United Nations International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace concludes with call on journalists to expand public dialogue, help bridge divide
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
RIO DE JANEIRO, 28 July –- The seventeenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded today, as the head of the United Nations Department of Public Information encouraged journalists to do more to expand the public dialogue about the situation in that region and to help bridge the divides that separated Israelis and Palestinians.
"You have enormous power to reach out to the widest possible audience to change the mindsets […] for better understanding and a peaceful future for all people in the Middle East," said Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. The United Nations and major actors, both old and new, would assist in the search for a peaceful solution.
"Please write about what you have heard at this seminar," he continued, expressing the hope that the discussions -- touching on, among others, the importance of spreading the message of peaceful coexistence and the role of media and civil society in shaping opinions about the Middle East -- would help build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. For its part, the Department of Public Information would mobilize its forces and resources to continue the annual seminar so that understanding between the two sides could be enhanced.
The seminar, on "Promoting Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue –- a view from South America", opened yesterday and was organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Ministry of External Affairs of Brazil. (See Press Release PAL/2118) It was the first such event to be held in a South American country, and Mr. Akasaka thanked the Brazilian Government and people, noting that their keen interest in the subject and active participation had provided the setting for one of the liveliest seminars in several years.
Today's meeting included two panel discussions, respectively on "Shaping Public Policy and Public Opinion in and about the Middle East through the Media", and "The Role of Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society and Media in Bridging Divides: The Case of Encounter Point and the Parents Circle-Families Forum". Yesterday's panels concerned "The Challenge of the Post Conflict Gaza Conflict Reconstruction" and "The Peace Process, the United Nations and New Actors."
The panel on the role of Israeli-Palestinian civil society and media was moderated by Paula Refolo, Director, Strategic Communications Division, United Nations Department of Public Information. It featured Julia Bacha, co-director of the film Encounter Point; Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad, both featured in Encounter Point; Danny Nishlis, Director of Radio Haifa; and Michael Younan of the International Peace and Cooperation Centre.
Earlier in the day, the seminar's panel discussion on "Shaping Public Policy and Public Opinion in and about the Middle East through the Media" was moderated by Giancarlo Summa, Director, United Nations Information Centre, Rio de Janeiro. It featured the participation of Felice Friedson, co-founder, President and CEO of the Media News Line Agency; Edmund Ghareeb, Professor at the American University in Washington, D.C.; Renata Malkes, Middle East correspondent for O Globol newspaper of Brazil; Pedro Brieger, Editor of Vision 7 International, for Channel 7 in Argentina; and Gideon Levy, Haaretz columnist.
The panel's respondents included Yaakov Achimeir, anchor of a weekly programme on world affairs on TV Channel 1 in Israel; Mohammad Shaker Abdallah, political columnist and member of the editorial board of Al-Quds in Jerusalem; Etta Prince-Gibson, Editor of the weekly magazine The Jerusalem Report; and Helda Ereqat, from Ma'an News Agency in Palestine.
In closing remarks, Vera Machado, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Ministry of External Relations of Brazil, thanked all the participants, who had reflected deeply over the past two days on issues that were vital to peace in the Middle East and the wider world. While both optimistic and pessimistic views had been expressed, Brazil, for its part, remained hopeful that Israelis and Palestinians could forge a just and lasting peace.
The seminar began its work in the morning with a panel discussion on "Shaping Public Policy and Public Opinion in and about the Middle East through the Media", which was moderated by GIANCARLO SUMMA, Director, United Nations Information Centre, Rio de Janeiro. He said the participants would discuss how the Israeli, Arab and international media covered the recent conflict in Gaza and other events in the Middle East.
He said that everyone was aware of the role the media could play in fuelling conflict, and recalled the radio broadcasts that had sparked the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. At the same time, the media could also play a role in bringing attention to issues, such as the Balkan wars during the 1990s and the Viet Nam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to sway public and political opinion in Europe and the United States, respectively, to bring an end to those conflicts. He urged the participants to examine the ways media coverage shaped public opinion, and what could be done to sustain the hopes of peoples on both sides of the Middle East issue.
Kicking off the discussion was FELICE FRIEDSON, co-founder, President and CEO of the Media News Line Agency, a non-profit news organization based in Jerusalem. She said she had been very troubled by the tenor of yesterday's discussions, which to her were generally "partisan epithets dressed up as irrefutable evidence of fact".
