Global coverage of world conflicts pales into insignificance when compared with reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Noah Bernstein explores the causes and consequences of such an imbalance, as part of an OpenDemocracy series, forgotten conflicts.
In a forty-eight hour period beginning on Christmas Eve 2008 the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) killed, dismembered and burned at least 200 Congolese civilians. Soldiers raped women and girls, twisted the heads off babies, and cut the lips and ears off those they did not kill. They hacked the rest to death using machetes or axes. Child soldiers helped abduct other children.
During the same period the Israeli government and Hamas officials entered the final stages of failing ceasefire talks. War was on the horizon, but had not yet begun. An errant Hamas rocket killed two Gazan sisters; otherwise there were no cross-border casualties.
According to AlertNet’s World Press Tracker, the two-day Israeli-Palestinian stand-off was reported in the global media forty times.[i] There were no reports on the LRA massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Over the next three weeks Israel’s incursion into Gaza left 926 Palestinian and three Israeli civilians dead. The global media reported these events 2896 times. In the same period, Joseph Kony’s LRA killed 865 civilians and abducted 160 children. The media reported these events a total of twenty times.
The Western media’s fascination with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long overshadowed death and oppression in other parts of the world. Gilad Shalit and the Qassam rocket are known to many; the death of 5.9 million in the eight-nation Second Congo War is not. Recent Israeli and Palestinian elections were covered worldwide in real-time, while images of genocide in Rwanda and Sudan did not surface until it was too late. Countless articles argue media bias in favour of Israel or the Palestinians, yet few address the media bias towards the conflict itself.
The disproportionate media coverage raises several uncomfortable questions: why were the deaths of Congolese civilians at the hands of the LRA deemed less newsworthy than, in the first instance, crumbling cease-fire talks and, later, the deaths of Palestinian civilians? More generally, why is the west so consumed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what are the consequences of underreporting other conflicts? Finally, can anything be done to redress the media balance so that the rights of all humans – regardless of colour, ethnicity, and geography – are given equal weight?
At first glance, the discrepancy in coverage appears linked to racism: how else to explain the ‘sins of omission’[ii] in Rwanda and Sudan? Or the laissez-faire attitude towards Sierra Leone, Liberia, DRC, and, most recently, the ignored civilian massacres in Guinea and Nigeria?[iii] It is unlikely that the international community would remain silent if hundreds of thousands (or even hundreds) of Palestinians and Israelis were being killed. However, the indifference is not limited to sub-Saharan Africa: conflicts in southeast Asia (Philippines, Thailand), Latin America (Colombia), the Caucasus (Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh), the Balkans (Bosnia), and even North America (Mexico) have been equally ignored.[iv] Consequently, the charge of racism may be misplaced.
Instead, a more plausible explanation is simple self-interest: the geopolitical, ideological, and religious implications of the IPC threaten global harmony. A sharp escalation in violence in Israel or Palestine could spark a regional if not global conflict. In contrast, a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, regardless of casualties, does not carry the same threat to international stability. When Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha’i jostle for position in the Holy Land the religious sensitivities of more than half the world’s population are at stake. Conversely, internecine fighting between the Kikuyu and Luo of Kenya, again regardless of casualties, is seen as a tribal matter of little consequence to the outside world. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been made a proxy for a much larger ideological clash between the west and the Muslim world. Israel is either perceived as a symbol of western imperialist power conducive to western regional interests – particularly those of the much-reviled United States – or as a beacon of democracy in a sea of oppressive Arab pseudo-states. The Palestinians are seen to either represent the menace of the Arab and Muslim world or a David righteously fighting the world’s Goliaths. The framing of the conflict in these ways permits the west to justify its actions in the middle east and allows regional leaders to deflect attention away from their own repressive autocratic regimes. The Israelis and Palestinians are pawns in a greater ideological game, one whose every move is crucial to the national self-interest of every Western, Arab and Muslim country alike.
