Round-Up of Session
15 June 2005
Role of Media in Peace, Conflict Between Israel and Palestine Discussed by International Media Seminar
Seminar on Peace in Middle East Concludes
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
CAIRO, 14 June -- The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East this afternoon debated in a panel discussion the role of the media in peace and conflict between Israel and Palestine, and then concluded its annual meeting.
Ahmad Fawzi, Director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations Department of Information, said that the role of the media was to promote the truth factually without fear or censorship. He hoped that the discussion would be able to establish how the media could shape public opinion and how it could participate in the search for peace. In an age of information, the power of the media in shaping public opinion was growing day by day. Its influence could not be overemphasized.
Hisham Kassem of Al-Massry Al-Yaum of Egypt said a recent incident had made him realize that it was still very easy to stigmatize a person just because he was sitting with an Israeli, even though the war had ended 32 years ago and the peace treaty with Israel was a model. This raised the question, had the media let the politicians down or had the politicians let the media down.
Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz of Israel said that for the last 15 years, he had been trying to tell Israelis stories that they did not want to hear about and to show them a picture that they do not want to see and to make them visit the dark backyard of Israel that the media was trying to avoid. The occupation was one of the cruellest occupations in the world. Most of the Israelis did not want to know about this.
Khaleel Shaheen of Al Ayyam of Ramallah said the Palestinian media was paving the way for an independent State and it would affect the whole process. The Israeli media had witnessed some changes. The Palestinian media reflected a realistic image of what was taking place, the barricades, the destructions, the shootings, the settlers uprooting land and destroying houses and the imprisonment of thousands. There could be no peace with occupation.
Pierre Luc Brassard, Radio Canada Correspondent in Cairo, said that to answer the question on the role of the media and whether its role should be preventing or exacerbating conflicts, he believed that it was the role of the media to reflect the reality.
A question and answer session was held after the panellists gave their opening remarks.
The Seminar which is entitled “Reinvigorating the Peace Process: the Role of International and Regional Actors in Facilitating a Comprehensive, Just and Lasting Peace in the Middle East”, is organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Egypt.
In his closing address to the Seminar, Mr. Tharoor said they had had two days of intense discussions on the role of international and regional actors in facilitating a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East. He thought that what had emerged from these discussions was complex and yet hopeful -– a sense that the active and constructive engagement of third parties from within and without the Middle East region could serve to move the peace process forward. He hoped that the Seminar had made some contribution, even if modest, to the search for a peace that ordinary Palestinians and Israelis needed and deserved.
Ahmed Fathallah, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for International Relations, said that he wished to express his thanks to the United Nations for organizing the Seminar in Egypt. It had proved that communication and complimentarity between politicians and the media was possible.
This was the thirteenth in a series of international media seminars on peace in the Middle East which the Department of Public Information organizes at the instruction of the General Assembly. They are held in a different country every year. This was the first time that the Seminar was held in the Middle East.
AHMAD FAWZI, Director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations Department of Information, said that the topic of the panel “The Role of the Media in Peace and Conflict between Israel and Palestine” was a subject that was very close to his heart.
He had had a previous role as a journalist and he still had the spirit of a journalist which he believed served him well as a United Nations official. The topic of the role of the media in the conflict was crucial as Rami Khouri had said this morning, and he wished to endorse everything that Rami said and also to add that accuracy in reporting was of prime importance, especially when dealing with the conflict. The role of the media was to promote the truth factually without fear or censorship. He hoped that the discussion would be able to establish how the media could shape public opinion and how it could participate in the search for peace.
Mr. Fawzi said in an age of information, the power of the media in shaping public opinion was growing day by day. Its influence could not be overemphasized. In the Middle East, a proliferation of region-wide broadcasters had dramatically changed the information landscape. These broadcasters and their print and even Internet colleagues had enormous power -- power that could be used to press for solutions, or –- alternatively –- could entrench prejudice and, thereby, harden the positions of the parties to the conflict. Visual images were particularly strong in adding weight to certain perceptions of the conflict, particularly, he feared, negative perceptions. The need for professionalism among journalists -– for balanced, independent and objective reporting –- was greater now than it had ever been.