Compelled by yesterday's panels to rework her comments, she said it was clear that, while politicians with an agenda were not going to talk about everyday cooperation between Israelis and Arabs, journalists should be reporting such stories on a regular basis. Those politicians that preached separation were getting it wrong; resolution would only come through cooperation.
They should be able to cover "the other side of the story", she said. Presenting political arguments as absolute conclusions, without substantiation, was neither right nor real reporting. The Palestinians were poised to create a viable State and the Palestinian leadership should do all it could to promote and ensure a free press, which was critical to ensure an open society.
She said that, for all its horror, the crisis in Gaza at the beginning of the year had been instructive in several ways. In Israel, the issue of media coverage and access had become a public debate, as the Government had denied access to foreign, Israeli and Palestinian journalists. Indeed, lawsuits over that decision were still under way in Israel. A responsible press was going to shape the future, and she challenged the seminar to stop bickering and "do something tangible" by presenting work that was believable.
EDMUND GHAREEB, Professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said that, while United States President Barack Obama had pledged to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian issue head on, he was not yet convinced Mr. Obama was prepared to expend the political capital that was needed to expand the dialogue on the issue, much less bring about a change in United States policy. In any case, the media would likely play a huge role in shaping the Obama Administration's strategy and the public's perception of it.
He said that, while the press in the United States had a long history of openness, modern coverage of global and especially domestic issues had led some to brand it "cynical and shallow". Still, the United States media remained formidable, and while its performance had not been exemplary, it had been a bulwark against abuse of power in cases such as Watergate and Viet Nam.
The Middle East was perhaps the most avidly covered issue of the time. Now, in the era of the Internet and Cable News Network (CNN), reporters were becoming part of the action, "acting as a bullhorn for what used to be the whispers of diplomacy". The United States media's coverage of political affairs, especially Middle East issues, was generally considered one-dimensional because of, among other things, the failure of Arab-American civil society groups, sympathy with Israel because of the Holocaust and "coverage without context". Moreover, Israel was doing a better job of making its case with the American media. The challenge was to provide not only more balanced coverage, but to expand the number and content of the voices reporting on the issue.
RENATA MALKES, Middle East correspondent for O Globo newspaper of Brazil, said she was concerned that mainstream media was losing its audience in the era of blogging and the so-called "citizen media". Today, readers and viewers were seeking out news and information that served their purposes and interests, rather than traditional news sources. The new "citizen journalists", able to provide constant streams of information to targeted audiences, were becoming quite formidable. All of that amounted to less space for traditional journalists, she said, admitting that she and others had not yet figured out a way to get that audience back. That was completely new territory.
She said covering the crisis in Gaza had been difficult because of general lack of access. To some degree, it had become a conflict covered by cell phone. In Brazil, people were seeking balanced coverage of a highly emotional issue. The Brazilian media had been able to give the Gaza Strip a "human face" by removing the perception that it was only the home of "refugees". That conflict had been a landmark in Brazilian media coverage because it had taken place in a situation of adversity. Journalists were not machines, but they were also aware that audiences wanted to feel the emotion of the issues that were being covered. The challenge was to provide balanced coverage of the region.
PEDRO BRIEGER, Editor of Vision 7 International, for Channel 7 in Argentina, said perceptions of the Middle East in his country had been shaped by the terrorist blasts that had rocked Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. It had also, until recently, been shaped by United States media coverage of Middle East events. Indeed, European and United States media, specifically CNN, which had one reporter who translated events there into Spanish, hugely influenced most of Latin America.
He said the emerging Latin American network Telesur was beginning to play an important role in the region. That network had been on the ground during the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, as well as in Gaza earlier in the year. The coverage had been one-sided however, because it had not shown any images of what was happening in Israel. Al Jazeera was also becoming a player in the regional media, even though it was so far available only in English.
The next speaker, GIDEON LEVY, columnist for Haaretz, said that, without the collaboration and encouragement of the Israeli media, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands would have never lasted for more than 40 years. The Israeli media was free and courageous, especially in exposing domestic corruption, but when it came "to the biggest corruption of Israel", the media played a different role.