It is clear then that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isimportant and that the global media have an obligation to closely monitor the ongoing turmoil. However, while the conflict is undeniably significant, the human rights violations that occur in Israel-Palestine are of no greater comparative importance than those that occur elsewhere. Yet the global media does not make this crucial distinction and instead conflates the two. For example, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be of greater global interest than the LRA’s activities, the rights of the 865 civilians killed in the DRC are as important as the 929 civilians killed in the Gaza conflict. Consequently, while these explanations account for disproportionate media coverage, they do not justify it.
Still, arguments are made that the human rights of those involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are distinct from others and need to be prioritized. However, each attempted justification reveals contradictions when compared to past and ongoing conflicts.
I. Special responsibility
One justification for the media’s fixation is that the world, and the west in particular, bear a unique responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they abetted the creation of a state for one displaced people by displacing another. However, if a sense of post-partition or post-colonial responsibility is the justification then what of Pakistan and India? Kashmir, another tragic by-product of colonial mapmaking, has largely flown under the Western media radar despite the deaths of 67,000 civilians since a rebellion broke out in the Himalayan region in 1989. The conflict is over a territory twenty times the size of Israel and the Palestinian territories, involves twice as many people, and has resulted in ten times as many deaths. There are other post-partition losers – Nigeria, Ethiopia and Western Sahara, for example – who do not attract the same media spotlight despite heavy civilian casualties and rampant oppression. If the west feels a moral obligation towards Palestinians and Israelis, then a similar obligation should be felt towards the hundreds of millions of others whose lives were also permanently disrupted due to historical western interference.
II. Democratic accountability
A second justification for the media’s dogged attention is that Israel as a democracy is accountable to higher standards of behaviour – most importantly on human rights. Their actions deserve magnification, hence global media attention. However, if membership in the club of democracies demands greater media scrutiny, then Sri Lanka – a democracy of 20 million – should have featured as heavily in the media during and especially after its war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in early 2009. AlertNet’s World Press Tracker points in a different direction. The daily average of global headlines for the two conflicts during hostilities is severely unbalanced: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on average, received 148 per day; Sri Lanka/LTTE, on average, 29 per day. The contrast is more disturbing when considering the civilian death toll: hostilities between January and May of 2009 left 20,000 Sri Lankan civilians dead. Both cases involved a government force attacking a terrorist group[v] in areas dense with civilians. Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict featured in global media five times more often frequently, despite the death of twenty times more civilians in Sri Lanka. [vi]
The average number of daily headlines for the two-week period following the end of hostilities is equally disproportionate: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict received 75 per day; Sri Lanka/LTTE, 19 per day, the latter conflict falling off the media map almost entirely. This is particularly disturbing as both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE also stand accused of war crimes. Israel and Hamas’ alleged war crimes received intense media follow-up and a UN inquiry. The UN and the international community condemned the LTTE – accused of using civilians as human shields – and the Sri Lankan government – accused of executing unarmed Tamil prisoners of war and shelling hospitals and schools – but this was hardly picked up on by the western media. The UN has not initiated a war crimes probe as of 10 March 2010. In this instance, democracy did not lead to greater accountability.
III. Extreme oppression and suffering
A third justification is that the oppression suffered by the Palestinians warrants disproportionate media attention. Indeed, suffering incurred by Palestinians should be exposed so as to foster change. However, their cause should not overshadow the plight of the other 35 million refugees and 24.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide. Millions of Central African refugees who live in constant fear of rebel and government attack are oppressed. Millions of Burmese IDPs with little or no freedom, including the right to leave their country, are oppressed. Yet their plight rarely receives international exposure.
