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Ido Lekota takes a look at how the media has reported on the biggest story of 2023, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The recent signing of an open letter by hundreds of media professionals demanding an end to Israel’s killing of journalists in Gaza and urging Western newsrooms to call Israeli crimes—including “apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide”–by their names, highlights the critical role that the media plays in conflict situations.

The signatories, who work for prominent Western media houses including Reuters, the Washington Post, New York Times, accuse their employers of being biased in favour of Israel in the raging Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of using dehumanising racist Islamophobic tropes against Palestinians.

In the letter, the signatories also accuse the Israeli forces of targeting journalists who do not bow to the Israeli propaganda machinery which justifies the total annihilation of Gaza under the guise of fighting Hamas.

“We are writing to urge an end to violence against journalists in Gaza and to call on Western newsroom leaders to be clear-eyed in coverage of Israel’s repeated atrocities against Palestinians,” the letter continued, adding that journalists have been killed while “visibly working as press, as well as at night in their homes”.

The letter also put into focus the untenable situation in Gaza where, according to a Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, in the seven weeks after the October Hamas raid on Israel (in which 1 200 civilians were killed), Israel launched multiple air raids, leading to the internal displacement of over a million Gaza residents and the killing of over 15 000 civilians, of which 3 561 were women and 6 403 children, leaving over 32 000 injured and an estimated 41 500 remaining under the debris—with at least 49 journalists killed while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This situation was recently described by former United Nations official and international human rights advocate Craig Mokhiber, who has previously worked in Gaza, as “a case of textbook genocide”.

Mokhiber has resigned, claiming that he could not be part of a situation whereby the United Nations was once again—like it did in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Myanmar—failing to use its mandate and stop the genocide perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians.

In a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, explaining his resignation, Mokhiber re-emphasised his position about Israeli’s relentless bombing of Gaza, stating: “The current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist colonial-settler ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs… leaves no room for doubt.”

It is Mokhiber’s view that while usually the most difficult part of proving genocide is intent, because there has to be an intention to destroy in whole, or in part, a particular group, however, “in this case, the intent by Israeli leaders has been so explicitly stated and publicly stated—by the prime minister, by the president, by senior cabinet ministers, by military leaders—that that is an easy case to make. It’s on the public record.”

The issue of the Western media favouring Israel against Hamas has been raised in the public domain, with some analysts believing that some Western media houses (especially in America and Britain) are toeing the line of their government when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as claimed by the signatories of the letter mentioned above.

To deal with the issue of bias in the media, both American economist Edward S Herman and Professor Noam Chomsky have adopted a propaganda approach to media coverage.

Their propaganda model suggests a systematic and highly political dichotomisation in news coverage based on serviceability to important domestic power interests.

According to them, this phenomenon is observable in dichotomised choices of stories and the volume and quality of their coverage whereby such dichotomisation in the mass media is massive and systematic—with choices not only for publicity and suppression comprehensible in terms of system advantage, but the modes of handling favoured and inconvenient materials (placement, tone, context, fullness of treatment) differing in ways that serve political ends.

Herman and Chomsky agree that it is more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent.

“This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack, and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest.”

However, posit Herman and Chomsky, what is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behaviour and performance.

To deal with this discrepancy, their propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices.

To this end, the model traces the routes by which money and power can filter out the news fit to print, marginalise dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.

The essential ingredients of their propaganda model, or set of what they refer to as news ‘filters’, relate to issues including the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; ‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media; and ‘anticommunism’ as a national religion and control mechanism.

In terms of the model, the filters fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy.

“The elite domination of the media and marginalisation of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, can convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’ and based on professional news values,” argue Herman and Chomsky.

They contend that in the Western world, the political elite tends to dominate the media because their bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organisations for reliable, scheduled flows.

“Government and corporate sources also have the great merit of being recognisable and credible by their status and prestige. This is important to the mass media… news workers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because news personnel participate in upholding a normative order of authorised knowers in society. Reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know…”

For Herman and Chomsky, another reason for the heavy weight given to official sources is that the mass media claim to be ‘objective’ dispensers of the news. Partly to maintain the image of objectivity, but also to protect themselves from criticisms of bias and the threat of libel suits, they need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate.

This is also partly a matter of cost: taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research.

The magnitude of the public information operations of large government and corporate bureaucracies that constitute the primary news sources is vast and ensures special access to the media. The Pentagon, for example, has a public information service that involves many thousands of employees, spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year and dwarfing not only the public information resources of any dissenting individual or group, but the aggregate of such groups.

