Jul 14 2016

False balance helps no one

Published by at 10:11 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

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By Daoud Kuttab

One of the lessons professional journalists have learned over the years is that objectivity and balance can sometimes be wrongly used.

If, as a journalist, you are witnessing rain, you are not obliged to report that one side says it is raining and the other side says it is not. You have an obligation to your audience to tell it simply that it is raining.

Such false balance is often seen in conflict-resolution cases where the side attempting to mediate a case where one side is clearly guilty and failing to act to resolve the conflict, presents a “balanced” solution to a skewed situation, accusing each side of committing some kind of mistake.

This false balance naturally produces an angry response from the side that is actively trying to produce a solution.

In its attempt at striking balance in the asymmetrical Palestinian-Israeli situation, the Quartet, made up of the US, UN, EU and Russia, balances Israel’s nearly 50 years of military occupation and illegal colonial settlements with Palestinians’ “incitement to violence”.

The often-repeated accusations that Palestinian school textbooks and media are instruments of incitement to violence have long been scientifically debunked even though they were regularly repeated by Israeli officials and Israeli apologists.

The claim that Palestinians teach their children hate has been rejected by tens of American and European, as well as Israeli and Palestinian, academic studies since the turn of the millennium.

A 2005 US congressional bipartisan report asserted that Palestinian textbooks “do not incite Palestinians towards anti-Jewish violence or constitute a ‘war curriculum’.”

Europe’s Chris Patten, the chancellor of the University of Oxford and a former governor of Hong Kong, was so angry about accusations that the EU funds Palestinian textbooks full of hate that  he ordered a full investigation which, of course, found the accusation to be untrue.

“It is a total fabrication that the European Union has funded textbooks with anti-Semitic arguments within them in Palestinian schools. It is a complete lie,” Patten said after the EU’s thorough research.

Media incitement has not been as easy to research. To begin with, there is a huge difference between what people voluntarily choose to watch or read and what is mandatorily taught in schools to children.

Furthermore, it is much more difficult to accuse one side of incitement without a regular monitoring mechanism on both sides that uses a clear definition of what is media incitement.

Israel has not agreed to participate in a committee that attempted to define and monitor incitement in both Israeli and Palestinian media. 

Even though incitement has been a favourite escape argument of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government refused in 2014 a US-led initiative to convene a tripartite (Israeli, Palestinian, American) committee to address incitement and education towards peace in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In the Palestinian-Israeli context, a much more complicated problem has to be accessed. There is little similarity between the current Israeli media, which have developed over 70 years and are now a strong, vibrant, well-funded sector, and the current Palestinian media that, by and large, are less than 20 years old and are highly restricted because of working under occupation.

While a few newspapers existed before the Oslo Accords and were subject to Israeli military censorship, radio and television, as well as a further two newspapers in the West Bank and a couple in Gaza (plus online media) are less than two decades old. 

Palestinian journalists have been regularly subjected to harassment, restrictions and physical attacks.

Local and international human rights organisations documented violations against Palestinian journalists by the Israeli army. 

Journalists, including a member of the Palestinian journalist union, are currently administratively detained in an Israeli jail without charge or trial.

A more fair comparison would be between Palestinian media under occupation today and the Zionist media on the eve of the creation of the state of Israel.

Palestinian journalists also work under harsh professional conditions, for lower salaries, and face severe travel restrictions. 

A study by the Geneva-based International Press Institute (IPI) reflected the inability of Palestinian journalists to travel to and from Jerusalem and between Gaza and the West Bank. 

In fact, the IPI report, published in 2013, revealed that the Israeli government does not recognise Palestinian media institutions. 

Some Palestinian journalists working for international media are granted press credentials, but Israel does not recognise or deal professionally with any of the existing Palestinian media organisations.

The IPI report stated that Palestinian and Israeli journalists are restricted from travelling to each other’s areas and official sources are often denied to journalists from both sides.

In the field of social media, a recent experiment conducted by Israel’s Channel 10 whereby an Israeli and a Palestinian youth each wrote similar posts inciting to violence on their Facebook pages is very telling.

The young Palestinian’s Facebook post received seven likes and a number of warnings from readers not to do it, while the Israeli youth’s post received 1,200 likes and shares with a number of commentators offering to help.

The Israeli army arrested the Palestinian (he was later released) while the Israeli Facebook writer was not contacted.

The continuation of the Israeli occupation and the asymmetrical relationship between the Israeli army and its institutions against Palestinians makes it difficult to unilaterally blame media for the continuation of the conflict.

Blaming Palestinian political leaders for failure to condemn every Palestinian attack, while ignoring the Israeli leaders’ silence on proven summary executions, is yet another failure of those attempting to maintain such a false balance.

Media and political leaders certainly do have an influence on people’s behaviour. 

But reality can only change by ending the root cause of the conflict, namely the military occupation of Palestinian lands.

Attempts to blame the Palestinian media fall under the often repeated statement “don’t shoot the messenger”.

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