He said the media had been instrumental in promoting the official political line, providing the public with a "very sophisticated laundry list of words" and describing destruction of housing and killings by using "soft names". The media had always been there to demonize and dehumanize the Palestinians, he said, noting that, while the press did report killings of Palestinians, such coverage appeared in the back pages of newspapers. "No one recruited us for this role, we volunteered for it," he said, stressing that the issue was particularly troubling because the Israeli journalists were actually free to report what they wanted, and they chose to portray Palestinians "as something other".
For months, the media had pushed politicians to invade Gaza, largely focusing on the "super weapons" from Iran that were being smuggled into the area through tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. When war had broken out, it really was not a war at all; it was an undeniable violation of human rights. If the Israeli media had done its job, the crisis in Gaza would have been different, as would the overall perception of events in the Middle East.
The seminar next heard presentations from four respondents, the first of whom was YAAKOV ACHIMEIR, anchor of a weekly programme on world affairs on TV Channel 1 in Israel, who said that he was a Jewish journalist living in Israel and that was key to understanding his coverage of events in the Middle East. There were so many attacks being made against Israel about its position in the Middle East. But in fact, Israel had signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.
Further, no one was calling for an investigation of war crimes regarding the bombardment of Israeli lands at the beginning of the year. Didn't those innocent civilians also deserve the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? Above all, the role of a journalist was to spell out the truth. The truth must not be hidden. Israel was a good country and he apologized for not being very objective on the issue.
MOHAMMAD SHAKER ABDULLAH, political columnist and member of the editorial board of Al-Quds in Jerusalem, said he had hoped his colleagues from Israel would have been more objective and open-minded in their statements, especially about the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
He added that it would have been beneficial if the seminar had included a meeting between Arab and Israeli journalists so they could have an open discussion about difficult issues, such as the return of Palestine refugees. He was born in Jerusalem and was considered a resident. However, the Palestinians born there did not have citizenship. A wall surrounded Jerusalem, so those Palestinians were separated from the rest of the Territory. Movement in and out of Jerusalem was very difficult.
Turning to the coverage of the Gaza conflict, he said Al-Quds was subjected to three controls: Israel, which forbade coverage of certain issues; Hamas, which had forbidden distribution in Gaza; and the Palestinian Authority, which also objected to coverage of certain issues. That said, coverage of the Gaza crisis had been very difficult, but Al-Quds had nevertheless been able to publish some stories throughout. He called for more cooperation from his Israeli colleagues to ensure peace for the good of all peoples in the region.
ETTA PRINCE-GIBSON, Editor of the weekly magazine The Jerusalem Report, said she was a Jew, a Zionist, an Israeli, a feminist and a mother. She had raised her children during the worst of times and seen them scarred by people dying around them, yet she was trying -- though she did not know how well she was doing -- to ensure her children respected human rights for all people. She did not support the settlements, but she did not believe that the Middle East conflict had one single cause, one single protagonist or one single solution. As such, everyone needed to look beyond the conflict and perceptions of it. "We need to get past the 'ain't that awful' stories", and look for real, considered solutions.
"One thing I won't do is participate in the popularity contest that I believe we are being asked to participate in," she said, challenging the participants to get out of their comfort zones and investigate new media sources that, while they might not agree with them, might actually advance the dialogue. There were lots of people in the world being cheerleaders for this or that event, but the role of a journalist was to provide a realistic view of the situations they covered.
"All of you are entitled to better journalism than you're getting, and all of us journalists are required to provide it," she said, reminding participants that there was no one in the room that had not said at one point or another: "life is complicated". So what made the Middle East issue any different? It was time to look for ways to challenge old perceptions and attitudes. She had tried hard to make sure her staff reported events in the Middle East in a fair manner.
The final respondent, HELDA EREQAT, from Ma'an New Agency in Palestine, agreed with other colleagues who believed the seminar was becoming too political. Everyone had gathered in Rio de Janeiro to explore ways journalists could work together to advance the Middle East peace process. As a Palestinian journalist living in Jerusalem, she faced innumerable hurdles in trying to do her job, not least of which was movement in and out of the city. It was also difficult to take pictures in the area. That was the sad reality of living and working under the rules stipulated by the Israeli occupation army.