HISHAM KASSEM, Vice-Chairman of Al-Massry Al-Yaum of Egypt, said that those who had read the provisional programme of the Seminar would know that he was replacing his colleague Osama el-Ghazali Harb. Usually, whenever he accepted to speak publicly, later he regretted it because there was always preparation and work involved. But this time, he would regret it for another reason. A few weeks ago, he had been a speaker at a meeting in Washington. The Prime Minister had also been participating and when the Prime Minister had taken the floor, he had asked a question which had embarrassed the Prime Minister. A few days later, he had seen two stories in an Egyptian paper on the same page, one of the Prime Minister addressing the meeting in Washington, and the other about the Prime Minister refuting the allegation that he had made and accusing him of sitting with an Israeli Minister. A series of other attacks against him had followed. It had occurred to him that it was still very easy to stigmatize a person just because he was sitting with an Israeli. After all, the war had ended 32 years ago and the peace treaty with Israel was a model. This raised the question, had the media let the politicians down or had the politicians let the media down?
Mr. Kassem said that during the peace process, Sadat had been intolerant of any criticism of the peace process. When some had questioned the effect of the peace process on the national security of Egypt, he had banned any criticism in the media. So Egyptian journalists had found their only outlet in the Arab press, which was supported by the Arab regimes which were against Egypt and the peace process. This situation had continued throughout the years, and the failure of both sides following the Oslo process to implement confidence building measures had not left the press in a good position. Then Netanyahu had become Prime Minister and his provocations had not improved the situation either. After that Sharon had become Prime Minister and he was probably the most hated Israeli by the Arabs. So the political track had never given a chance to the press.
As a publisher, he always set clear terms of reference concerning any newspaper he was involved with, that were the resolution 242 and the withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. These were the terms of reference for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The prospect for the future was that as more of the Arab press became free and a larger variety appeared, there would be better and more professional coverage. The fact that he was sitting next to the journalist from Ha’aretz gave him hope for the future.
GIDEON LEVY, Journalist and Columnist of Ha’aretz of Israel, said that for the last 15 years, he had been trying to tell Israelis stories that they did not want to hear about and to show them a picture that they do not want to see and to make them visit the dark backyard of Israel that the media was trying to avoid. The occupation was one of the cruellest occupations in the world. Most of the Israelis did not want to know about this. There was a coalition of journalists, people and the army who did not want to write, hear about, or have known what was going on in the occupied territories. There were a few journalists who wanted to publish what was going on and they did because Israel had a very, very free press. However, instead of censorship, Israel had something worse, it had self-censorship. Not much could be done about self-censorship. There were maybe up to 10 journalists who were courageous and who insisted on writing the truth.
Mr. Levy said the majority of journalists were telling the truth, but not all the truth. They wrote maybe that a house of a Palestinian had been demolished, maybe, but they would never write about the 12 children that had now become homeless, or who would probably grow up to be suicide bombers. Telling only part of the truth was a betrayal. The Israeli reader’s whole political thinking was manipulated towards terrorism and terror. This was a dehumanisation of the Palestinians and it was the biggest crime of the Israeli media. He travelled to the occupied territories. Most of the soldiers in the territories were brought up with some moral values. They were not monsters. However, whenever one saw the cruel and inhuman things that they did daily, it was difficult to bridge the gap between their actions and their morals. The media was responsible for convincing the majority of Israelis that Palestinians were different from Israelis, not human. At checkpoints, there were no shades or toilets, not out of cruelty or to save money, but to serve the idea that the checkpoints did not serve human beings. The media was playing a criminal role in this aspect. The media only wrote about the violent Palestinians, never about the human aspects of Palestinian society since this would damage the main message of the occupiers. The Israeli media also gave the image of the Israeli as the ultimate victim, the one and only victim.
