Western media coverage of the recent border protests around Israel
May 15, 2011

Western media coverage of the recent border protests around Israel

Consider this Globe and Mail story detailing the protests met with deadly force that have occurred on the Israeli border in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. It does an acceptable job of detailing the basic facts for those unfamiliar with them, but I want to look at the story as an example of the often skewed western media coverage of events in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

For news stories like this I think the appropriate metric to judge a news story is that it a) describes what happened, b) explains why it happened and c) explains the significance and meaning of the event to all of the relevant parties. Let us judge the Globe and Mail story against this metric. In terms of describing what happened while perhaps limited I think it does a reasonable job. As for explaining why it happened, the ostensible reason is that this is marking the anniversary of Israel's founding, or 'the catastrophe' as it is referred to by Palestinians. However, this anniversary happens every year and, as the Globe and Mail notes, since the Syrian border has been "quiet for decades" there is a larger question of why now, and why in this scale that isn't answered simply by the the existence of the anniversary.

The Globe and Mail offers two quotes from Israeli official, back to back, that claim to explain the 'why' of the situtation.
“We are seeing here an Iranian provocation, on both the Syrian and the Lebanese frontiers, to try to exploit the Nakba day commemorations,” said the army’s chief spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Yoav Mordechai.
and
“This appears to be a cynical and transparent act by the Syrian leadership to deliberately create a crisis on the border so as to distract attention from the very real problems that regime is facing at home,” said a senior Israeli government official who declined to be named.
The immediate response is that it would be extraordinarily unlikely and indeed conspiratorial that both of these are true unless the Syrian and Iranian leaderships are getting together to conspire and both Israeli authorities missed this fact. Taking the two claims individually, both are essentially irrefutable claims that I can only speculate on how likely their appear. That said, on the Iranian claim it is worth noting that Israeli establishment consistently and repeatedly blames almost anything on the Iranians. Of course, the Iranians absolutely do have considerable influence in the region - particularly with military backing of Hezbollah - but given the consistency of these kinds of claims the simple fact of stating it occurred cannot be taken at face value. Since no further evidence was given beyond the statement, we must remain entirely agnostic on the claim.

As for the Syrian claim, the dominating phenomenon sweeping Syria and indeed much of North Africa and the Middle east is the Arab Spring protests. In recent weeks in Syria the protests have been widespread and faced a brutal crackdown by the Syrian regime. That protests into the Golan Heights extend beyond levels in many years is entirely consistent with the narrative of a country beset by widespread protests across the country that the administration is having a large difficulty managing to suppress despite its excessive use of force. The idea that despite actively trying to suppress protests around the country the Syrian government in this case is actually supporting the protests seems contradictory on its face - especially when coupled with simultaneous protested in Gaza, Lebanon, and Jerusalem that clearly had nothing to do with the Syrian or Iranian governments on these other frontiers.

This BBC article agrees with the same fundamental reason:

The BBC's Jon Donnison, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said this year's Nakba protests have been given impetus by the uprisings in countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

The major difference here is that the Globe and Mail is quoting Israeli authorities while the BBC is simply quoting one of its own correspondents. When answering the 'why' question, one can't just explain it from one perspective one needs to address it from the various relevant parties. In this case, it needs to be explained from the perspective of the protesters as well. As such, it is important to mention the Israeli government positions - my above objections were to the likely veracity of the claims not the Globe and Mail quoting those claims - but my issue with so much of western media's reporting is its inability to also discuss the issue from the other side such as the protesters in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in this case. In the BBC article, they also didn't manage to get quotes from the actual protesters or their representatives but used the correspondent as a way to say the eminently reasonable explanation from that side.

This asymmetry is not necessarily nefarious and at least partially stems from the crucial issue of access. It is very cheap and easy for a news company to get English language copies of statements from Israeli government and army officials. English transcripts, for instance, of Israel's military radio services are readily available.  These statements have several advantages as coming from people considered to be authority and coincide with latent pro-Israel sentiment among the western public. In contrast, it is quite difficult to actually get good and authoritative quotes from the side of the protesters. They are often decentralized, without obvious representative leaders and in violent places that are difficult and costly to access. Media in Syria is largely state controlled so the Canadian media can't use English translations of interviews that are truly representing the side of the protesters by borrowing from the Syrian media. The BBC approach of putting experts on the ground - or at least in safe areas in the West Bank - is perhaps as close as can reasonably done without a significantly higher amount of investment. As a side note, this presents an ancillary benefit to development of robust independent media among the Middle East that is capable of describing events from their perspectives to which western media can refer.

Nonetheless, while there are some natural issues that make there be such an asymmetry it is all the more important for western media to try and represent the other side opposed to simply quoting the (seemingly false) statements of the Israeli establishment without any form of contest. While I disagree with this model, it is standard that in the interests of appearing unbiased, news media does not offer commentary in and of itself but just uses quotes from relevant parties to explain the situation. However, when one side just doesn't appear in the commentary then it is particularly dangerous as it leaves one side to be entirely unchallenged as it was in the Globe and Mail article. It takes some effort, but there are plenty of analysts and correspondents living in the west and in the Middle East who can provide quotes that offer such countervailing commentary and could easily be incorporated even if it is not easy to get quotes from representatives of the protests themselves.

Given the established metric, I don't believe it can be said that this article satisfied the conditions of giving a faithful explanation of the reasons for, and the meaning and significance of, these protests and violence that takes into consideration all sides of the conflict. Instead it presented an asymmetry that is far too common; namely, paying considerable attention to the statements of Israeli officials but not that of the people shot by that government.

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