Since 1980, total civilian deaths in the Sri Lankan conflict have been fifty times that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Kashmir has seen one hundred times more civilians killed; and the conflict in the DRC has claimed five thousand times more lives than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Death tolls alone are not a barometer of oppression. However, other indicators can be used to contextualize human suffering. For example, the UNDP’s human development index, which measures ’health, knowledge, and standard of living’, ranks the Palestinian territories higher than every sub-Saharan African country, including South Africa.[vii] The index places the Palestinians in the ‘high human development’ category for adult literacy rates (93.8%), life expectancy at birth (73.3 years), and malnourished children (3%). In all categories, the territories ranked higher than all south Asian and Arab countries, and even outpaced Brazil, Russia (adult literacy notwithstanding), India, and China. Even after Israel’s invasion of Gaza, World Health Organization representative Mahmoud Daher stated that the territory 'is, of course, crowded and poor, but it is better off than nearly all of Africa as well as parts of Asia. There is no acute malnutrition, and infant mortality rates compare with those in Egypt and Jordan’’.[viii] Average aggregate GDP per capita in the Palestinian territories ($4,400 in the Gaza Strip[ix], $2,800 in the West Bank[x]) is greater than eighty other countries including Albania, Armenia, Morocco, Uruguay, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Viet Nam. These inconvenient truths are not intended to diminish the Palestinian right to freedom of movement, trade and a homeland: the aim is simply to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into global perspective and to promote a more equitable coverage of global suffering.
IV. Type of Conflict
A final justification for disproportionate media attention is that the IPC is an ongoing national liberation movement rather than a civil war.[xi] This line of reasoning raises two problems. First, there exist other ongoing wars of national liberation involving large-scale death and destruction that receive little or no media coverage. Second, coming full circle, the type of conflict cannot be conflated with human rights violations: individuals are equal under international human rights law.
Other national liberation movements
The struggle to free Tibet has claimed one million lives, many of them horrifically, since 1959.[xii] In pre-Olympic violence in March of 2008, Chinese police shot dead 140 protesting Tibetans. The events did make global headlines, but the coverage ended once the Olympics did – despite the continuation of human rights abuses.
The conflict in Chechnya, classified as an national liberation movement by several groups[xiii], has left 60,000 Chechen civilians dead since 1994. The Russians have massacred civilians and assassinated Chechen politicians, while the Chechens have launched suicide attacks and sown terror – violence similar to that withnessed in Israel-Palestine yet largely unreported.[xiv]
Western Sahara is a national liberation movement where the Sahrawi people reject Morocco’s 1974 annexation of the former Spanish colony. A 2,700 km wall (the Berm, or Wall of Shame), constructed by Morocco in the 1980s, divides the country. It is manned by Moroccan armed forces, limiting the movement of the Sahrawi. The US, the EU, the AU, and the UN do not recognize Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. AlertNet has a record of three international headlines for the conflict during the whole of 2009, all linked to Sahrawi human rights activist Aminatou Haidar’s month-long hunger strike in a Spanish airport. The number of casualties in the conflict is ‘only’ in the low hundreds, but its similarities with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – including human rights abuses on both sides – demonstrate that national liberation movements do not necessarily receive an equal place under the global media spotlight.
Human rights law
Differentiating – and prioritizing – a certain type of conflict over another ignores the fundamental concept of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention: a civilian oppressed or killed in any part of the world under any illegal circumstances represents a human rights violation. Every individual is entitled to the same protection under international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law regardless of the intensity or breadth of the conflict causing their deadly or oppressive circumstances. This includes the 150,000 Liberians killed in the civil war of 1999-2003, the 300,000 North Koreans starved or worked to death in gulags since 2005, and the 37,000 Kurds killed by Turkish forces since 1984. Yet there were few protests in European and North American cities over Liberia, nor have any UN resolutions been passed on behalf of the North Koreans, and there have been no calls for divestment of Turkish assets. The fact that none received media coverage proportionate to that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite vastly higher casualty numbers and thoroughly oppressive conditions, conveys a clear message to these victims: their human rights are secondary to the rights of more favoured individuals.
Further, individual victims of human rights abuses who have no internal mechanism for recourse are more vulnerable than victims of formal conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, women stoned to death for suspected adultery[xv], men publicly executed for suspected homosexuality[xvi], albinos killed for body parts[xvii], lesbians ‘correctively raped’[xviii], or adults and children used as slaves[xix] - these isolated groups can all have their safety enhanced through increased international media attention. Yet advocacy on their behalf through the media (and even by human rights groups) is minimal when compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving them out of sight and, consequently, out of mind.
