Are Western correspondents in the Middle East biased against Israel, as pro-Zionists often claim? Many people acknowledge that a neutral stance in the Israeli-Arab conflict is close to impossible, and journalists are people. As Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
has shown, omitting positive news about a country will quickly make people to view that country in a more negative light. Media bias is not necessarily a result of bad intentions or conscious distortions. It often works very subtly, and journalists generally believe that they are covering the news accurately and fairly.
Last May my friend Wouter and I were in Jerusalem, and we had the opportunity to talk to Dutch RTL TV correspondent Conny Mus, who has been covering the news from the Middle East for 25 years. He introduced himself as a 'street fighter' from Amsterdam. Some Dutch Israelis we know consider him a good, balanced reporter on the conflict; some others disagree.
One of our main topics of discussion with Mus was whether Dutch media present a balanced picture of the conflict and what difficulties he encountered in his efforts to cover the news accurately.
It turns out he has been discussing the issue of balanced reporting on the conflict for years in panels and interviews. He showed no doubt of his own ability to remain neutral at all times. I wondered aloud whether it is not inevitable to be influenced by what you see and experience, by what people tell you, by the shows that they sometimes perform, and by your own sympathies. The fact that some things are easy to spot and other things are more hidden also influences our view of the conflict.
A former Dutch correspondent to the Middle East, Joris Luyendijk, had recently written a book about his frustrations in covering the news and the facts objectively. He had felt especially unable to cover Palestinian and Arab positions in a sufficient way, as according to him they lacked the professional propaganda apparatus that Israel has, and also their ways of expressing themselves are different from what is common in the West. This book started a discussion in the Netherlands about journalism and objectivity in the media.
Mus felt that Luyendijk was too young and had not been not up to his task. Mus has lived and worked in Jerusalem for 25 years, and felt that he knew how to get the job done, using a broad network of contacts to get the story from all perspectives. Mus told me that he had received angry responses to his recent TV interview with then Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh, including the accusation of being an anti-Semite. He had been accused of anti-Semitism several times, like the time he had remarked that a Jewish colleague was not able to report the conflict objectively because of his family history. One reason he gave for having such harsh criticism of Gerstenfeld's media experiment
, is that Gerstenfeld had apparently linked the media bias in the Netherlands to anti-Semitism, and thus accused Dutch journalists of being anti-Semites.
The accusations of anti-Semitism infuriates Mus. 'I have Jewish friends; it is nonsense to call me an anti-Semite', he said. Anti-Semitism, he felt, was something related to World War II, and had nothing to do with the current conflict. Moreover, he thought Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because 'Arabs are Semites themselves!' Discriminating against them - as Israel does - would then make Israel anti-Semitic too, according to Mus's reasoning. Wouter and I were quite amazed that a journalist with his experience would display such ignorance of the common dictionary meaning of the word anti-Semitism.
Conny Mus contends that Europe should end the Hamas boycott and that Israel should talk to Hamas. He does not believe in the 'myth' that Hamas or other Arab countries seek Israel's destruction. The PLO recognized Israel a long time ago and the Arab states offer recognition in exchange for the occupied territories. Mus states that Arafat was sincere, and that Hamas would follow the same path. He doesn't see the incitement, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab countries as a bigger problem than Israelis bashing Arabs and Islam. Both sides are demonizing the other side, and Israel incites hatred with the wall and the checkpoints. Mus says that Israel, because of US support and the Holocaust, can get away with things no other country can. Examples are the use of cluster bombs during the Lebanon war and the fact that former PA Prime Minister Haniyeh was not allowed to visit the Netherlands on May 5th, our national liberation day from the German occupation.
Never mind that many countries use cluster bombs, but when the term 'cluster bomb' is mentioned fingers point to Israel. It is beyond me why it would be unfair to prevent Haniyeh from using our liberation day for promoting the destruction of Israel. (He was to attend a conference on Palestinian refugees and their right of return.) Mus also thinks that Iran has the same right to nukes as Israel has, and that the danger of Iran using them is not quite different from Israel. Lieberman is an extremist and could easily come to power, Mus contends.
Conny Mus is probably a good example of the attitude of many Western journalists. He said that he understands the Israeli side as well, and that both sides are guilty of the conflict, but in the 1.5 hour talk we had, he mainly talked about all the wrongs of Israel, how cruel the occupation is, and how Israel hinders foreign journalists from doing their job properly. He complained that Israel does not like foreign journalists much, and that it is not so easy to get an official status as journalist. Given the large number of foreign journalists, I think it cannot be too difficult, and given the fact that they all operate quite freely, are able to go everywhere and speak to all kinds of people, I think Israel is quite liberal. I believe that Israelis can be rude to journalists and authorities can be annoying, but compared to other countries Israel does not seem so bad.
