May 14 2013

Is Palestinian Media A Special Case?

Published by at 1:35 pm under Articles,Media Activism



By Daoud Kuttab

The official title of the first conference of its kind at An Najah university on April 28 was “The Palestinian Media in Light of Changes in the Arab World.” But a more appropriate title for the proceedings of the one-day event at Palestine’s largest university would have been “Whether Palestinian Journalists and the Palestine Media Merit Being a Special Case.”

The “special case” controversy erupted when the well-known journalist Nabil Amr told the large audience of his comments to Yasser Arafat as soon as Amr was appointed minister of information. ”I told him,” said the former minister, “that I intended to abolish the ministry and privatize Palestine TV and Sawt Falstine [Voice of Palestine radio] to a public service station such as the BBC.” Amr, who at one time suffered wounds from unknowns shooting into his house, said Arafat refused his idea without even a discussion.

The current deputy minister of information in the Palestinian government would not allow this statement to go by without comment. Mahmoud Khalifa responded by saying that Palestine is a special case and that until the occupation ends and independence is accomplished, we should not expect from the Palestinian media and Palestinian journalists to abide by the rules that apply to sovereign countries.

A discussion followed in which the line between media and politics was even further blurred as some argued that political activism is a necessary part of resistance and media is a tool for Palestinian nationalism and therefore can’t be required to apply the rules of objectivity, balance and even-handedness. One political activist who runs an Islamist newspaper said sarcastically, “If I am covering the killings in Jenin, I am not going to call up the spokesman of the Israeli army to ask for his reaction.”

Others responded that media consumption doesn’t understand political considerations. Consumers want media that is honest and professional. “If the cameraman can’t keep the picture in focus or if the editor can’t write a clearly understood headline, no one will watch or read, irrespective of the politics,” said a veteran journalist.

The debate about the professionalism of the Palestinian media continued throughout the An Najah media conference. A heated discussion developed between the bureau chief of Al-Jazeera in Palestine, Walid Omari, and a researcher at Bir Zeit Univerity, Walid Shurafa. Omari argued that the leading Arab satellite TV network was affected by the Arab spring and not the other way around. He gave examples of Tunis and Egypt, where his network only started covering the demonstrations days after they had erupted, which proved that they didn’t instigate the Arab spring. Shurafa, on the other hand, reacted by arguing that the Qatari-based station has a clear ideological bent. He gave Libya and Syria as examples of the integration between the Doha-based media outlet with the Qatari government’s foreign policy.

Criticism of Palestinian media was totally overrun when the discussion evolved to social media, where Palestinian users in Gaza and the West Bank (without east Jerusalem) have passed the 1 million-subscriber mark with Facebook. Researchers into social media trends pointed out that this medium was used for media literacy, dissemination of media articles and for advocacy. They pointed out that the world is at the disposal of Palestinian social media consumers and therefore local media can only make it if they address the needs and aspirations of young Palestinians, who constitute the majority of the population. On the issue of advocacy, the researchers cited the case of the Palestinian hunger strikers as Palestinian activists spread the word about their suffering and the need for solidarity with them.

The gap between old and new media was evident a week later during the celebration of Press Freedom Day. During an event sponsored by the journalists union and a host of non-governmental organizations, a scheduling problem occurred that reflected differences of opinion: The head of the journalists union tried to stop the broadcast of an investigative video report produced by the Ramallah-based Wattan TV local station before the outgoing Palestinian prime minister gave his speech. A hot microphone picked up Salam Fayyad urging Abdel Naser Najar to keep the video rolling while the head of the union insisted and succeeded in stopping the video.

Palestinian media, like Palestinian society, are going through the birth pangs of an independent state. While it is difficult to decide whether the Palestinian media are a special case or not, Palestinian journalists are unified at least in the need to improve the professionalism of their trade regardless of whether their content is more or less ideological.

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