The Imagery of Arabs

After years of military occupation, Palestinians have many demands on their limited resources. Managing the media gets a low priority when faced with humanitarian demands from a population that needs amongst other things health care, education and replacement housing. Yet managing the media is an important way of getting your message across to a Western public that sympathises when Israelis are killed by Palestinian suicide bombers, while Palestinians are portrayed as a barbaric people who hate Israel and do not want peace.

In a conflict there are always two opposing viewpoints. The Palestinians want to present their side but are poorly resourced compared with Israel’s efficient and effective media machine.

There are undoubtedly structural problems that make it easier for journalists to see the Israeli view–each Western journalist registers with the Israeli authorities, they have a handler and carry a beeper provided by Israel which keeps them up to date with news stories. They live and work in Jerusalem, where they are subject to the same fears of suicide bombs that helps them identify with Israelis. By comparison, currently only the Israeli award-winning journalist Amira Hass lives in the Palestinian territories. Access to the areas where Palestinians live is difficult. At times when there is an important news story, journalists are more likely to be denied access. Media offices are in Jerusalem, but Palestinian journalists no longer have press cards and most cannot travel into the city, which limits the chances of them working for foreign media agencies.

Visiting foreign journalists frequently stay in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. They have physical problems in accessing stories in the occupied territories and linguistic problems in Arabic translation. When writing stories, journalists use a Palestinian programme producer whose job is to find out where the journalist needs to go, who they should interview, how they can get there and who should translate for them. Programme producers work on a self-employed basis and get known by word of mouth–if they have done their job well in the past, the story gets round and more journalists contact them in the future. One producer told me how lazy most Western journalists are. They take the details from her and write the story in their hotel room or office, while paying her as if they have attended the story. She felt they could not understand the Palestinian position when they hadn’t experienced it. She said: “Some of them have not even experienced a checkpoint–sitting there for three hours, hungry or thirsty, wanting to go to the toilet, the crying children, the heat or cold. Not all, but most. They cut and paste from AFP and Reuters.”

What counts as news is also a problem. Desperate to tell the Palestinian story and also with a financial need to work, the Palestinian producer I interviewed explained she has a vested interest in contacting foreign journalists whenever there is a news item. Over Christmas 2003 there were 18 deaths in Nablus and a mother whose babies died due to delays at a checkpoint. No journalist was interested. They all gave excuses–it was a holiday, that sort of thing was not news any more. She said that once Palestinian deaths were just numbers to journalists, but now they are not even that. Even when Western journalists do get to stories, she said they often sanitise it. She challenged some German journalists when they missed out important parts of a story. They replied that they wanted to stay in Israel and get permission to come back the next time and that limited what they could do. She was passionate–“Either you are a journalist or you are not, there is no half-way journalism. There is a price for being a journalist, for being prepared to find out the truth. You have to pay for it. You are either a journalist or a collaborator. I can’t say it is all who work like this, but it is the majority who take this attitude.” Despite all of their handicaps, I met courageous Palestinians working in the media who persisted in trying to get their stories out despite the odds. There was no doubt they were efficient and resourceful. But within the Palestinian Authority itself, there is room for considerable improvement.

Despite the PA headquarters being housed in a half-demolished building in Ramallah, Arafat and his spokespersons are still in high demand from journalists throughout the world. They manage the media circus with no press/media department, no media budget and not even one expert in media management skills. There are also internal tensions. Recently Palestinians close to the PA told me that if a Palestinian receives favourable reports from the West concerning the way they present themselves, they are seen as a threat to those by the top. Instead of encouraging good communicators, their activities are often curtailed.

There is no monitoring of the coverage of media outlets by the PA and no sanctions if media outlets misrepresent them. A US station recently did a “hatchet job” on Arafat, but it is believed that he did not even know about it. A Palestinian spokesman told me there should be monitoring and restricted access to stories to channels that routinely misinterpret information.

Every Palestinian spokesman within the PA works as an individual. Several times I was told that after an important meeting, a number of senior Palestinians leave the room to talk to waiting journalists without planning what they are going to say. In consequence, often they give slightly different stories; there is nothing that detracts from the value of a story more than different versions. The impression gained is that the story is manufactured or the Palestinians are in total disarray. There is no system of deciding how to present their story to gain maximum impact or decide what words most clearly express their position. This makes a big difference to the way that a sophisticated Western audience views the Palestinian cause.

In an attempt to overcome this, a Palestine Media Center was set up in Ramallah with the idea that it would be a coordinating body that would be proactive in providing services for foreign journalists. It did not make a significant difference, and in consequence it now has a smaller budget and its activities have been seriously curtailed. Senior Palestinians give different stories concerning the reason why it was not effective, including lack of sufficient funding, or lack of experienced media managers who really knew what needed to be done. Whatever the reason, apart from their website it offers little else to visiting journalists now.