Ultimately, there is no justification for the media’s preferential coverage of human rights abuses in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The immediate consequences of this conflict bias are the further polarisation of an already fragile divide and the export of its inflammatory politics to the rest of the world. An indirect but equally important consequence is that the media attention helps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict command a disproportionate chunk of global humanitarian aid, to the detriment of refugees and internally displaced persons around the globe. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the forefront of the public consciousness, dozens of other conflicts involving hundreds of millions of people are almost entirely ignored.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides education, health care, social services and emergency aid to 400,000 Palestinians. There exists no other UN agency dedicated solely to refugees from a specific region or conflict. The rest of the sixty million refugees and internally displaced persons around the globe rely on the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). In 2000, UNRWA spent $72 per Palestinian while the UNHCR spent $53 per capita on refugees from the rest of the world, an inexplicable shortfall of 25%. The UNRWA claims it is underfunded and makes repeated funding appeals to its two main donors – the United States and the European Union.[xx]
Israel is the largest recipient of US aid in the world, topping 2.5 billion dollars in 2009. Although the majority of aid is tied to military spending, this works out to more than $400 per Israeli. In 2006, Israel received 12% of all US foreign assistance,[xxi] the same proportion as the whole of Africa (minus Egypt). For reference, the population of Israel is 7.3 million. The African continent is home to over 1 billion. GDP per capita in Israel is $28,900 while the average African GDP is under $3,000. With 300 million Africans living below the poverty line and 27% of their children malnourished, it is not difficult to argue that US aid is closely tied to its own interests and not to where it is needed most. [xxii]
The tragedy of disproportionate aid is that it perpetuates the conflict – perhaps intentionally – providing little incentive for leaders to move beyond the status quo.[xxiii] Military aid to Israel has fostered belligerence, political rigidity, and a regional arms race. Israeli governments act with impunity knowing that the US is loath to withdraw aid. The UNRWA has propped up governments dedicated to violence, seen millions of dollars siphoned off by officials, and has employed known terrorists.[xxiv] Former UNRWA general-counsel James G. Lindsay stated in 2009 that the UNRWA 'has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of organizations such as Hamas from joining its staff. [...] No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services.’[xxv] Accordingly, Canada redirected aid earmarked for the UNRWA to projects strengthening the Palestinian judicial system to "ensure accountability and foster democracy.’’[xxvi] In short, not only does disproportionate aid leave millions of others worse off, it helps reinforce intransigence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and makes its continuation more likely.
The greatest consequence of disproportionate media coverage is that many conflicts involving gross violations of human rights never reach the public consciousness. As demonstrated above, the rights of Liberians, Sudanese, Sri Lankans, North Koreans, Rwandese, Colombians, Congolese, Guineans, Burmese, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Mexicans, Tibetans, Chechens, Sahrawis, Kurds, Kashmiris, and even those of Palestinians outside the Occupied Territories[xxvii] have been largely ignored. While the slightest event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (such as the building of an Israeli museum on top of the parking lot of a fifteenth century Palestinian cemetery) is covered in nearly every major western newspaper, ongoing human rights abuses in the rest of the world (such as the continued killing of Sudanese civilians) do not. CNN International’s one year retrospective on the 'War in Gaza'[xxviii] is a fitting example: during the show, two statistics scrolled by at the bottom of the screen '...15,000 civilians estimated dead in Mexico drug wars... 225,000 child slaves in Haiti...’ That these disturbing realities were only afforded a short strip of ticker tape, while a year old conflict was the subject of an entire programme, is further evidence that the western media’s fascination with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outstrips that of any other conflict today, regardless of the scale of human rights abuses.
Redressing the media balance will not be simple: after decades of reinforcement, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is firmly entrenched in our hearts and minds. However, if one conflict can turn so many heads, so can others. The international media reaction to Darfur, while too late, likely stopped further atrocities and was an indication that diversification of human rights coverage is possible.
