`

These two newspapers now boast new, relatively young and promising editors. The days of Rafi Ginat at Yedioth and Amnon Dankner at Maariv are over. Instead we have highly regarded editors who give us reason for hope: Shilo De-Beer at Yedioth, and Doron Glazer and Ruti Yuval at Maariv. What did they think when they opened their papers on Sunday morning? That this is professional journalism? That this is the proper service they owe their readers? That they don`t deserve to see with their own eyes at least a hint of what happened in Gaza?

This is how one shapes the opinions of the public - and also how one brainwashes it. Penetrating op-eds convince the already convinced, and only the flow of information determines one`s awareness. The local popular press, almost free of censorship, highly professional and in part also selling well, opted for the gravest thing of all: self-censorship, of the kind that will never arouse any signs of opposition.

One day, when the historian or researcher burrows in the archives of these newspapers and tries to understand what happened here, he won`t be able to understand a thing. He will only know that we had a press here that betrayed its role.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Alistair Welchman

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