‘The false reality of news journalism’

Reporting Palestine and the Mavi Marmara

One of the most interesting features of mainstream reporting on Israel and Palestine is the disparity between the way violent attacks by each side are presented. Israel’s actions are chiefly explained in terms of its right to “self defence“, while those carried out by Palestinians are more often than not portrayed as attempts to undermine Israel’s “security“.

Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets are depicted as random acts of violence, with no mitigating or explanatory considerations whereas Israeli attacks are predominantly reported as responses to a Palestinian threat. For instance, a recent Irish Times report on the killing of four apparently unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) offered the following by way of explanation: “Palestinian militants in Gaza frequently try to attack Israeli border patrols and sporadically fire rockets and mortar bombs at Israel.” In the same report Israeli actions were described as follows: “An Israeli naval patrol killed at least four Palestinians…on their way to carry out a terror attack.” This narrative presents Israeli aggression, the killing of unarmed persons in foreign waters, as a necessary response to Palestinian terrorism. In effect, it serves to ligitimise that aggression.

One possible explanation for this imbalance can be found in the very words journalists chose to use. Journalist Robert Fisk claims that “journalists have become prisoners of the language of power.” Addressing the Al Jazeera Annual Conference in May this year, he said:

“We are drowning our vocabulary with the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation or what I call the ‘TINK THANKS’. Thus we have become part of this language…And when we use these words, we become one with the power and the elites which rule our world without fear of challenge from the media.”

On the 8th June Fisk appeared at the Dalkey Book Festival in conversation with Vincent Browne, where I asked him:

“Why do you think journalists relinquish control of language to the institutions of propaganda so easily? For example, following the flotilla attack, journalists responded by adopting Israeli government language, so when the activists were freed, it was reported they were ‘deported’. In the same way Israel always ‘detain’, whereas Palestine always ‘kidnap’.”

Fisk responded:

“Journalists now use the words that are provided for them by power. For example, journalists use the term ‘spike’ in violence and there’s a reason for that, Americans like to see the word, because a ‘spike’ goes up and then a ‘spike’ goes down. If you were to refer to an ‘increase’ in violence, there’s no guarantee that it will go down. In the same way a ‘surge’ suggests a tsunami, or a massive natural force. In real terms this ‘surge’ is a reinforcement and you need reinforcements when you are losing a war. Similarly a ‘wall’ becomes a ‘fence’, a ‘settlement’ becomes a ‘colony’, which becomes a ‘neighbourhood’ or an ‘outpost’.

Again and again journalists use the words of power in this way – ‘officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘according to an official’. In effect we are now using the words of the Defence Department, Downing Street and so on. I think the reason for this is because it is easy, it is less likely to invite criticism. But the problem is that in using these words we desemanticise the war, because, while I disagree with all violence, if you see a Palestinian throw a stone and you know it is because there is a ‘wall’ being built around his house, you can begin to understand. But if that dispute is about a ‘fence’, you might be led to believe all Palestinians are generically violent.”

On the 31st May an event occurred in international waters off the coast of the Palestinian territory of Gaza which has highlighted the pervasive influence of the “language of power.” A flotilla of vessels, manned by hundreds of activists and carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid, was intercepted and boarded by the Israeli navy. On the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara nine activists were killed, most of them shot repeatedly at close range. Scores of others were injured, including several Israeli soldiers.

The media news storm that followed the event can be defined by three characteristics: 1) The Israeli government version of events dominated coverage 2) Where the testimony of activists was reported it was generally in the context of denying Israeli allegations 3) Israel was presented as acting in self defence, whether as a state enforcing a blockade, or as individual soldiers protecting themselves; those aboard the flotilla were for the most part presented as instigators of the violence. The reason there was a media storm at all, unlike the killing of the Palestinians described above, is that this incident involved the kind of “bloodshed that would spark an international outcry” or to put it bluntly, Israel had killed non-Arabs.

