On January 19, during one of its raids in the Occupied West Bank, the Israeli military arrested a Palestinian journalist, Abdul Muhsen Shalaldeh, near the town of Al-Khalil (Hebron). This is just the latest of a staggering number of violations against Palestinian journalists, and against freedom of expression.
A few days earlier, the head of the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate (PJS), Naser Abu Baker, shared some tragic numbers during a press conference in Ramallah. “Fifty-five reporters have been killed, either by Israeli fire or bombardment since 2000,” he said. Hundreds more were wounded, arrested or detained. Although shocking, much of this reality is censored in mainstream media.
The murder by Israeli occupation soldiers of veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11, was an exception, partly due to the global influence of her employer, Al Jazeera Network. Still, Israel and its allies labored to hide the news, resorting to the usual tactic of smearing those who defy the Israeli narrative.
Palestinian journalists pay a heavy price for carrying out their mission of spreading the truth about the ongoing Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Their work is not only critical to good and balanced media coverage, but to the very cause of justice and freedom in Palestine.
In a recent report on January 17, PJS detailed some of the harrowing experiences of Palestinian journalists. “Dozens of journalists were targeted by the occupation forces and settlers during the last year, which (recorded) the highest number of serious attacks against Palestinian journalists.”
However, the harm inflicted on Palestinian journalists is not only physical and material. They are also constantly exposed to a very subtle, but equally dangerous, threat: the constant delegitimization of their work.
The Violence of Delegitimization
One of the writers of this piece, Romana Rubeo, attended a close meeting involving over 100 Italian journalists on January 18, which aimed at advising them on how to report accurately on Palestine. Rubeo did her best to convey some of the facts discussed in this article, which she practices daily as the Managing Editor of the Palestine Chronicle.
However, a veteran Israeli journalist, often touted for her courageous reporting on Palestine, dropped a bombshell when she suggested that Palestinians cannot always be trusted with the little details. She communicated something to this effect: Though the truth is on the Palestinian side, they cannot be totally trusted about the little details, while the Israelis are more reliable on the little things, but they lie about the big picture.
As outrageous – let alone Orientalist – such thinking may appear, it dwarfs in comparison to the state-operated hasbara machine of the Israeli government.
But is it true that Palestinians cannot be trusted with the little details?
When Abu Akleh was killed, she was not the only journalist targeted in Jenin. Her companion, another Palestinian journalist, Ali al-Samoudi, was present and was also shot and wounded by an Israeli bullet in the back.
Naturally, al-Samoudi was the main eyewitness to what had taken place on that day. He told journalists from his hospital bed that there was no fighting in that area; that he and Shireen were wearing clearly marked press vests; that they were intentionally targeted by Israeli soldiers and that Palestinian fighters were not anywhere close to the range from which they were shot.
All of this was dismissed by Israel, and, in turn, by western mainstream media, since supposedly ‘Palestinians could not be trusted with the little details’
However, investigations by international human rights groups and, eventually a bashful Israeli admission of possible guilt, proved that al-Samoudi’s account was the most honest detailing of the truth. This episode has been repeated hundreds of times throughout the years where, from the outset, Palestinian views are dismissed as untrue or exaggerated, and the Israeli narrative is embraced as the only possible truth, only for the truth to be eventually revealed, authenticating the Palestinian side every time. Quite often, true facts are revealed too little too late.
The tragic murder of 12-year-old Palestinian boy Mohammed al-Durrah remains the most shameful episode of western media bias, to this day. The death of the boy, who was killed by Israeli occupation troops in Gaza in 2000 while sheltered by his father’s side, was essentially blamed on Palestinians, before the narrative of his murder was rewritten suggesting that he was killed in the ‘crossfire’. That version of the story eventually changed to the reluctant acceptance of the Palestinian reporting on the event. However, the story didn’t end here, as Zionist hasbara continued to push its narrative, smearing those who adopt the Palestinian version as being anti-Israel or even ‘antisemitic’.
