Gaza media coverage – missiles and messages

February 9, 2009

Frontline Gaza cropped.jpg

Last Thursday, I was at Gaza: Missiles and Messages at the Frontline Club. It was a discussion about the media coverage of Gaza and it was standing room only. (You know an event’s popular at the Club when somebody feels it’s necessary to dust down the wooden church pews to augment the seating.) Below I’ll discuss some of the main points covered, but first a list of the people on the panel.

Jonathan Miller (C4)
Alan Fisher (Al Jazeera)
Harriet Sherwood (The Guardian)
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz (The Jerusalem Post) via Skype (and looking like a Second Life avatar because of the huge screen she was on)
Lior Ben Dor (Israeli affairs specialist)

The talk was chaired by Roy Greenslade.

1. Why were Western Journalists denied access to Gaza?

Lior Ben Dor’s ‘starter for ten‘ was perhaps the most tricky question of the evening. He said he understood the desire for news professionals to cover the conflict, but argued that Israel needed to wage a war against its enemies for the security of the state. In doing so, he claimed it was simply too dangerous for journalists to be in the Strip.

In a later clarification, it became clear that the main concern here was for the safety of Israeli soldiers who might have had to stop firing on a position where journalists were reporting, which in turn would put Israeli soldiers in danger from Hamas fighters.

In the subsequent discussion Ruthie Blum Leibowitz (unsurprisingly) backed up Lior’s point of view, while the journalists began shooting down (not literally) his position. Harriet Sherman said Guardian journalists had made it into Gaza through Egypt but disputed Lior’s implication that this was straightforward. She emphasised that the Israelis control what happens in Gaza and pointed out that the government set up a unit eight months ago to think about media coverage.

Alan Fisher picked up this theme, highlighting that one of the failures of the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 had been Israel’s defeat in the propaganda war. He and Jonathan Miller agreed that the media policy employed by Israel this time round ‘was a disservice to the people of Israel’, although the latter did recognise that it might have helped Israel achieve her military goals.

Fisher disputed the Israelis concern for the safety of journalists highlighting the case of documentary maker, James Miller, who was killed in Gaza, and the fact that the Reuters building was hit during the recent conflict.

2. How does the media cover Sderot and Israel?

Lior suggested that the media did not cover Sderot sufficiently. He said reporting what is happening in places that are being hit by rockets is an important part of understanding why Israel responded in the way that it did. The journalists replied that Sderot was covered, but that it did not always warrant further coverage. Indeed, a question was raised as to whether Sderot might have received too much coverage.

3. Covering Gaza

Alan Fisher said Al Jazeera’s advantage over other organisations was, of course, the fact they already journalists in Gaza, while Jonathan Miller said that some journalists who tried to get in were arrested by the Israelis.

Leibowitz argued that Israelis did know what was happening in Gaza to the Palestinians and that pictures of the conflict did reach Israel. She says Israelis felt terrible for Palestinians being used as human shields, a comment which was met with some scepticism from the audience in London.

4. What was missing?

Personally, I felt this discussion missed out on several key points. First, there was no real discussion of the differing approaches employed by Arab and Western networks with regards to pictures. Al Jazeera, Al Minar, Press TV et al tended to show far more graphic images than their Western counterparts. This was an interesting feature of Unseen Gaza but didn’t get a mention here.

Second, there was virtually no discussion of online media. Particularly conspicuous by its absence was a take on the Israeli Defence Force’s use of Twitter, Youtube, and blogging to try to get their message across.

Finally, we could have done with a military perspective. Somebody with some experience of running an information operation to really pose some questions to journalists who were rightly intent on defending freedom of speech.