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How newspapers censor the Palestinian side of the story

Israel/Palestine
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A leader of the nonviolent protests in the West Bank lately arrested by Israel, Abdallah Abu Rahmah is obviously a political prisoner. So is Mohammad Othman, a human-rights activist seized after a trip to Europe. So are many others of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Yet The New York Times does a whole article on one Israeli prisoner of the Palestinians, soldier Gilad Shalit, that dismisses the Palestinian prisoners as "terrorists" and "murderers"; and The New Yorker publishes a long piece on Gaza that shifts the reader’s attention from human-rights atrocities to that one Israeli prisoner again– Gilad Shalit.

This terrible imbalance raises the issue: How does the mainstream press produce this selective view? There is an answer in the wonderful new Jerusalem memoir by Emma Williams: It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street. An English doctor married to a U.N. official, Williams socialized with many journalists and government officials during the second intifada and after, and witnessed the "business of silencing" the Palestinian side. Here is an extended excerpt from her book. Note that she refers chiefly to the British press, but "the point generalizes" (as Chomsky says):

[T]alk, hasbara, and "information" were all-important in the business of silencing, extending through every sphere of life, the obvious being the media. There were "issues" at almost every stage of the media’s work, with the result that, while journalists saw the injustices played out to both peoples, the Palestinian context was submerged to the point that many abroad were unaware of the military occupation. Editors in the bureau, editors back home, were acutely sensitive to the supervision of every word and image printed or broadcast on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Influence was pushed at every level both at head office and in the field–visits, lunches, informal meetings, questions, friendly advice and not so friendly criticism, threats to withhold advertising, funding, promotion, career: a relentless, tireless program of monitoring and "guidance."

In London a senior editor admitted he had been "brought to heel" by his management, and financially he couldn’t risk his position by including unacceptable–to management–balance. A radio journalist told me in Jerusalem: "When I do a Palestinian story, my editors are all over me. They tell me I must have an Israeli story to balance it, but when I do an Israeli story, there is no such request." Sometimes the journalists applied the silencing themselves: "That editor’s visit," said a Times correspondent, "was  a waste of bloody time. Doing a story on the Palestinians, comes all the way to Israel, and refuses to go to the Occupied Territories. Still did the story though. From Tel Aviv."

One Jerusalem bureau chief was frank. "This is a machine," he said. "It’s not just the individuals, the officials, the influential friends. There are endless arms of the machine. There’s deciding who gets press passes, who gets recognition as a journalist. There’s singling out individuals for criticism. There’s pressure applied to individual journalists: complaints are made, accusations placed with the bureau or the paper back home. The journalist would know that he or she was a target and would have to deal with the pressure of ‘surveillance’ without jeopardizing either organization or career. The balance is tipped against the journalist if the organization is not supportive: the pressure and constraints are sometimes bad enough for journalists to resign."

The bureau chief went on, "And there’s the department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up with banks of television screens, to watch, count, time, assess, and report on each one of the networks 24 hours a day, seven days a week." He was matter of fact. "…if they think that you give more airtime to the Palestinian stories than to Israeli ones, or if the way you present the information doesn’t gel with their interpretation and the way they want the information to be seen, then they get on the phone or come and see you and tell you so. And then of course you have to defend yourself.

"It is endless. However professional we fancy ourselves to be–and we do, by the way–the result is that we are–how shall I put it?–more careful than anywhere else in the world that not one word is out of place, which can’t be a bad thing. But on the other hand, it does affect what we put out and how we do it. Yes, of course it does."

As a result of the "carefulness"–the censorship and self-censorship–[husband] Andrew and I, and the children, too, found ourselves saying unexpected goodbyes. One family moved back to Britain when the husband, Sam Kiley, quit a successful career with the Times as a result of wearying criticism and constraints during his Jerusalem posting. He wrote later that while in Jerusalem he was not to refer to "assassinations" of Israel’s opponents, nor to "extrajudicial killings or executions," he was to call them "just ‘killings,’ or best of all– targeted killings,’" if he had to write about them at all. His editors did not dispute that settlements were illegal under international law, but to refer to this was "gratuitous." On the other hand, "the leader writers," he wrote, "were happy to repeat the canard that Palestinian gunmen were using children as human shields."…

Our second child, Xan, was miserable when his best friend Balthazar left in a hurry. His mother, Alexandra Schwartzbrod, was one of a number of journalists removed from their posts: she was the correspondent for Liberation. For more than two years she filed story after story with no quibble or query from her editors. Then, suddenly, she was replaced and found herself back in Paris on an unrelated assignment. An investigation of silencing published in Le Monde Diplomatique found that one organization systematically accused her of inciting ethnic hatred and anti-Israel propaganda, until, on July 14, a headline proclaimed: "Alexandra Schwartzbrod is leaving! Our friends at Liberation have confirmed the rumor with some satisfaction, reporting the internal discussions which ended up with her recall…"

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About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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