Gaza’s challenges for journalism

By Jane Duncan

In the past few weeks, the South African media have been dominated by the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza and South Africans have had to rely largely on foreign coverage of this issue to understand it.

The mainstream US media continued parroting the Israeli line that the country was acting in self defence, or insisting on its right to be ‘free from tunnels and rockets’, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, but Israel is clearly meting out collective punishment to Palestinians. At a deeper level, though, Israel’s motivation might well be to scupper Palestinian unity (albeit strained) after years of bitter conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and the killing of three Israeli teenagers provided a pretext to do just that. A united Palestine would be deeply threatening to Israeli interests.

What are the tasks of journalism in South Africa in reporting on Gaza? Mainstream journalism is not as embedded in the governmental power structure as it is in the USA, giving it a greater degree of autonomy to tell important but difficult stories.

Nevertheless, there is a temptation to rely on foreign news agencies for their copy, increased by the massive resource constraints in many newsrooms. Reporting on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict often unleashes massive emotional responses from South Africans. Journalists working on this beat may also be tempted to produce sanitised copy, adhering to the basic tenets of ‘objective’ journalism to avoid becoming embroiled in energy-consuming controversies.

This form of journalism is, however, a cop-out, and ultimately a route away from good journalism, rather than a route towards it. ‘Objective’ journalism requires journalists to practise a number of strategic rituals, including seeking balance by quoting the spokespeople in a conflict, even if the spokespeople themselves have not been eyewitnesses to the events they are asked to speak about. Ostensibly, a journalist’s task has been discharged once the story has been ‘balanced’ in this way.

This ritual can lead to journalists not wanting to take sides on matters of considerable public importance when they really need to. ‘Balance’ means that they don’t have to go out on a limb and assess who is right and who is wrong, or whether the viewpoints being presented are just or unjust. This is not to suggest that both sides should not be quoted, but that the enquiry should not end once they are. ‘Balance’ should not be used as an excuse to avoid investigation, and even independent thinking.

Take the Israel Defense Force claim that it bombed a UN school housing refugees from the conflict, because the rockets had been fired ‘from the vicinity of the school’. This explanation should raise red flags for any enquiring journalist, yet there is little evidence of the foreign media having probed this claim; the story had been balanced, and hence concluded.

Hamas’s members are not angels; some have committed despicable acts. But significant struggles are rarely free from contradictions. Yet, in spite of its messiness, at a fundamental level, there is a right and a wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unquestionably, Israel is using force that is disproportionate to the level of threat it faces. It operates in a global climate of near impunity, disrespecting international law, and getting away with it because it has powerful friends.

The modern state of Israel was founded on the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians. Even after the creation of the Palestinian Authority, Israel continued to expand its settlements and deprived the Palestinian territory of substantial autonomy by controlling many basic functions that a sovereign state would otherwise control. In Gaza, conditions have been aggravated by the blockade since 2006. Israel’s expansionist policies have fuelled deep resentment, and no lasting peace can come out of a fundamentally unjust situation.

These conditions have turned Palestinian life into a living hell. It is in this context that the Palestinian resistance movement has been launching rockets into Israel. An often-heard argument is that Israel has a right to self defence, but somehow the same right doesn’t apply to Palestinians.

Under international law, occupied populations have a right to resist, including militarily, providing that this resistance does not target civilians. In this regard, much has been made of the fact that Palestinian rockets have been targeted at civilians, but the vast majority of those killed by Israeli strikes have been civilians, which makes them guilty of the very crime they accuse Hamas of.

Israel supporters will no doubt cry ‘bias’ if journalists make these points, but the situation is inherently unbalanced. If journalists point this out, they are not being biased; rather, they are being balanced in a much more meaningful sense.

Journalism should be defined by values, rather than by strategic rituals; otherwise it risks becoming an unthinking, unreflective practice. These values should include a commitment to truth telling, particularly in situations where powerful actors want to hide the truth to maintain their grip on power. If journalists fail to recognise the fundamental rights and wrongs in a situation, they abdicate their democratic responsibilities to society. The journalism of objectivity and balance should not trump the journalism of justice and truth.

