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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Analysis of Diane Buttu's Commentary of Media coverage of Palestine-Israel conflict

Diane Buttu was an adviser to the Negotiations Affairs Unit which supported the Palestine National Authority during and after the peace process. And while she frequently addresses issues of journalism and media coverage, she is a lawyer by training and her journalism experience basically comes from a layman's point of view.

To help add power to here observations and opinions, I thought it important to add some perspective to her commentary below which appears in full. My comments are in [brackets] below certain points that she makes.

To me the issue isn't just that Israel manages the media, but that the Palestinians have NO real media, no real public relations and no real PR spokes people. What they do have are usually elected officials or party leaders or activists who combine both news-making with self-PR management which is not PR at all.

You cannot have good media coverage without a strong and professional PR strategy in place and the Palestinians lack a good PR strategy. In fact, they have no PR strategy at all.

As a side note, knowing the Palestinian leadership the way I do, I am sure DIane will take this critique as an "attack." It's the usual response when some addresses an area that needs to be improved. We don't like to be told we are not doing things right. So we attack the messenger. This isn't intended as an attack. It is intended to help people reading it better understand the challenges we face as Palestinians.

Ray Hanania
National Arab American Journalists Association

On Journalism and Media
By Diana Buttu

Watching Western television or reading newspaper reports of Palestine
always leaves me perplexed. If I did not live in Palestine and bear
witness to Israel’s military occupation, I would be left with the
impression that Palestinians and Israelis are equals – with no
occupation existing – and that this conflict simply requires
“concessions” on both sides. I would be unaware that the Palestinians
have, for almost 39 years, been denied their freedom and unaware that
for more than five decades dispossessed of their land. I would be
unaware that this conflict is between, on the one hand, an occupied
party – the Palestinians – fighting for their independence, freedom and
the application of international law, and on the other hand, the
occupying party – Israel – which has denied freedom, independence and
the application of international law to the Palestinians for almost
four decades. Unfortunately, I am not the only person who would walk
away with such impressions. Independent studies carried out in Europe
and the United States have similarly concluded that media coverage of
this occupation is tilted to the point where a significant number
respondents in one survey believed that it was the Palestinians
occupying Israel!

While Jerusalem is one of the major reporting centres for Western
journalists, it begs the question, why does the reporting from
Israel/Palestine deviate so much from the reality of the situation? The
answer lies not in media bias – that is not to say that there is none
or that editorial control over reporting from Palestine is not
heavy-handed – but in a number of other factors that impact the way
journalists cover this area. Through my experience with Western
journalists, I have learned that the vast majority really want to tell
the story and are thirsty for knowledge but are hindered by a number of
factors, a few of which are outlined below.

Israel Frames the Issue of the Day
Western journalists often fall victim to Israel’s framing of the issues
and the arguments. Take for example the recent Hamas PLC victory. Since
the elections, Israel has made much of Hamas’s lack of recognition of
Israel and the signed agreements. Israel, for its part, claims that it
will not “deal with” the new Palestinian government and has its Western
allies lined up supporting it. As a result, story after story has hit
the front page of prominent newspapers and pundits have been brought in
to assess whether Hamas will eventually recognize Israel and the signed

[The fact is that Hamas and the Palestinians did not frame the issue themselves. Framing is a very common practice in PR Strategy. It's simple to do. But when one side frames issues and the other side does not, especially because of a lack of any PR mechanism in place, then it might appear that Israel controls the issue through its framing process.]

Yet, the reality of the situation is ignored. Israel has, for almost
six decades, failed to recognize the Palestinians which is, in essence,
the heart of this conflict. If Israel had recognized the Palestinians,
it would not engage in a colonial enterprise on their land and would
not continue to deny them their freedom. Ignored by journalists are the
statements by Golda Meir and others claiming that there are no
Palestinians, and actions by Israeli leaders up to the current day,
whereby colonies are built without reference to the Palestinians.
Journalists seem to have forgotten that Ariel Sharon, for his part,
declared Oslo null and void within the first year of his premiership
and that Kadima – a party whose sole purpose is unilateralism – was
formed before there was even a hint of a Hamas victory. While President
Abbas was in power, Israel failed to “deal with” him and even hinted,
at times, that he was “irrelevant.” The recent past seems to be ignored
and instead, Palestinians are once again on the defensive.