The way that the Palestinians’ agony was ignored by the Israeli press was criminal land served to target the dehumanization of the Palestinians, Mr. Levy said. If every honest Israeli citizen knew what was going on in the occupied territory, they would not accept it. He believed that if they knew, Israelis would be acting differently. That was why the responsibility of the Israeli media was so big and why the way that the media had betrayed this responsibility was so crucial to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
KHALEEL SHAHEEN, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al Ayyam of Ramallah, said his intervention would look at the effect of the Israeli and Palestinian media. The research was world wide, especially when answering the question on how the media could help the making of peace. The Palestinian media was paving the way for an independent State and it would affect the whole process. The Israeli media had witnessed some changes. The Palestinian media reflected a realistic image of what was taking place, the barricades, the destructions, the shootings, the settlers uprooting land and destroying houses and the imprisonment of thousands. There could be no peace with occupation. The Palestinian media was presenting the struggle and how it could shape the realities on the ground and how it could lead to a constructive process. The Palestinian media needed more than anything to be able to drive the struggle for the restoration of Palestinian freedom. The Palestinian media was endeavouring to do all it could to reflect a democratic role but there were efforts being made to uproot it. It was not possible for the Palestinian media to flourish except under democracy and the rule of law. The reform, as well as the institutional work of the Palestinian Authority was essential for the reconstruction of civil society.
PIERRE LUC BRASSARD, Radio Canada Correspondent in Cairo, said he had worked in the Middle East for the past 14 years, working in Egypt, Israel, Palestine and other places. He had covered the second intifada. To answer the question on the role of the media and whether its role should be preventing or exacerbating conflicts, he believed that it was the role of the media to reflect the reality. Canada was very far from the Middle East conflict. Here, the history of the conflict was well known. But when he wrote about the conflict, he went back to the basics, to international law and the United Nations resolutions. He recalled to the listener that these were occupied territories, and that all settlements were illegal. He asked if Israeli law was stronger than international law. Some people accused him of being pro-Palestinian, but he was only recalling the rules. Someone once asked him what side did he support, and he had said that he supported justice. These days, everyone was hoping for a just and fair peace, but he was not optimistic. A solution had to be a Palestinian State including all the territories taken after 1967. The longer it took, the more difficult it would be to resolve the conflict as issues like settlements and the barrier wall and others had to be dealt with.
A speaker said that she wanted to compliment the United Nations for gathering such a panel. Mr. Levy had said that the Israeli press was very free, and he could vouch for that. The Israeli press was absolutely free. Journalists used to call Netanyahu a liar and a fraud when he was Prime Minister. He had recently met with the Editor of Ha’aretz and there was hope for a budding Palestinian State. A Palestinian State would come into being, he had no doubt about it, but it would take time.
A speaker said that Israel was not peace loving. It lived on blood and it wanted to suck the blood of the Arabs. It had taken Palestine by force. The “Road Map” and the Quartet had not been able to force Israel to respect the peace process, stop its assassinations and closures, or allow the Palestinian economy to be revived. No Arab could forget the massacres in Jenin, Sabra and Chatilla and Deer Yassin. Israel wanted blood, and it was supported by the United States.
What Mr. Levy had said about the dehumanization of the Palestinians was impressive, one speaker said. She asked what would be the impact of 24-hour television stations where the impact of seeing the reality from both sides left people numb.
In response, Mr. Levy said that al Gazira was not CNN. Even CNN sometimes followed an ideology. He could not answer about the Arab media. He was more concerned about the Israeli media because finally, it decided what the Israeli citizens saw. Israel should take account that what was happening and actions like those in Jenin had very deep consequences.
Mr. Kassem said that he did not think that 24-hour television led to numbness. It led to first hand exposure to what was going on. It would serve in the long run to allow the public to have a larger idea about the conflict.
A speaker said that some of the panellists had spoken about the inevitability of a Palestinian State, but he wished to note that the Arabs were living the Palestinian cause and it was in their blood. What Mr. Levy had said about the role of the media was very important. The media should serve peace. It had to mobilize public opinion in order to reach a satisfactory solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United Nations should develop more seminars, workshops and other mechanisms to eliminate the passive image on both sides.
