This was a hard week for me being asked on more than one occasion to choose between being a professional journalist and being a patriotic Palestinian.
As a bilingual observer one is completely frustrated when following what is happening in our region on Arab and international television channels. Using sleep-deprived reports, Arab satellite stations have been continuously filling the airwaves with heart wrenching stories of Palestinians being violently assaulted with a seemingly endless and indiscriminate Israeli attacks.
On the other hand you get sanitized reporting from well rested western journalists in flak jackets on the borders of Gaza or in the streets of Israeli towns. CNN's Ben Wedeman expressed this frustration best noting that while his team is banned by Israel from entering the Gazan war theatre, they are being allowed unfettered access to Israeli civilian locations where the Palestinian rockets are landing.
While the images coming out of Gaza are very moving, the tone of the narrative on many western TV stations appeared to reflect some sort of military equivalency. Reflecting this huge military imbalance, Azmi Bishara a Palestinian academic and former member of the Israeli Knesset called -- on an Arab TV station -- the Israeli war on Palestinians "the most cowardly war in the world."
The absence of international journalists from the streets of Gaza allowed Israeli spokespersons to spin the rational of the war mostly unopposed. Local Hamas leaders' unavailability -- for security reasons -- provided Israeli representatives an unchallenged opportunity to manipulate information. On more than one occasion, I, as a Christian nationalist who is opposed to the Hamas policies, found myself correcting clearly false assertions. Without the ability to present a forceful counterpoint an entire mythology was created leading many naïve viewers to buy the Israeli rationale hook, bait and sinker.
Following the bombardment of the UNRWA school in Gaza, again I was frustrated about the absence of independent journalists on the scene where the attack took place. While UNRWA emphatically denied that anyone had shot from that school area, Israel quickly claimed that their action is justified because -- according to their claim -- shots had been fired at them from that school. International journalists could have helped settle the issue and could have pointed out the potential of a war crime.
Faced with an Israeli ban on international journalists from entering Gaza, many Arab journalists responded by calling for the boycott of Israelis from appearing on Arab media outlets. A petition in Jordan entitled "No to Zionists appearing on Arab media outlets" garnered the signature of tens of journalists. Speaking on BBC World Service January 7, I rejected this idea insisting that one can be a professional journalist and be patriotic to his people at the same time. For a society that feels that the media is part of the conflict rather than an observer the idea, of hearing the Israeli point of view was tantamount to capitulation.
The following day I decided to organize a debate on the subject on Radio al Balad, the community radio station that I established in Amman. What ensued provided our listeners with an opportunity to hear professional journalists who insist that we need to debate the other side with facts and logic and not get carried away emotionally. Ironically the example that was used to defend this point of view was al Jazeera TV. The Qatar-based pan Arab station has been providing uninterrupted coverage of the situation in Gaza with live reports from inside and outside of Gaza but at the same time giving Israeli spokespersons a chance to state their point of view.
Opponents of the closed minded media attitudes also recalled some of the Arab media's dark hours with Egypt's Sawt al Arab's Ahmad Said in 1967 and Iraq's Information minister Saeed al Sahaf in 2003 as examples of the results of what happens when the entire population is led by media demagogues.
The debate on our station also reminded me of a courageous statement made by an independent Jordanian media activist Nedal Mansour who fought the overwhelming public sentiment and opposed the protest methods of the Iraqi shoe thrower. While calling for the immediate release of the detained Iraqi journalist, Mansour attacked those who went overboard in praising his action. "Instead of throwing a shoe, the Iraqi journalists should have confronted President Bush with a tough question including asking him to respond to the accusation that he is a war criminal," he said in a live interview on our station.
Reform in the Arab world is a long and difficult process. Independent media activists have been greatly helped by the opportunities that satellite, the internet and other new media platforms are offering. While the international press has been barred from fully covering the unfair and unjust war on the people of Gaza, we the Arab professionals must combine our professional skills with personal courage to tell the facts, all the facts. Only this way can we not only serve our cause but also truly serve our people.
Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton Unviersity. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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