[As political activists without media training often do, they veer away from the focus of media bias and then insert opinion out of context, unframed and without any sense of strategic delivery, all fundamental to effective communications.]

Terminology and Numbers
One of the reasons for a lack of clear understanding of the occupation
is the misuse of terminology. (I will, for the moment, not address the
term “terrorist” for which there is no clear definition but instead
focus on terms for which there is a clear definition). Take, for
example, the term “military occupation.” Without clearly specifying to
readers/viewers that this conflict is between an occupying party
(Israel) and the people it occupies (the Palestinians), journalists
remove the legal basis under which Israel must behave. As an occupying
power, Israel has a duty to protect the Palestinians – not experiment
in its use of heavy weaponry and torture against the Palestinians.
Viewed in this light, Israel’s assassination policy is not only illegal
but reprehensible. I once had a long conversation with a Western
journalist who lamented that during an interview with a Palestinian
activist, she had used the term “occupation” incessantly. When I asked
what the problem was, the journalist responded, “We are tired of
hearing about the occupation,” oblivious to the fact that I, as a
Palestinian, am tired of living it.

[Misuse of terminology exists in part because the Palestinians are AWOL from the PR battle. Israelis address the issues from both an activist and government perspective AND from a strategically designed PR Strategy that "defines" through "framing" the terms used. Another important issue is that through years of Palestinian PR neglect, the audience has accepted the terminology that the Israelis use. Palestinians fail to recognize their failure in this process and address it as if it was devised by the Israelis and imposed on audiences like Americans. The fundamental truth of PR is that you MUST speak to an audience in the language they understand. It isn't the message but how yu deliver the message, and it is not about speaking English. It is about speaking "American cultural norms" to an American audience. You must use the terms they understand and you cannot change those terms untill you have a PR strategy in place that is working. ANy effort to CHANGE the terminology will appear to audiences as a political argument rather than a factual truth. It's a god point but complaining about it doesn't help. In fact, complaining about this only makes it worse in audience eyes.]

Examine also the terms “settlement” or “colony” – both of which are
increasingly disappearing in Western reporting in favour of terms such
as “Jewish neighbourhood” and “Jewish suburb” (both used liberally by
newspapers such as the New York Times). How is the average reader to
understand that these structures are illegal, that their presence has
denied thousands of Palestinians rights and access to their land, that
the presence of these “neighbourhoods” has led to the fortified
military structures around Palestinian cities, towns and villages, and
that, as a result of these innocuous “suburbs” Palestinians need to
obtain Israeli permission to be able to pass these seemingly harmless

The term “1967 border” also seems to be fading in Western reporting.
(Perhaps this is a reflection of the truth since Israel has been
erasing the 1967 border for decades). Instead, journalists make
academic leaps justifying to me and others that Israel’s colonization
in East Jerusalem is somehow “different” from that of the rest of the
West Bank, owing to the fact that Israel has “incorporated” these areas
into Israel. As a result, they often under-cite the number of settlers
– 220,000 instead of the true figure of 430,000+ – claiming that the
difference is made up by Jerusalem settlers whose status is somewhat
“unique.” What these journalists fail to realize is that for East
Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, it is the same occupation and denial
of freedom. Simply because Israel has incorporated the areas does not
mean that it has ended its military hold over the Palestinian residents
of the city, who are still required to prove that Jerusalem is their
“centre of life,” unlike the Israeli settlers living on their land.

With the failure to report these issues accurately, reality becomes
blurred: without an “occupation” without “colonies” and without
“settlers,” this conflict can be easily viewed as one in which
Palestinians hate Jews and Jews hate Palestinians.