There have been some serious mistakes in presentation of the Palestinian story, but none greater than the failure to address the foreign press after the Camp David talks. Palestinians gave different reasons–one person said it was because there were difficulties of opinion within the Palestinian team, which meant they did nothing because they could not agree what to do. Another said it was because Arafat felt that if he did not rock the boat, the Israelis would come back and complete the peace deal. Whatever the reason, the Palestinians were unfairly blamed for the failure by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak and did not answer back, which made the world think they must be guilty. One Palestinian negotiator independently decided to write an account in the New York Times, and Arafat responded by ordering his arrest. The story stayed hidden for a year and after that it was too late–no-one was interested in a stale story and the world had moved on.

Sometimes Palestinians get their stories heard despite all the odds. At the recent Aqaba summit, Israel turned up with a coach filled with 25 press officers and a coordinator with whom journalists could book their place at different press conferences in a variety of languages. The Palestinian press delegation consisted of two people who had made their own way there, neither of whom was a fluent Arabic speaker–whilst Israel even offered an Arabic speaking spokesman. Yet the two Palestinian spokesmen did reasonably well simply because their case was sound. With a coach-load of presenters they could undoubtedly have done much better.

The Palestinians have handicaps of coping with difficult stories such as suicide bombers. Some senior Palestinian spokesmen say the reason why Israel deliberately killed unarmed observers in cold blood at the beginning of the second intifada was to induce fear into people who might otherwise have protested peacefully, and to elicit an armed response that Palestinian militant groups obligingly provided. But Palestinians do not have skill in turning difficult stories around. Journalists who have Israeli sympathies can and do use skill–for example, Hanan Ashrawi was asked in all seriousness why Palestinian mothers allow their children to go out and get killed. This is a skilful way of blaming the victim that worked as it created an image of uncaring Palestinian families who are not ‘like us’. A Palestinian media student pointed out the way that Israel uses imagination in the way that it presents its case. For example, he said that when CNN showed a story sympathetic to Palestinians, Israeli television showed it the next day as an example of CNN bias against them–the student commented: “This is creative, efficient.”

More Palestinians are developing media skills with active media departments in Al Quds and Birzeit universities, which is a great improvement as only a decade ago Palestinians as a whole lacked these skills. The draw is well-paid jobs in the ever-growing satellite channels that are springing up all over the Arab world. Within Palestine itself, there are many independent television and radio channels as well as the PA’s channel. But one media worker said Palestinians only want to say they broadcast and don’t care about the quality. The PA studio is over-staffed and under-skilled, and equipment is often old and out of date. This is important as with good technical quality, the stories could be sold to overseas companies. As it is, when voice and picture don’t match up the stories are likely to stay local. No debate is allowed on difficult issues, corruption might be mentioned as a word but no names or details get through, giving the impression of a controlled television that has to worship the leader. This then leads outsiders to the unfair conclusion that Palestinian television is merely propaganda and it reduces credibility when genuine Palestinian suffering is shown. No thought is given to the way stories are presented. If a Palestinian mother is bereaved, they show pictures of her when she is wailing in distress. By comparison, Israeli television interviews show grieving mothers the day after when they are calm, when they can explain about their loss and how it affects them and other members of their family. It is this approach that makes Israelis come over as more civilised and less barbaric and more like the West.

In the Palestinian Delegation in London, there is yet more serious under-funding with no budget and not even one press officer. It relies on organisations such as Arab Media Watch and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding to monitor the media for it. These organisations do monitor but they have small budgets and cannot take the place of a well-organised, well-funded press office. The officers know some journalists who ring them for information, but there is no time or budget to get to know journalists informally so they can develop good working relationships. By comparison, some Arab embassies in London are now developing fully equipped and staffed press offices, and if there is an inaccurate story they can immediately take action, such as inviting the journalist out to discuss it over lunch, or even arrange a visit so facts on the ground can be checked by the journalist. The Palestinian Ambassador is held in great respect, but he is only one person and cannot be proactive when he interacts with the media. The Palestinian Delegation merely responds and usually the press only contact it over negative stories, such as condemning suicide bombs where Israelis have died. The press do not contact it for confirmation of stories in which Palestinians are victims and Palestinians have no glamorous office, nor any carrot or stick they can use to influence journalists to show Palestinians as a long-suffering nation with people who deserve justice.

For the future, there is a growing awareness, an impatience among younger Palestinians who use Israeli media management as a model that Palestinians should copy. Time and again I heard Palestinians in all positions defend what Israel does in media management, saying every nation should put thought into presenting their own case in the best possible way. For example, one media student told me he wants to do a PhD looking at how Israel manages television news. Journalists and younger people associated with the PA knew exactly what was going wrong, although they felt frustrated that they could not at this moment put things right. This raw energy, this unleashing of new media ideas, will one day energise the Palestinian cause and give it new impetus. Let us hope that their day is not too far ahead of us, as winning the media war is the only way that Palestinians can defeat the odds that are currently heavily stacked against them. They have the best possible case, they are developing skills, and they are hungry for the opportunity to show the world what they think.

JUDITH BROWN, a member of Arab Media Watch’s executive committee who recently visited Palestine as part of her PhD in “Imagery of Arabs in the British Media”. This essay originally appeared on Arab Media Watch.