TOPICS > Nation

Images in Conflict

May 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: As the Palestinian- Israeli conflict has grown more violent in recent months, it has generated a multitude of powerful images from both sides, pictures of dead and dying, of grieving, of destruction galvanizing public opinion in the Middle East and beyond.

In the Arab world, viewers who once were confined to tightly- controlled state-run television now can choose from several independent satellite services that provide up-to-the-minute coverage of the conflict. Yoram Peri, an Israeli who is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says it is the Arab world’s first living room war. He spoke with special correspondent Simon Marks.

YORAM PERI, Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace: It’s the first time that the Arab world is watching what is happening in Palestine or the West Bank or in Israel so closely. In the previous Intifada, it didn’t happen. And in previous wars, it didn’t happen.

TERENCE SMITH: In Israel, the perspective is different.

YORAM PERI: The framing is the framing of war against terrorism, while the framing in the Arab world is a framing of liberation from occupation.

TERENCE SMITH: That stark contrast is seen in the pictures shown, and the language used to describe them. On Israeli television, suicide bombers are “terrorists.” But in many Arab media, the same bomber is described as a martyr– Shahid in Arabic. In most Israeli media, the army’s incursions on the West Bank are portrayed as justifiable self-defense. But on Bahrain TV, the Israeli operation is given a different spin.

CORRESPONDENT (Translated): The Israelis say the reason has been to fight terrorism, but the truth is coming out that the Israelis are really targeting an unarmed people.

TERENCE SMITH: The coverage by Arab media, both private and state owned, is far from monolithic. Some outlets are more balanced than others, providing factual reporting and breaking stories.

On the other hand, provocative pictures of Israeli violence are often rerun without context. Certain scenes, like this Israeli shooting of a Palestinian boy in Gaza as his father sought to shield him, have been repeated again and again. But Israeli media can also convey a point of view. This report from Israel’s Channel 2, a commercial outlet, describes the end of Yasser Arafat’s virtual house arrest in Ramallah.

REPORTER (Translated): There’s no one like Arafat to rip out the sweetness of a political victory after the days of the shameful siege in his headquarters.

TERENCE SMITH: Beyond the Israeli and Arab television services, many foreign outlets are also readily available by satellite to the region’s viewers, adding to the Middle East’s multitude of voices.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the Middle East media and the message, we are joined by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. And by Yo’av Karny, an author and the Washington columnist for Globes, a financial newspaper based in Tel Aviv. Welcome to you both.

Shibley Telhami how has at rival of Al Jazeera and all these other satellite channels changed the media landscape among the Arab viewers?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Dramatically because the logic of the media today is very different than it was a decade ago. A decade ago most of the media were monopolized by governments. The government is serving its own interest. It needs to show on television the 150 people who shake the kings’ or the presidents’ hands because they don’t offend any one of them. It needs not to inflame its own public against itself, so it will contain the information.

Today the new media is trying to cater to the market. They understand that no one is going to watch them especially given the choices that they have — the dozens of choices that they have — unless they have something that the consumer wants. And they have to think about reaching the widest possible market, and most often that market is not within their own boundaries.

So if you’re Al Jazeera broadcasting out of Qatar, your viewership is no longer primarily Qatari; it is an Arab viewership — everybody who can speak the Arabic language in the entire Arab world.

So the logic is no longer catering to the Egyptian or to the Saudis and to the Qatari, but the Arab. In that sense they are trying to find out what most Arabs want and what is the common denominator among most Arabs. That changes the logic; this market logic, it makes it possible for them to find out what the consumer wants and to provide that information.

TERENCE SMITH: Yo’av Karny, what is the situation in Israel? You have several channels; you have some government role. Do Israelis consider them to be credible news organizations?

YO’AV KARNY, Washington Columnist, Globes: Israel certainly has a somewhat longer flood with open media going back at least to the 1960s when the prime minister’s office started exercising direct control over the content of news bulletin, which it had in fact enjoyed during the first 17 odd years of a state’s existence.

The 1965 broadcasting authority came into existence, still answerable to the state but exercising much greater degree of autonomy. The more open the Israeli society, became in the course of the ensuing years, the more vibrant and pluralistic the broadcasting media became.

Only in 1990 did the state partially, very partially deregulated the broadcasting media market by allowing the emergence of a second channel, which is privately owned, but still under tight public scrutiny, nothing like commercial networks in the United States much closer to the model of Independent Television in Britain, for example.

At the moment as Israeli society is generally distinguished by loud discourse lacking in subtlety and gentleness but still open and candid, the same largely applies to both channels.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you Shibley Telhami when King Abdullah was in the United States last week he warned of what he described as a growing rage among younger Arabs throughout the region. Is the television coverage inflaming that rage?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, there’s no question that it’s having an impact on it, and there’s no question that market logic sometimes means sensationalism and editorializing in a way that does inflame.

But frankly much of the inflammation and the rage is really not a function of the media doing an inflammation job. It is really more that in the past governments contained information in order to allow the public not to be inflamed. Now the public is exposed to more information. There’s no way to block it. And as a consequence the media is catering to what the market — what the public wants.