If It Bleeds, It Leads
Israel’s methodical strangling of the Palestinians is rarely reported.
The daily closure policy, the ongoing land confiscations to build
Israeli-only colonies and roads and the incessant construction of the
Wall are now seen by many Western journalists as a “routine,
un-newsworthy” activity. Yet, it is this methodical, daily activity
that lies behind the acts of violence that are reported.

Instead, television and newspaper reporting is peppered with violence.
As I quickly learned when I moved to Palestine, “If It Bleeds, It
Leads.” But not all acts of violence make the lead. Palestinian suicide
operations always make the news whereas Israel’s use of military
weapons against a stateless, army-less population does not. When the
next suicide operation occurs (as undoubtedly will happen) Israeli
deaths will certainly be reported, whereas the killing of Palestinians
that leads to the suicide operation will not. Instead, newspaper and
television reports will use phrases such as “break in relative calm” or
“break the lull in violence.” Ignored will be the scores of Palestinian

["If it bleeds it leads" is a fundamental driving force of all journalism, not just in the Middle East. The issue of course returns to the absence of Palestinian professional PR and professional media. Activists are not journalists and while they assume that role in Palestinian society, they are actually contributing towards undermining the Palestinian cause. Vanity and ego stands in the way of correcting this, of course, as it always does in the Palestinian leadership in government or among the activists like Diane. Palestinians often do get some sympathetic coverage, such as the massacre of Palestinian civilians on a Gaza Beach this past week (June 8, 2006). But the reports were driven by circumstances not strategic PR. It was a massacre that rose above the normal bar of coverage and led the news. Israel masterfully issued an apology that was included in the first reports to reach Americans. Although the massacre is tantamount to a war crime, Americans (the audience here) saw it as one of those unavoidable tragedies of a conflict. Israel's apology only served to temper any outrage that they might have felt. Additionally, the Palestinian response has been one of emotional screaming and yelling and cries for vengeance, feeding the American perception that the Israelis are "trying to do the best with a bad situation. If it bleeds it leads is a phrase that should apply to Palestinian daily life, but doesn't mainly because Palestinians fail constantly in managing the media (complaining about the media is not the same as managing the media) and they lack a clear PR strategy that is not driven by emotion or controlled by untrained but highly educated activists like Diane.]

As a resident of Gaza, I live with the daily shelling and bombing
emanating from Israeli tanks and F-16s. The sound is constant and
unnerving. Its targets are random, as seen by the latest victims. In
one week alone in April more than 2,000 tank shells were fired.
Approximately 16 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israel’s
military action. The reporting of these killings was often hidden in a
line of an article referring to the new Hamas government. When I called
up the bureau chief of one of the major Western outlets to complain, he
stated, “There is a low-grade military conflict here now and we cannot
report every Palestinian death and certainly not the death of
‘militants.’” When I asked whether he would report the death of 16
Israeli soldiers killed within two weeks, he responded, “Yes….I see
your point.”

[Diane would be better off if instead of writing lofty analysis of issues that go beyond her legal experience to instead write about the personal events that she sees and confronts as a resident of Gaza Strip. She is not using the power that she really has here. In the United States, we don't hear about the daily life of the Palestinians, only the political arguments (like this essay column). We need to hear the contribution that is most missing and that is the firstperson eyewitness accounts that must be accurate and without excessive adjectives. We don't need to add adjectives to make the Gaza Massacre look worse than it is. A simple description is powerful. And, we don't need the political rhetoric that usually accompanies Palestinian tragedy. Strip away the rhetoric and present the human face of the Palestinians. What a unique suggestion to being implementing that hasn't been implemented yet.]