(No) Permission to Narrate
Though Palestinian journalism has proved its effectiveness in recent years – with the Gaza wars being a prime example – thanks to the power of social media and its ability to disseminate information directly to news consumers, the challenges remain great.
Nearly four decades after the publishing of Edward Said’s essay “Permission to Narrate”, and over ten years after Rafeef Ziadah’s seminal poem “We Teach Life, Sir”, it seems that, in some media platforms and political environments, Palestinians still need to acquire permission to narrate, partly because of the anti-Palestinian racism that continues to prevail, but also because, per the judgment of a supposedly pro-Palestinian journalist, Palestinians cannot be entrusted with the little details.
However, there is much hope in this story. There is a new, empowered and courageous generation of Palestinian activists – authors, writers, journalists, bloggers, filmmakers and artists – that is more than qualified to represent Palestinians and to present a cohesive, non-factional, and universal political discourse on Palestine.
A New Generation’s Search for the Truth
Indeed, times have changed, and Palestinians are no longer requiring filters – as in those speaking on their behalf, since Palestinians are supposedly inherently incapable of doing so.
The authors of this article have recently interviewed two representatives of this new generation of Palestinian journalists, two strong voices that advocate authentic Palestinian presence in international media: journalists and editors Ahmed Alnaouq and Fahya Shalash.
Shalash is a West Bank-based reporter, who discussed media coverage based on Palestinian priorities, counting many examples of important stories that often go unreported. “As Palestinian women, we have a lot of obstacles in our life and they are (all) related to the Israeli Occupation because it’s very dangerous to work as a journalist. All the world saw what happened to Shireen Abu Akleh for reporting the truth on Palestine,” she said.
Shalash understands that being a Palestinian reporting on Palestine is not just a professional, but an emotional and personal experience, as well. “When I work and I am on the phone with the families of Palestinian prisoners or martyrs, sometimes I break into tears.”
Indeed, stories about the abuse and targeting of Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers are hardly a media topic. “Israel puts on the democracy mask; they pretend that they care for women’s rights, but this is not at all what happens here,” the Palestinian journalist said.
“They hit Palestinian female journalists because they are physically weaker; they curse them with very inappropriate language. I was personally detained for interrogation by Israeli forces. This affected my work. They threatened me, saying that if I continued to depict them as criminals in my work, they would have stopped me from being a journalist.”
“In Western media, they keep talking about women’s rights and gender equality, but we don’t have rights at all. We do not live like any other country,” she added.
For his part, Alnaouq, who is the head of the Palestine-based organization ‘We Are Not Numbers’, explained how mainstream media never allow Palestinian voices to be present in their coverage. Even pieces written by Palestinians are “heavily edited”.
“It is also the editors’ fault,” he said. “Sometimes they make big mistakes. When a Palestinian is killed in Gaza or in the West Bank, the editors should say who is the perpetrator, but these publications often omit this information. They do not mention Israel as the perpetrator. They have some kind of agenda that they want to impose.”
When asked how he would change the coverage of Palestine if he worked as an editor in a mainstream Western publication, Alnaouq said:
“I would just tell the truth. And this is what we want as Palestinians. We want the truth. We don’t want Western media to be biased toward us and attack Israel, we just want them to tell the truth as it should be.”
Only Palestinian voices can convey the emotions of highly charged stories about Palestine, stories that never make it to mainstream media coverage; and when they do, these stories are often missing context, prioritize Israeli views – if not outright lies – and, at times, omit Palestinians altogether. But as the work of Abu Akleh, al-Samoudi, Alnaouq and Shalash, and hundreds more, continues to demonstrate, Palestinians are qualified to produce high-quality journalism, with integrity and professionalism.
Palestinians must be the core of the Palestinian narrative in all of its manifestations. It is time to break away from the old way of thinking that saw the Palestinian as incapable of narrating, or of being a liability on his/her own story, of being secondary characters that can be replaced or substituted by those who are deemed more credible and truthful. Anything less than this can be rightfully mistaken for Orientalist thinking of a bygone era; or worse.