And as a consequence, I’ll give you an example, on the Palestinian issue I did a survey last summer trying to find the relationship between those who watch Al Jazeera and those who don’t watch Al Jazeera. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt I found that those who watch Al Jazeera tend to be slightly less supportive of the Palestinian issue than those who don’t watch Al Jazeera.

So there was certainly no relationship that would go like one would expect with their being inflamed by watching Al Jazeera. In fact, I think they mostly cater to what the public interests are. They are covering what the public wants to see and that’s why the public is watching them. And that’s why all the other governments are trying to emulate what Al Jazeera is doing in order to draw some of that market their way.

Nonetheless I would say the magnitude of coverage, particularly in some instances 24 hours of pain and suffering and helplessness on the ground, has a left a collective scar in the Arab world, and I think that it has magnified the importance of the last few weeks.

I would suggest that there has been a collective scar akin to the scar left by the 1948 war because there was such a pervasive sense of helplessness and rage and disgust with the international system that has come across for the first time into the homes of people through the window of what transpired on West Bank particularly in Jenin.

TERENCE SMITH: Yo’av Karny, what’s the Israeli counterpart to that? What has been the reaction in terms of attitude when these same images, some of them very tough to watch, have appeared on television in Israel?

YO’AV KARNY: Well, first of all pursuant to Professor Telhami’s remark about this crisis being so close to the 1948 one in terms of scars, it would be curious to contemplate what would have happened if 1948 had been covered by a condition in like a CNN-like ubiquitous network. I’m not sure that the history of Middle East would have been the same.

As for the Israeli side I think that all in all if we try to relate the cause of this crisis to media, probably there were two formative moments on both sides without which arguably the intifada would have ended much earlier, indeed might have become just a fluke.

One was which you have shown earlier the shooting of the child, Mohamed Dura, in the street, I believe it was in Gaza – something that inflamed the Arab world and did international public opinion to an extraordinary degree. Mohamed Dura now appears on postal stamps in Egypt and has become a symbol of the entire Palestinian struggle.

By the same token, almost at the same time, the Israelis became privacy thanks to an Italian TV crew to the abduction and extrajudicial execution of the two reservist soldiers in the police headquarters in the city of Ramallah in the course of which bodies stained with blood were dropped from the second floor to the arms of excited mob, pictures that were shown worldwide.

It made the Israelis think — growing numbers of Israelis think that perhaps their earlier perception that the Palestinians were coming close to accepting their presence in the region might have been misplaced. I think that with the benefit of hindsight those were the most two most powerful media moments of the conflict.

TERENCE SMITH: Shibley Telhami, can you measure the impact of this coverage on, for example the demonstrations in the Arab street that we saw in several Arab capitals? Do you link one to the other?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: There’s no question. I think you can see that if you look at the number of demonstrations the size of demonstrations particularly ones that were allowed to take place in places like Morocco where you had a million people and the demonstrations that had been planned were prevented by security forces.

Let’s not forget there were hundreds of thousands of security forces in places to contain the pressure because most of the Arab governments are really afraid of it because the coverage — what you didn’t see is you would have callers calling in from other places calling Arab governments servants of America for not doing something to help. And so clearly there is a relationship.

You find in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait there was a coalition that the U.S. led into the war, there was a coordinated campaign of information by Arab governments and the U.S. to contain the amount of information available and it did work in containing the pressure on the street. In this environment it’s harder to do that kind of coordination because there’s a market-driven information revolution taking place. And many of these television stations are also broadcasting through the Internet, which is accessible at least to many of the elites in the region.

TERENCE SMITH: Yo’av Karny, what was the reaction in Israel when there were, I believe, restrictions placed on Israeli television units going into the West Bank during the military operation there?

YO’AV KARNY: Well, by and large the Israeli society is so open, small almost incestuous, that any attempt to curtail the free flow of information would be laughable — even if people are not allowed into certain places, by and large at the end of the day all information would become available.

We have seen how television crews from all over the world made a laughing stock of the Israeli military and its pathetic attempts to prevent them from entering Ramallah and other prohibited areas in the West Bank. It is true that certain restrictions have been placed on Israeli broadcasting media.

One, for example, related to an extraordinary moment in which a television crew belonging to Channel 2 — the commercial outlet as you referred to earlier –accompanied an army unit just prior to the latest escalation doing search for wanted men in Ramallah, a nightly mission in which they broke into homes evidently treated disrespectfully residents, were oblivious to the bleeding of a young Palestinian mother and to the crying of her children. Those moments were taped by an Israeli television crew, were shown in Israel and were eventually syndicated worldwide.

You can imagine that the military was extraordinarily unhappy and placed a ban on any continuation of cooperation with television crews. Similarly the government minister who is in charge of implementation of broadcasting law announced back in October that no longer would be broadcasting media be allowed or at least be advised not to interview members of terrorist organizations.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. I’m afraid we have to go. But it shows certainly that it’s controversial on both sides of conflict. Gentlemen, thank you both.