At approximately 4:30 am on the 31st May the communications systems aboard the vessels were blocked by the Israeli Navy, cutting off all contact with the outside world. Israeli commandos then stormed the ships in an operation conducted by hundreds of soldiers using an array of combat craft, including “four Frigates, three Helicopters, two Submarines and twenty Zodiac boats.” Once the crew and passengers had been subdued, the vessels were commandeered and “escorted” by force to the Israeli port of Ashdod. Here activists were stripped of all cameras, computers, telephones and recording equipment and “detained” against their will, only to be “deported” several days later on the condition they sign forms declaring they had entered Israel illegally. In contrast to the capture of British soldiers by the Iranian military in 2007 few commentators dared to submit that the activists had effectively been “kidnapped.” Where the term was used it was primarily in response to comments made by government officials, in this case Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The flotilla was just the latest in a series of aid convoys that have attempted to break the “blockade” of Gaza – an escalation of those restrictions imposed in 2006 in response to Hamas’ victory in elections deemed free and fair by the international community. According to the Israeli government the blockade is “an exercise of the right of economic warfare” “intended to achieve a political goal,” namely to undermine support for and ultimately oust Hamas. According to Gideon Levy, columinst for Haaretz *, Dov Weissglas advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister joked that the blockade was like “an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.” It could however more accurately be described as a “siege” (a term seldom used), as Israel maintains almost total control of both Palestinian borders and airspace, it also makes regular military ‘incursions‘ into the territories, while continuing a process of colonisation that results in ever expanding Israeli borders and a corresponding shrinking of Palestinian borders. The United Nations has called for Israel to lift the “siege” and has described it variously as “collective punishment“, a “crime against humanity” and a “war crime.” Ironically, a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times described how Israelis live under a “suffocating siege mentality” as a result of their “self-inflicted isolation.” The same piece makes reference to the “checkpoints” Israel enforces around Palestine, ensuring near absolute control of their “only exit.”

As with the navy patrol incident described above, the “blockade” is almost always portrayed as a response to Palestinian violence. The Irish Times claimed in a report last week that the blockade has been “in place since Hamas seized power in the strip three years ago,” another claimed it is “designed to stop arms and “dual-use” equipment reaching Hamas and other militant groups.” More recent reports erroneously claim it was “first introduced in June 2006 when [Israel’s] soldier Gilad Shalit was captured.” In all cases Israel is presented as reacting to a violent incident, as opposed punishing Palestinians for voting for the ‘wrong party’ in democratic elections. The idea that the blockade is actually a security measure is contradicted by the terms of the blockade itself, such as details of the banned goods, most of which would prove entirely useless when used as weapons: “items such as school supplies, books, computers, kitchen utensils, mattresses and toys.”

The events that took place during the attack on the Mavi Marmara are still disputed and will likely remain unclear in the absence of an independent investigation. This uncertainty has prompted some journalists to euphemistically describe them as “clashes“, suggesting a shared premeditation and thus an equal apportioning of blame. Details of the casualties aboard the ship do not however support this – injuries were ‘disproportionately’ sustained by passengers. Autopsy results revealed “nine Turkish men…were shot a total of 30 times and five were killed by gunshot wounds to the head. The results revealed that a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back. A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has US citizenship, was shot five times from less that 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. Two other men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back.” While the Israeli government claims one soldier sustained gunshot wounds, the navy recorded no fatalities.

In the hours and days following the assault Israeli spokespersons dominated the media narrative. Access to the passengers was restricted, preventing any alternative narrative from emerging. The IDF and the Israeli Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs drip fed statements and selectively edited video and audio footage (less than 4 minutes of video footage has been released). This policy of providing video footage has had the effect of devaluing the authority of eye witness testimony, whilst also satisfying the media appetite for immediate, easily digested information, preferably with an authoritative stamp. At the same time footage taken by passengers remained under Israeli lock and key, with only those recordings concealed and eventually smuggled out made public. In contrast to the IDF videos this footage has not been publicised prominently.

Israeli officials made repeated allegations that the navy were “set upon” in a “planned” and “premeditated” “ambush“. Readers were told the navy had encountered “unexpected resistance” and that the soldiers had simply acted in “self-defence.” This in turn led to discussion of whether the violence was “disproportionate” or “legal“, not whether the use of violence was justified at all. Further claims alleged passengers were “allies” or had “links” to “terrorist organisations” including “al-Qaeda,” or were just “sympathetic” towards them. Other reports simply implied the connection: “the main umbrella group…preach non-violent resistance…[however] many [are] linked to Islamic organisations.” These claims were repeatedly reported without any further examination. A number of opinion articles did expand on the allegations, with one writer referring to them as “government propaganda,” however they were reluctant to dismiss them entirely and so made vaguely incriminating suggestions that while “the vast majority of those involved did not have any violent intentions,” the “well-meaning people” had been “used as tools by those with ulterior motives.”