Another speaker said she wanted to put on the record her thanks to Mr. Levy for his courage and objectivity. She asked if he mentioned in his column the results of the building of the separation wall, the usurping of the land, the uprooting of the olive trees and other such effects.
A speaker said that she was overwhelmed by the male guest speakers yesterday and today. She had been looking for a gender perspective. She had a question about accuracy and objectivity and wondered how they could be balanced with hate speech.
In response, Mr. Levy said that he thanked everyone who had complimented him, and if he had not written about the suffering of the Palestinians as a result of the separation wall, he would not have deserved them. This issue had been a large part of his writing in the past year or two. It was something that the Israelis were brainwashed about. If you want to build a wall, even if it was not necessary, you do not go and build it in your neighbour’s bedroom, you build it on your own land.
Mr. Kassem said that he did not want to say what question he had asked the Prime Minister. He had just wanted to show the dehumanizing issue. As for the issue of separating hate talk and accuracy, it was not the job of the media to promote peace, it was their job to monitor the work of the politicians, and it was up to the politicians to promote peace.
Mr. Shaheen said that he wanted to re-emphasize what Mr. Kassem had said. The media could play a role in creating a peace climate. However, he wanted to tell the Seminar about something that he had experienced. Israel was going to destroy 88 homes in Silwan in Jerusalem. However, if he would write over 88 days the story of 88 families who would lose their homes, he would instigate Palestinians to go and bomb themselves up. He felt he had to abide by the ethics, and he should not instigate. It was going to be a great disappointment for the Palestinians when they realized that their envisioned State would not come into being. Many believed there would be a violent response to the Israeli position.
A speaker said that as a Palestinian journalist, he had to say that Mr. Levy was playing an important role. But he was serving the Israeli public. The speaker said he also wanted to serve the Palestinians in the same way. In Israel, the peace forces were on the decline. Arabs had to stop using the language of accusation and had to become more pro-active and to try and influence the Israeli public towards the peace process.
Another speaker thanked Mr. Levy for his courage and for highlighting the situation in Israel. She had no respect for Israelis, but now she could respect one Israeli. Mr. Levy had said that the media should focus on the facts. This seminar had been organized by the United Nations to target the role of the media. What was the role that the United Nations would continue to play in Israel to highlight this?
A participant said that the Seminar should come up with recommendations on the role of the media and should entrust some personalities with certain functions. Another speaker said that he had listened to many important things over the past two days. However, there was one missing point which she wished to allude to. It was the daily life of the Palestinian journalists and what they did to carry out their work. She did not want to speak about how many Palestinian journalists had died in the line of duty. In their work, the Palestinian journalists faced many forms of censorship, including self-censorship because they had to consider how to make their livelihood. There were some unknown people who came to journalists’ offices and destroyed them and left.
A speaker asked Mr. Levy to elaborate on what he had said about self-censorship, and whether this was an old or new problem. He asked Mr. Shaheen how he evaluated the work of the Palestinian media over the last elections. Another speaker asked Mr. Kassem whether he believed that it was the media which had let down the politicians or whether it was the other way. He asked Mr. Brassard if there was a code that journalists used on self-rule.
In response, Mr. Brassard said that it was a code for him. It was a very complicated issue, especially for his readers. He had to go back to the basics and talk about international law. He also noted that sometimes when journalists went to Israel just for a short assignment, and they listened to the Israeli media, they ended up using the Israeli vocabulary.
