How is the Western media covering Gaza?

Chris Doyle
Tuesday 17 Oct 2023

The Western media has always favoured Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something seen again in its coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas, writes Chris Doyle

 

The saying that truth is the first casualty of war is a cliché, but it is one that still resonates. As a result of the Internet and social media, the truth is truly bombarded in any conflict today with a barrage of fake images, videos, quotes, and other stories. The development of artificial intelligence (AI) only makes this trend more alarming.

The mainstream media therefore has an extraordinarily vital role that has become even more so given this environment of falsehood and propaganda. How has the Western media covered the Israel-Gaza conflict? Over the years the media coverage has rarely been fair. It has favoured the stronger party, Israel, not least because the Israeli state has been able to devote far more resources to the information war than has the Palestinian movement.

To be clear, to cover a war professionally and fairly is never easy. War correspondents bring stories to us, the viewers and readers, often at great risk. An Israeli sniper killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in 2022 when she was covering an Israeli assault on the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank, for example. Many other journalists have died while covering conflicts.

Warring parties increasingly use and abuse the media for their own ends. We have had issues in the past of the media being embedded with a particular army, which presents issues for impartiality. How can a journalist report fairly about the actions of soldiers who are in the process of protecting him or her?

The Hamas attacks on 7 October received massive media coverage across the world. The killing of Israelis has received plenty of attention, which is understandable.  Contrast this, though, with the meagre to non-existent coverage of the Syrian regime’s bombarding of north-west Syria at the same time.

It also contrasts with the paucity of coverage of the Palestinians Israel has killed in Gaza, now over 2,400. Some of these people were Hamas fighters, but many were civilians just like those killed in the Israeli communities.

Israel has prevented journalists from entering Gaza. This makes reporting even tougher. How do journalists verify stories from within Gaza? For example, when videos emerged appearing to indicate Israel bombing a convoy of civilians including children fleeing northern Gaza as instructed by the Israeli military, no international journalists were present to look into the issue.

The few journalists inside Gaza have also had to do their work while suffering from all the deprivations the Palestinians face, notably Israel’s cutting off of water, food, power and electricity. The stress of surviving what many Palestinians have described as the most savage Israeli bombardment ever must also be a monumental challenge.

A huge furore erupted over whether the reports that Hamas had beheaded 40 Israeli babies were accurate. What is clear is that the reports were widely repeated and published on the front pages of many newspapers before Israeli officials had verified the story. That was irresponsible because these images were used to stoke up further anger. To be clear, this does not diminish the horror at the attack – some babies were murdered.  The question is whether journalists were acting responsibly.

Another debate has centred on whether to refer to the Hamas attackers as terrorists. The BBC has stuck to its long-term policy of not using the term, and instead has used the term “militants.” The argument is likely to go on and on. Yet, no Western media outlet has referred to Israel being guilty of state terrorism, which there is certainly an argument for.

However, the most egregious aspect of the coverage has tended to be from the European capitals and the US. Editors and commentators have stoked the flames of anger at Hamas’ attacks but downplayed, belittled, or ignored the crimes Israel has been committing.

One newspaper editor wrote that “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult that sacralises bloodshed. Not all, but many, Muslims are brainwashed by it.” Such anti-Muslim extremism should have seen him shunned by the broadcast media, but this was far from being the case. Such hate speech has heightened tensions between communities. The killing of six-year-old Palestinian Wadea Al-Fayoume in Illinois on 15 October, stabbed 26 times, highlights the risks. Many Jews also feel terrified.

The historical context has been totally lacking in most coverage. Viewers and readers might be forgiven if they thought the conflict started on 7 October. They might be left completely unaware that the Palestinians in Gaza were under a blockade. For Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, war is a daily reality. Occupation is an aggression. Only a few articles have referred to the situation of occupation and blockade that 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza had been enduring. Too many were scared that looking to explain might be seen to justify.

Few media outlets seriously question the Israeli imposition of a siege. All too often, they have reflected the political leaderships of their respective countries, who hid behind the position that Israel had the right to self-defence. There were even some columns justifying the siege, a position devoid of humanity and morality.

Palestinian voices have also often been ignored, as has so often been the case in this conflict. Their narrative has been barely evident. When a Palestinian representative has appeared in the media, the pressure on him or her to condemn Hamas has been intense, whereas those supporting Israel have never had the same pressure to condemn Israel’s mass bombardment or siege.

Attending various events, it has been clear to me that the media were largely trying to catch pro-Palestinian types putting out statements that appeared to be in support of Hamas.

All too often, Hamas has been portrayed as somehow representing all Palestinians. One BBC report said that all the Israeli army’s guns were pointed at Hamas, defying the reality as to what has been happening, in that they were also pointing at Palestinian civilians.

Another factor that has affected the coverage is the blanket wall-to-wall backing for Israel among the Western political class. When every Western leader slams Hamas, which is understandable but totally exonerates Israel, it is tough for the media not to be influenced.

One wonders whether as the war continues and more news emanates from the bloody hell that is Gaza, the media coverage will rebalance itself to a degree. All too often, Israel starts losing support because of the very images it creates through its bombing campaigns. For all its polished public relations, the apocalyptic images of a Gaza of rubble and destruction carry the most powerful of messages. Neutral viewers looking at them ask the quite natural question – how can this be justified? This accounts for why so many millions are marching in solidarity with the Palestinians and calling for their freedom.

Even though the Western media coverage is challenging, it has often fallen way below optimum standards. All too often, the media fails to accurately encapsulate the lived reality of Palestinians under occupation and siege. At its worst, the media dehumanises Palestinians in a way that borders on racism. That needs to be addressed.

 

The writer is director of the UK Council for Arab-British Understanding.

 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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