Journalism will also be a lifeless activity without a commitment to democracy and social justice. This means prioritising the stories of people who are silenced or marginalised by mainstream discourses, as they often tell us a great deal about how social power really functions.

The public sphere tends to be an elite space, which means that, all too often, media discourses come to us already inherently unbalanced. The Israeli state has tremendous traction in the mainstream foreign media, which places an obligation on journalists to seek out the voices of those displaced and disadvantaged by its policies, and social media make this much more possible than it was six years ago, when Gaza flared up.

There are those who are queasy about condemning Israel’s actions too loudly, given the historical context in which the country was established. As pro-Israeli Jews turn into oppressors themselves, they destroy the moral authority of this argument and fuel the very danger that they claim to want to protect against, namely anti-Semitism. Journalists, and all of civil society, must condemn anti-Semitism – which is antithetical to basic democratic values – as and when it occurs.

The Israeli state is on a road to nowhere, and the status quo is unsustainable in the long term. Global mass action, including through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, is an important force for change in the region. This is where global public opinion becomes important, as do media framings of these events, which can make or break global movements.

Journalists should not be put off by false arguments. One of the more prominent is that critics pick on Israel, while staying silent about conflicts in Syria and Iraq, because they are anti-Semitic. These arguments are based on the fallacy of relative privation, or ‘whataboutery’, which asserts that Israel’s problems should be ignored because there are more important problems in the world, especially the Muslim world.

This line of argument should be recognised for what it is: as an attempt to deflect criticisms of one of the most longstanding regional conflicts in the world, and one that is eminently capable of being resolved if its primary financiers committed themselves to doing so in a just manner. Furthermore, ‘whataboutery’ proponents should also be put the test, to see if they themselves act on their criticisms and mobilise against the very injustices they decry. In any event, many of Israel’s critics do criticise other unjust regimes.

Journalists should also encourage South Africans to take positions on the conflict on the basis of what is right and wrong, rather than on more dubious bases, such as racial or religious solidarity. They are in a unique position to promote forward-looking debates on the conflict and on other countries’ roles in its resolution, given South Africa’s own experience of oppression, followed by transition (however incomplete).

Hamas has also demonstrated openness to political solutions, a fact which is often lost in the western-mediated framing of the movement. In this regard, it is clear that the two-state solution is not viable, given Israel’s de facto control over the Palestinian territories. Yet the South African government continues to cling to the two-state solution; therefore, engaging with this debate is important for foreign policy reasons.

Support is growing internationally for a one-state solution, which could involve a binational state or a secular, unitary state. A binational solution would appear to the more realistic option, but will entrench Palestinian and Israeli identities as separate, increasing the likelihood of sub-national conflict in the future. This solution will also undermine Palestinians refugees’ inalienable right of return to the territories that they had been displaced from.

A secular, unitary state, similar to the one that South Africa adopted, is likely to be resisted by many supporters of Israel, who see it as the destruction of Israel by other means. Unfortunately, the word ‘destruction’ conjures up images of a violent path to building the nation, which ignores the fact that what is being proposed is a democratic path.

It must not be assumed that Palestinian and Israeli identities are so fixed that they are incapable of progressive transformation towards a more shared identity. Democratic theories of nation formation, including African theories, demonstrate that this is very possible. In any event, a state where Jews are persecuted will not be a democratic secular state, but an authoritarian nationalist one.

South African journalism is dominated by the professional model with its strategic rituals of objectivity and balance. But there are welcome signs of a greater diversity of journalistic practices, including civic journalism and advocacy journalism. These alternative models do not betray basic journalistic tenets; on the contrary, they enrich journalism.

Assessments of the state of South African journalism are often filled with doom and gloom, especially given recent threats to media freedom and the evisceration of many newsrooms. But this should not detract from the fact that the sector is also filled with great promise, and a real potential to contribute to positive changes to some of the world’s most intractable problems.

* Professor Jane Duncan is a professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 14:08

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