“As Henry Kissinger has pointed out, in this ‘age of the expert’, the ‘constituency’ of the expert is ‘those who have a vested interest in commonly held opinions; elaborating and defining its consensus at a high level has, after all, made him an expert’. It is therefore appropriate that this restructuring has taken place to allow the commonly held opinions (meaning those that are functional for elite interests) to continue to prevail.”

This, Herman and Chomsky argue, is because “the constraints within the filters are so powerful, and are built into the system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of news choices are hardly imaginable”.

Going back to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the alleged bias by the Western media, one can identify the tendencies pinpointed by Herman and Chomsky—especially when coming to both the American and British outlets.

For example, in the post-9/11 era, the US government’s anti-terrorism policy influenced the country’s media coverage of any political conflict. This can today be traced to how the Western media fail to challenge the racist and Islamophobic statements made by both the US and Israeli political elite including US Republic Senator Lindsay, who in justifying the Israeli forces bombing of Gaza which killed over 5 000 civilians, including women and children, claimed that “the most radicalised people on the planet live in Gaza. where they are taught in their schools how to hate and kill Jews”.

This tendency of being biased in favour of Israel by the Western media includes how some of the media outlets treat information given by Israeli officials as authentic without verification, while treating every piece of information from the Palestinians as unreliable.

A recent study by Leeds University captures how the relationship between Britain and Israel has impacted the media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To this end, the study focused on the historical relationship between Britain and Israel, wherein Britain was instrumental in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and how that relationship contributed to the asymmetrical dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby impacting the media coverage of the conflict.

The study further pointed out the fact that in addition to the existing military asymmetry between Israel and Hamas, an informational asymmetry exists presided over and enforced by Israel. The consequence has been media coverage which remained largely consistent in the Western context favouring Israel’s perspective, the study found.

Coming to South Africa’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the study found that “although geographically distant and, arguably, culturally distinct from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there are sections of the South African population who are Jewish or Muslim”.

An additional factor of relevance is South Africa’s experience of apartheid. In this regard, parallels are drawn between the Palestinian struggle and that of black South Africans against the former apartheid regime.

The religious and political dimensions of the conflict can therefore be regarded as important factors driving interest in its reportage, the study found. It also found that South African news outlets do not have reporters based in the Middle East. Instead, they rely on material from international news agencies and other news media operating there.

However, these outlets employ several practices to localise the conflict for their audiences. For instance, they may aggregate material from multiple news wires into single articles. The reason for this is to provide their readerships with coverage which reflects their editorial practices and views. Of importance is the fact that the study found the South African news media to be willing to engage with and debate the conflict’s complexities.

That, the study found, was largely informed by the political sentiment in the country which is largely supportive of the Palestinian cause. This facilitates media coverage that contests the informational asymmetry of the conflict, which in most Western contexts results in reporting sympathetic to Israel.

The signing of the open letter by the journalist is an indication of the special relationship with conflict situations. The reasons for such a relationship are two-fold:

First, the world-over conflict is acknowledged as being of major news value and as such, constitutes a major operation for the media; second, it is a matter of utmost public importance and interest because of its security implications.

What complicates the situation is the fact that the parties in conflict try by hook or by crook to use the media to further their ends, thereby putting the media under all sorts of undesirable pressures and pulls as well as threats.

So an institution born essentially to disseminate factual and objective information comes also to be used to misinform, control, and manipulate news, as well as to shape and mould views in line with dominant at the expense of the broader humanity.

What the open letter tells us is that in conflict situations, the media can play a major role in enlightening public opinion and in helping people take cognisance of the need for peace and their overall welfare. Its role dictates that it should take all the steps within its reach to promote peace.

This can be achieved by an understanding that in cases of conflicts, the objective defined for the media is “humanitarian reporting”, guided by the conventions governing the conduct of such armed conflicts under humanitarian laws.

The basic purpose of these laws is three-fold. First, they are essential to prevent man’s fall from decency to barbarism and to mitigate the horrors and hardships of the conflicts. Second, the laws ensure a disciplined army, which is distinguishable from the marauders and plunderers. Third, the observance of rules also creates goodwill among belligerent states, their armies, and civilian populations and helps restore peaceful relations between them sooner when the conflicts cease.

Characteristically, the human rights reporting of armed conflicts should be objective, fair, and impartial, irrespective of the nationality, race, religion or ideology of the violators of the law, and their victims, and has to be above all uninfluenced by bias and prejudices.

The main object of reporting on the infringements of the humanitarian law of war ought to be to preserve and promote human dignity.

Ido Lekota is a former Sowetan Editor and regular contributor to Leadership Magazine.

By Editor