For reasons as straightforward as job security, journalists covering the Arab-Israeli conflict may have an interest in prolonging the standoff. That was the wry observation of one seasoned Middle East reporter during a recent conference for Israeli, Palestinian and Spanish journalists in Alicante, Spain. I was the only American participant.
Reporters based in the region must decide each day what to cover. Editors, some far away, may give directions on which developments to focus on and even how to shape the coverage. Journalists are not always disinterested bystanders.
What is written for newspapers, or broadcast on radio or filmed for TV, can and does significantly shape public opinion. In an age when reports quickly go on the Internet, where they are eternally preserved and, with a click, can be disseminated broadly, media’s potential to influence history is enormous.
With such power comes responsibility. Regrettably, media has largely let us information consumers down, both in news coverage emphasis and thinking creatively about new angles to old stories. The unequal treatment media gives to the many conflicts raging across the Middle East and North Africa has been clear for decades. The Israeli-Arab, or specifically Israeli-Palestinian, conundrum receives unparalleled attention.
EFE, Spain’s government-sponsored newswire agency, maintains a bureau of five reporters in Jerusalem, with two more in Gaza and Ramallah. Spain’s leading daily, El Pais, and other outlets also have reporters among the 400 foreign journalists from around the world stationed in Israel. Democratic Israel hosts, per capita, the heaviest media concentration of any country in the world.
Do foreign journalists reflexively cover the conflict by focusing on the discord? Or can they find human interest stories that can better inform each side as well as people outside the region concerned with the peace process?
The answers are not clear. Self-criticism does not come easy for journalists, even in a closed-door setting, like this conference co-sponsored by Casa Sefarad Israel and Casa Mediterraneo. Spain’s Foreign Ministry created the two organizations several years ago to deepen understanding, respectively, between Spain and Sephardic Jewry worldwide, and between Spain and Mediterranean countries, including Arab.
Maintaining objectivity, an essential tenet of the journalism craft, is challenging in most conflict situations. For Israeli and Arab journalists the pressures can be even more intense. They face an unenviable burden of separating their emotions and personal politics from the conflict’s daily realities to present fair and honest print and broadcast news stories. Ties to family, friends or colleagues who may be directly affected by developments in the somewhat claustrophobic Israeli-Palestinian arena inevitably adds more stress. And that may explain why most of the conference participants resisted rising above the cacophony to explore fresh approaches to covering the region.
Several times I suggested to journalists from the West Bank that they find and report the human stories illustrating the kind of progress in Palestinian society necessary for achieving durable peace with Israel and a Palestinian state. Such coverage would instill confidence in the peace process.
A few who honestly sought to maintain professional integrity asserted that the best role journalists could play in the Arab-Israeli conflict is to inform. “We journalists are the ultimate mediators, facilitators and bridge between our peoples,” said Eldad Beck, the Berlin correspondent for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot. “The media can and should contribute to Middle East peace efforts.”
Beck proposed creating an association of Arab and Israeli journalists who would work collaboratively across boundaries to open doors for one another to help their audiences better understand what lies on the other side of the divide.
The idea is not totally new. Beck, who speaks Arabic and has traveled in the Arab world, recalled to me that in the heyday of Arab-Israeli peacemaking following the 1991 Madrid Conference, interactions of Arab and Israeli journalists were common. He urges refreshing those journalistic connections now.
In a similar vein, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar shared his experience of trying to elicit an invitation to visit Bahrain, after Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post. “Arabs Need to Talk to the Israelis,” was the headline and core message of the Bahraini leader’s article.
A tortuous e-mail exchange between Bahraini officials and Eldar finally led to an offer to meet the Gulf nation’s foreign minister in New York during the UN General Assembly. Eldar insisted that the point was to go to Manama and, while there, interview the Crown Prince. It did not happen. Had the proposed journalists’ association been in existence, Eldar might have been successful.
Beck’s proposition was a bright, though too brief, moment in the Alicante conference. It needs further conversations, ideally in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Israelis and Palestinians, after all, are destined to live alongside each other, so understanding is essential to achieving durable peace.
“We journalists have the capacity to influence the course of events through the way we inform the public about the realities,” says Beck. That basic responsibility of informing is the essence of journalism. With political negotiations stalled this initiative is needed more than ever to keep the vision of peace glowing.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of communications.