The media's war

There is no greater cliche than one journalist interviewing another, except perhaps for a reporter interviewing a taxi driver. But when journalists are participants in a UN-sponsored forum entitled "The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East" - and, the venue being Moscow, the local taxi drivers speak only Russian - getting the Israeli and Arab members of the press to talk to each other is entirely to the point. Most of the more important discussions at the June 8-9 event took place away from the conference table in the Diplomatic Academy, a building belonging to the Russian Federation Foreign Affairs Ministry that co-sponsored this year's event. Arguments and talks originally triggered by something said in a panel discussion were carried on during the coffee breaks and into the night in a hotel lobby. Yediot Aharonot's Igal Sarna, who along with Ha'aretz's Gideon Levy and myself represented the Israeli press, quickly established a table, Tel Aviv-style, at one of Moscow's bountiful trendy coffee shops where participants often found themselves discussing their take on The Situation. The tone was set by the fascinating talk by al-Jazeera's Ramallah Bureau Chief Walid Omary, who presented a sort of "month in the life" of the Arabic-language satellite station, hated it seems, by all. Omary, who has worked for the channel for 10 years, described May 2006 as the hardest month in the decade. He depicted a period in which the station's cars and broadcast van were burned by angry Palestinians and the offices were caught in the crossfire by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen and demonstrators. Momentarily I felt that the hazards of riding to The Jerusalem Post on the No. 18 bus - a bus blown up two weeks in a row a decade ago and whose route passes the sites of at least six bombings - were quite minor. The last 10 years have not been quiet for Omary. He has been insulted by a senior official in Arafat's office in front of PLC members, kicked out of the Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah twice; detained for a few hours by Palestinian police in Gaza and had the offices closed for five days "by militants sent by a senior official in 2001." He has had run-ins with the Israeli authorities and says "we got assaulted by settlers many times. Once, colleagues from Israel's Channel 2 came to the rescue." But working at al-Jazeera has never been so hard as it is at present, following the Palestinian elections in January. "The situation became more complicated after the results of the Palestinian elections, given that it produced a double-headed Palestinian Authority, with two different programs," says Omary. "Fatah and Hamas, with their failures and insufficiencies, started to lay the blame on the media. It was 'normal‚' so to speak, to an extent to have their anger poured on al-Jazeera," with its high ratings. "Hamas conceived al-Jazeera and me personally in favor of Fatah," Omary says. "And Fatah conceived Al-Jazeera and its director general Mr. Waddah Khanfar in favor of Hamas... Fatah is accusing us of favoring Hamas and Hamas is accusing us of favoring Fatah and Israel is accusing us of favoring the Palestinians and taking their side and the Palestinians are angry that we host Israelis!" Omary, like the other journalists, describes an almost no-win situation. The more balanced you try to be, the more people accuse you of bias. The Cairo bureau chief of Al-Ahram daily, Yehia Ghanem, also pondered the question of partiality: "For example, one question that I and many of my colleagues in the Egyptian media keep asking ourselves is: If we venture to call peace 'a product‚' are we supposed in the media to market and promote a product that does not exist? And if so, would it not be both at a long and medium-range risk of losing much needed credibility in case such a product might be available in the future, bearing in mind that the public would never tolerate the media if they assume a role in 'make believe?'" He gives, as an example, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. "When the Egyptian media preached for peace with Israel back in the late 1970s, the public response was almost unanimously positive. The reason for that was very simple. The media preached for something real that the late president [Anwar] Sadat, late prime minister [Menachem] Begin and former US president Jimmy Carter promised and delivered. Yet when the same media related peace to development and economic prosperity, something that has not been achieved, people lost trust in media peace preaching." He worries that the media could get so caught up promoting peace by highlighting the positive aspects that "it would be more PR rather than real journalism. And if so, would that not twist the profession into the risky business of print to fit instead of fit to print?" Ghanem's fear is that by "promoting a product that doesn't exist or hasn't undergone quality control," the media would end up unwittingly radicalizing the region. "In light of the fact that the world has turned into a global village thanks to the technological revolution in the media, then adopting the 'print to fit' principle would only push the Arab public to recall the so-called religious aspect of the conflict, which is the most obstinate defense you can ever encounter when dealing with the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict." The role of the media is not simple, concurs Meretz leader Yossi Beilin. Beilin is one of the few Israeli politicians to participate in the forum. Other