Mr. Levy thanked the speakers again for all their warm compliments. It was worth the trip of him coming to Cairo from Israel through Amman. He doubted he would ever hear the same from the Israeli audience. He was happy the speaker from Saudi Arabia had said that now she could respect one Israeli. He was now a new alternative voice for Israel. He dreamed to visit Saudi Arabia one day. He still remembered in 1977 speaking to a German friend who had just come back from Damascus and Cairo, and he had been telling his friend how for him he wished to visit but those two cities were behind the mountain of darkness for him. Three months later, he had arrived in Cairo and woken up to see the pyramids at the Mena House. That moment gave him the power to believe that the inevitable could happen. In response to another question, Mr. Levy said that there had been a deep shift in Israeli society over the past four years when 99 per cent of the population had moved to the right thanks to Barak’s policies and suicide bombings. Now, it was very hard to try to re-balance the picture again. His job was to tell Israelis the truth.
Mr. Kassem said that the question he had asked the Prime Minister was that the press on both sides were not complimentary about the peace process, and was this the fault of the press or the politicians who had never created an environment to allow peace to process. He believed it was the fault of the politicians.
Mr. Shaheen said that the Palestinian newspapers had praised the institutional reforms. The Palestinian media still needed training on how to cover issues. Images were used politically.
Mr. Fawzi said that the journalistic profession bore a lot of responsibility. Accurate and objective reporting was essential in order to inform the public on both sides. Shashi Tharoor liked to quote a joke about a television anchorman who said that these were the headlines, we will be back to blow them out of proportion. The media should not do this. The dehumanizing of the Palestinians by the Israeli media was a message that had come through. This should not happen, but it should not happen either concerning Israelis in the Palestinian media.
SHASHI THAROOR, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said the Seminar had had two days of intense discussions on the role of international and regional actors in facilitating a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East. He thought that what had emerged from these discussions was complex and yet hopeful –- a sense that the active and constructive engagement of third parties from within and without the Middle East region could serve to move the peace process forward. Of course, as it moved forward, obstacles would arise that the parties to the conflict would have to deal with among themselves. But even at this stage, constructive support from international and regional actors would be crucial. He hoped that the Seminar had made some contribution, even if modest, to the search for a peace that ordinary Palestinians and Israelis needed and deserved.
Mr. Tharoor said that he hoped that the session this afternoon had engaged journalists in a frank and open conversation on the role of the media. He hoped that this had fulfilled the role of the Media Seminar to allow the press to understand themselves better and their challenges.
AHMED FATHALLAH, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for International Relations, said that he wished to express his thanks to the United Nations for organizing the Seminar in Egypt. It had proved that communication and complimentarity between politicians and the media was possible. All the parties concerned should play a very important role, hence this Seminar. If pessimism was expressed, he hoped that it would not give a negative measure. He hoped that after discussing the negative aspects, they could be changed to positive aspects.
Mr. THAROOR said that sometimes there must be pessimism, for there to be hope. He recalled one of the speakers yesterday who had said that pessimists were the people who gave ground for hope. He also recalled Mr. Hawas today who spoke about his pessimism about the situation, and then said that he hoped he was wrong. It was not wrong to air pessimism as long as it could help lead us to optimism. If we worked with commitment and devotion to the principles which had been discussed, there would be a chance that this would go right.
Mr. Tharoor said he wanted to tell the audience a story about truth. This was a 2,000-year-old Indian story about a young warrior who wanted to marry a beautiful princess. He went to the King and asked for her hand and the King thought that the warrior was too cock sure, so he told him to go look for truth first. The warrior had searched low and far, but had not found truth. One day, close to desperation, he had gone into a cave to take refuge from a storm. There he found an old lady whose teeth were yellow and cracked and who was bony and yet she seemed to know what he was looking for. With each question he asked her, he realized that she was truth. They talked all night and in the morning, he realized that he could go to the King and claim the princess. When he asked the old hag what he should tell the King about her, she told him to tell the King that she was young and beautiful. So sometimes, truth itself was not true. The United Nations was engaged in a perennial quest to try to create a better life for all of us, and for the Palestinians and Israelis alike.
In conclusion, Mr. Tharoor said he wished to thank Saleem Fahmawi, Chief of the Palestine, Decolonization and Human Rights Section of the Strategic Communications Division of the Department of Public Information. Mr. Fahmawi had been running the seminar for many years but this one was his last one as he would be retiring next month.
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