Eyewitness accounts which appeared four days after the assault told an entirely different story: “Patel claimed that as soon as the Israeli Defence Force helicopter appeared above the Mavi Marmara, “it started using immediately live ammunition” without any warning being issued. Harrison, 32, from Islington, north London, also witnessed the Mavi Marmara being stormed from above by helicopter and said the Israelis started firing before their troops touched down on the boat.” Yet articles suggesting the ships passengers had acted in self defence were in the minority.

Much was made of the fact the passengers were “armed“, with reports describing passengers as “pipe and knife wielding pro-Palestinian activists,” a “knife-wielding mob” and “protesters wielding knives and clubs.” The array of “weapons” including “knives, metal rods, chains, broken bottles” can no doubt be found aboard any boat, but was still considered of major importance. Other more extravagant accounts stated “two pistols had been found on the Turkish ship” and that the navy “were shot at.” Later reports explained that “activists had fired guns they had seized” from the armed soldiers. Activists were therefore continually forced to deny in the first instance that they were armed and then to prove their peaceful intentions. The guns, we were eventually told, had indeed been taken from the soldiers, they were then thrown overboard or ‘made safe’.

The weapons carried by the navy commandos were also the subject of reporting, but from a very different perspective. Where the activists’ metal rods and table legs were discussed solely in terms of their potential to cause harm, the Israeli weapons were discussed in terms of their use in “riot-control“. Commandos were armed with “non-lethal” “stun guns” and “paint ball guns in place of their usual rifles.” Admittedly, they also carried handguns or pistols, but it was stressed the soldiers were “under strict orders to only use them in life-threatening situations.”

In light of the deaths and the specific details of the injuries suffered Israel was forced to admit that the “marines [had] opened fire.” However, the life threatening situation they were allegedly responding to changed from paragraph to paragraph. In one sentence the soldiers claimed that “they came under fire before shooting back.” In the next “they opened fire in response to a “lynch”.” Despite the absence of video evidence reports repeated the claims, providing some intuitively implausible sentences: “activists…tried to lynch the heavily armed naval commandos who stormed the ship.” But on the basis of these unsubstantiated claims some commentators justified the use of “lethal force” saying the navy had been “goad[ed] into excessive action“, and minimised the consequences of it as “heavyhanded” or “excessive“. While Israel’s actions “may be inexcusable, they are explicable.”

Just one day after the raid, an opinion writer in the Irish Times deemed the action: “excessive force to prevent a humanitarian aid convoy.” Which raises the improbable question, is there an acceptable amount of military force to prevent a humanitarian aid convoy? This type of discourse has had the effect of reducing a “violent” and “bloody” encounter to a “botched” raid, full of “errors and misjudgments” and “wrong-headed decisions.” Few journalists chose to dispel the tenuous mitigating circumstances conjured by the IDF and simply state: “What happened…was not an accident. It was a crime.”

Whether articles were condemning the assault or supporting it, opinion writers and editors were virtually unanimous as to its significance; it was a “disastrous self-inflicted wound” for Israel. It had fallen for the “political provocation” and into the “media trap“, which has “dealt another blow to Israel’s international image” and “will only benefit” the “extremists.”

And with that we come full circle. Despite recent talks over the “easing” of the blockade, the nine dead peace activists have become not a symbol of Israel’s aggression, but a reminder of the threat it faces. This seemingly irrational conclusion could be considered a natural consequence of the compromises journalists make in their choice of langauge. From “escorted” to “detained” and “deported”, from “blockade” to “dual-use equipment”, from “militant” to “extremist” and from “security” to “self defence” journalists have relinquished control of language and in the process they have allowed the news to be framed by power.

In a recent article published in the UK Independent Robert Fisk expanded on the reason why the media and power have become one and the same:

“Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power.”

If Fisk is right, it’s time we looked elsewhere for our news.



* Correction – Gideon Levy is a former deputy editor of Haaretz. He currently works as a columnist and a member of the newspaper’s editorial board.

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