parliamentarians pulled out having received a Foreign Ministry advisory that the forum would be anti-Israel and that Israel was trying to abolish the annual event grounded in a UN Assembly resolution calling for the implementation of the "Palestine Plan" by the UN's Department of Public Information. Beilin went as far as describing the media revolution, with the advent of satellite stations and Internet 24-hour-a-day coverage, as "perhaps the most important change in the region. The world is more transparent. It's more difficult to keep secrets." Increased Egyptian and Jordanian involvement in the diplomatic process is just one result of this, according to Beilin. Both countries are concerned about the spillover of violence in Gaza and the West Bank which is openly broadcast to their publics. "It's good that everyone thinks that al-Jazeera is against them," says Beilin. "It's good because it is a sign of impartiality." The negative side of the realtime coverage is that incidents like the death of Muhammad al-Dura are broadcast and can create calls for revenge (even before the facts are known), but the constant cameras and press presence also mean that meetings between political leaders relating to the peace process are shown and can encourage people, says Beilin. "The question is, can we use this to develop peace?" he asks. "It all comes back to the decisionmakers." AND IT COMES back to the question of what is the role of the journalist. "We cannot cut ourselves off. We are part of the battle against occupation," states at least one Palestinian journalist. Words like "occupation," "suffering" and "victims" abound. A two-day seminar is not going to change such perceptions. Ghanem and I can't even agree on who the victims are in the Middle East. "But you have to admit that the Palestinians are the victims, surely?" he insists. In the late evening, a car backfires on the Moscow street and I jump, transported momentarily to the dark night when Jerusalem's Cafe Hillel was blown up and the windows of my apartment rattled with the force of the blast. One of the few things that everyone can agree on is that people hate CNN: "Everyone knows it is biased towards Israel," Dubai-based Ruha Ibrahim, a senior producer for al-Arabiya TV, tells me over a cup of Russian tea. The media bias in Israel's favor was also mentioned in the remarks by Paul Badji, permanent representative of Senegal to the United Nations and chair of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Now there's a committee with an impartial name. Elena Suponina, who heads the foreign affairs division in the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei, noted some of the difficulties for journalists covering events in the Middle East. One of the major problems "is the need to have a better understanding in order to be able to provide information. Also, people in a war-torn region could have different viewpoints on events." Whenever she interviewed an Israeli, she immediately received pressure from the Palestinian side to present the Palestinian viewpoint, and the same was true regarding the Israeli side when she interviewed Palestinians, she says. "There is also a problem of how to define a terrorist and a terrorist organization and this had become more important in view of the fact that Hamas is listed as a terrorist group and others are not," she adds, "and that certain groups were on government blacklists and it was impossible to publish interviews with members of such groups in numerous countries." Conference organizer Shashi Tharoor, UN undersecretary for Communication and Public Information, admits the situation is not easy. "I tend to think that there is an extremely complicated balance that needs to be struck between the objective reporting of the news and the recognition that the news you report shapes people's perceptions and thereby affects the conflict," says the Indian author. "There is this whole notion in both science and philosophy that the point from which you observe an event can affect the event itself. And there is a question of what do you choose to report... The challenge, it seems to me, is for the media to realize that they carry an implicit responsibility in what they choose to report to give as comprehensive a picture as possible." Tharoor points out, however, that in opinion pieces it is legitimate to take a point of view based on what you have seen. The trouble is that what you see also passes through filters. "I've been covering the Middle East for six years and I still don't understand it all," admits Marianna Belenkaya, a foreign affairs political analyst for the Russian news agency Novosti. "I visit sometimes but for short stays, so it's difficult to get the full picture," says the Jewish journalist, who just returned from a three-month trip to Lebanon and whose fluent Arabic sometimes spills into the very decent Hebrew she learned during her years in Israel on the first Na'aleh program. "Also, you don't always have room for the full context. It would take at least half the allotted length of an article to provide just the background." Belenkaya admits that her Jewish friends accuse her of being pro-Arab while others accuse her of being biased towards Israel. "If you're involved in the dispute, then you can't be objective and if you're not involved in the dispute, it's difficult to get all the facts," she says as we walk around Moscow on the Saturday when most of the participants are flying home, straight into coverage of the Gaza beach incident. "It's only natural for people to see things through their own prisms."