Mus does believe Israel has a right to exist, but simply thinks this right is not at stake. According to him the occupation now is the problem, not Israel's right to exist or extremist statements by Hamas leaders or Palestinian textbooks, which according to him are matched by similar statements and textbooks on the Israeli side.
Israel and the conflict invoke high emotions in Europe: feelings of guilt and also of betrayal. These feelings have to do with unease about our own past and unease with a former persecuted people now assertively defending itself, and intertwined with old but still existing anti-Semitic notions.
Many Dutch people used to support Israel in the past, and feel betrayed now that that little plucky state transformed itself, in their view, into a bloody occupier not listening to the outside world. People also feel that the Jews, the ultimate victims, should not do to others what happened to them. Although most people still think it both untrue and unfair to make any comparisons between Israel and the Nazis, or the plight of the Palestinians and the German occupation, such sentiments are growing. Anti-Zionist groups (including a Jewish one) have grown stronger and have become very vocal, and it has become mainstream to view the occupation as the main problem and the building of the fence as a great injustice. A majority of Dutch people think our government should put pressure on Israel to abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice and tear down 'the Wall'.
The media play a large role in this development by focusing on the 'wall' (literally), the checkpoints, uprooting of olive trees, or soldiers shooting at Palestinian teens. Information from Palestinian sources or from organizations critical of Israel is presented as accurate, whereas information from the Israeli side is treated with mistrust. Journalists have the same emotions and preconceptions as many ordinary people, and for example Conny Mus as a practicing Christian is particularly disturbed by the wall in Bethlehem and Israel's aggressive behavior.
The fierce criticism and harsh accusations against the media made by pro-Israeli organizations like Honest Reporting and Camera are not always helpful and they sometimes backfire. Although I am very disturbed by the bias of Mus and others, I think they are not out to blacken Israel and undermine its right to exist. It can be counterproductive to yell 'anti-Semite' too fast. People are offended by being called anti-Semites, and it may push them more towards the pro-Palestinian camp which is also accused of anti-Semitism time and again.
In countering media bias, it works better to point out specific examples, and to be able to show a pattern. Another Dutch journalist for example had for months only made reports from the Gaza Strip in which he spoke to locals only. After someone pointed this out to him and to his newspaper, he wrote a long article about Sderot.
We need more specific research in how news about the conflict is reported, what is being left out, which people are interviewed, what headlines and photos are used. Journalists should be reminded of their responsibility to be accurate and of the impact and influence of the media. Conny Mus labeling the Jerusalem Post as right extremist is outrageous, because people will believe him as an expert who has covered the conflict for 25 years.
People's personal opinions always influence their work, and as many Europeans hold unfavorable views of Israel, this is reflected in the coverage of the conflict .That doesn't mean that all the news about Israel is unfair, or that 'all media' are out to blacken Israel. And sometimes critical reports or articles about settler violence, abuse of Palestinians at checkpoints and illegal building of outposts are true. These issues are discussed and printed in Israel too, also by 'real Zionists'. The difference is, that in Israel people know the other side of the story. They know that the checkpoints also prevent suicide attacks, that Palestinians are caught with explosives on a regular basis, and that not all settlers are extremists. Maybe the most important problem lies in the omission of facts and of the context.Ratna Pelle(Wouter Brassť contributed to this article)
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Replies: 1 Comment
Ratna, this is a well balanced analysis of the type of reporting that goes on in the European media. There does seem to be a certain naivity on the part of many European journalists when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. This area is so highly charged and it is very difficult to be objective one way or the other and somehow one's emotional reactions does affect one's ability to report on the situation objectively and fairly.
There is no doubt that the security fence has saved many lives on the one hand but on the other it has created hardships for innocent Palestinians to go about their daily business.
I do have a Palestinian lady friend who is unemployed at the moment because she is unable to get to work as a result of the humiliating check posts she has to endure. She was offered a job and found that getting to her place of work was an exercise in futility that took many hours. She had to pass through three check posts and each check post was a long wait.She could not accept her job offer because of this problem. Surely these factors do not alleviate the Palestinian situation and can only result in further frustration. Most Palestinians, like ourselves, would like to see an end to this conflict and a peaceful solution. However those who wish to work (and there are many who do)find the situation intolerable. The situation is basically "Catch 22".
This compounds hatred for Israel even more. It could also create a situation which would encourage further terror activity.
A solution must be found that would alleviate the humiliation as a result of necessary security checks. There is talk of making more use of electronic devices that could replace soldiers at the check posts.
Shimon Z. Klein, Wednesday, September 5th
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