The failure to report Palestinian deaths is often the result of the
failure on the part of journalists to travel to the Gaza Strip or
throughout the West Bank. “Nablus is a trek,” I am told, whereas Tel
Aviv can be visited in an afternoon. The presence of an increasing
number of Israeli military checkpoints makes it difficult for
journalists to visit areas outside of the Jerusalem/Ramallah/Bethlehem
envelope and makes it even more difficult for journalists to meet their
deadlines. As a result, Nablus is a planned visit, whereas Tel Aviv is
not. Hence, Palestinian deaths are a line in a story; Israeli deaths
are covered in depth.
That said, the ongoing slow conflict, devoid of bloodshed, is something
that all journalists should be covering. Over the past 39 years, Israel
has constructed more than 150 Jewish-only colonies (with approximately
430,000 Israeli settlers) on 60 percent of occupied Palestinian
territory. These colonies are connected by a network of by-pass roads,
open only to Israelis bearing Israeli license plates. By contrast, the
3.5 million Palestinians on whose territory these colonies are built
are relegated to small reservations (akin to Bantustans) and are
required to obtain Israeli permission to travel from one reservation to
the next (akin to the “pass laws” of apartheid South Africa). Despite
the presence of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians are controlled
by Israel. These, coupled with Israel’s perfection of the closure
regime and its strangulation of Gaza, are all issues that should not
continue to be ignored.

The Palestinian Government
Without knowing more about the region, it is easy to believe that the
two sides, Palestinian and Israeli, are equal, for the structure of the
Palestinian government fails to reflect the reality of the occupation.
The Palestinians, like the Israelis, have a President and Prime
Minister. They even have a Minister of Tourism and a Minister of
Telecommunications. However, unlike their Israeli counterparts,
Palestinian leaders require Israeli permission to be able to function.
All Palestinian leaders must seek Israeli permission to move within
their own land and all are subject to Israeli checkpoints. And, in the
case of the Ministries of Tourism and Telecommunications, have
absolutely no control over the areas they are to develop (namely
borders and the electromagnet spectrum).

[This is a good point that is often made but never articulated effectively. This is an issue in and of itself that should be explored further and conveyed to American and Western audiences. It isn't not conveyed that effectively at all. Just writing it doesn't work, however.]

Western journalists are largely unaware of the power imbalance between
these two governments. The Israeli regime, for its part, can plan and
develop. It can impose curfews when it desires, build settlements when
it chooses and erect checkpoints when it wants. In short, Israel has
control over virtually all aspects of Palestinian life. The Palestinian
government, for its part, is simply unable to do the same – not because
it is “weak” as has been claimed, but because it is a government that
is under military rule, controlled by a different regime. The
Palestinian Authority has never had unfettered control over significant
territory. Even in the Gaza Strip, where the Israelis have evacuated
their settlements, Israel continues to control the area where even the
importation of flour and medicine is subject to Israeli whims. What
also do not help are the statements by Palestinian officials that lead
people to believe that the Palestinians are equal to the Israelis.
Statements such as, “We will not allow Israel to isolate us,” or “We
reject Israel’s Wall,” only serve to fuel the impression that the
Palestinians and Israelis are equal. Perhaps, instead, Palestinian
leaders should state the reality, “We are a government representing a
people under Israeli military rule. Our powers are limited by that
military rule. We seek only our freedom and expect that the
international community will not hold Israel above international law or
view us as beneath it.”

Some of the issues mentioned in this article can be addressed through
two means: (1) systematic information campaigns aimed at educating
journalists and (2) holding journalists accountable for their failure
to report this issue correctly. In short, until we do so, journalists
will fail to ask Israel when it will end its military occupation, and
instead ask the Palestinians when they will learn to accept it!

[Diane hits the nail on the head here. But a systematic information campaign should not be defined as an effort by activists who lack PR and media training. It should be done by PR professionals, not writers, not activists and not by those under siege. One of the most fundamental aspects of effective PR is that you cannot conduct ytour own PR campaign. A candidate cannot do his or her own PR. They must hire an outside PR professional, someone from outside the theater of the conflict, to offer strategic options BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY a critique of practices to help clients focus on what will work and what will not work. Vanity and ego have to be the first victims before a client can move on to success.]

Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer. She previously served as
a legal advisor to the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department and
an advisor to President Abbas.


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