Unfortunately, most conflicts do not have enough geopolitical, ideological, or religious significance to trigger a global response. However, as outlined above, global media consumers are motivated to act on behalf of others when self-interest and compassion are present. For example, the death of 8,000 foreigners in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami led to massive international media coverage and aid mobilisation which continued for years. Books were written and films were made. In contrast, cyclone Nargis (which killed at least 150,000 Burmese) received widespread media attention, however, the death, destruction, and eventual famine faded from global headlines as western interests were not apparent and the regret and compassion felt quickly dissipated. While difficult to manufacture, these sentiments can be communicated through various conduits, by images and world leaders.
A single image from the Ethiopian famine of 1984 sparked an unparalleled response from the international community. Since then, horrific and shocking images of suffering are required if a natural disaster or conflict is to penetrate the public consciousness. Both the Palestinians and Israelis harness this potential expertly. Unfortunately, other conflicts are unable to generate images due to lack of access and material. There were no images of the LRA massacre in DRC because there were no reporters. ‘You cannot fight for what you do not see,’ was the reply of a Congolese villager when asked if he begrudged the world for ignoring his plight. Similarly, there were few images of the 20,000 dead Sri Lankan civilians due to government media restrictions. However, citizen journalism – whereby civilians are armed with smart technology that can easily diffuse images of suffering – has proven to be an effective awareness-raising technique that compensates for a lack of access and material.[xxix]
However, even if images are produced they are often ineffectual on the receiving end due to information overloads and desensitization. The competition between tragedies is fierce and can quickly overwhelm the media consumer to the point of inaction. One awareness-raising method that has proven to be remarkably effective is using world leaders to diffuse messages. Particularly powerful is the celebrity-as-spokesperson approach. While it may seem trivial, the level of importance the world attributes to its celebrities should not be underestimated.[xxx] Concerts for debt relief, telethons for earthquake victims, and special UN goodwill ambassadors have all proven exemplary at helping causes rise from obscurity and into the living room of the mass media consumer.
Once images are generated – and world leaders and celebrities attached to them – they can be used as tools by activists and diasporas to instigate change. Again, Palestinians and Israelis demonstrate that this method can be exceptionally effective for publicizing discontent. The cynic, of course, would argue that the media is a vehicle of the agenda-setting elite and that any attempt to breach the hegemony is futile. While pushing unheralded stories through various media channels is not easy, recent and anti-war and anti-globalisation demonstrations have shown it is possible. In addition, recent campaigns by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have confirmed civil society’s importance in public debate and demonstrated that if communal will is strong enough, changes of perception are possible.
The debate surrounding humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect has stalled. In the meantime, soft power in the form of the global media should be used to ensure equal representation. This will, in turn, ignite public opinion and promote change without infringing on state sovereignty. While perfectly representative coverage would be difficult to achieve, proportionate diversified coverage is entirely possible.
This does not imply that support for Palestinians or Israelis should be abandoned; only that it should be shared with those who are ignored. If our moral code guides us in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict then let it be our beacon elsewhere as well. Concern for human rights needs to stretch beyond a small patch of land in the middle east.
This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net
[i] For Alertnet methodology: http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/chart/mediamonitoringmethodology.htm
[iii] According to AlertNet, 5 articles were written in the three days after 157 Guinean protestors were killed by government troops.
[iv] Genocide in Bosnia. Georgia attacking its own population, Russia invading another sovereign country without UNSC approval- neither pursued once the conflict terminated. 15 000+ drug-war related deaths in Mexico since 2005. FARC conflict in Colombia ongoing since 1964. South Thailand insurgency. Moro uprising in the Philippines. 30 000 dead in Nagorno-Karabakh since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Armenia/Azerbaijan)
[v] The European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States consider the LTTE a terrorist organisation. The European Union, Canada, Japan and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. The United Kingdom and Australia classify only Hamas' independent military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades as a terrorist organization.
[vi] While it is difficult to compare conflicts, similarities can be found between the conflicts: both are long-standing struggles relating to identity and claims on territory. In such cases an acceptable measure of comparing conflict intensity has traditionally been, but is not exclusive to, death tolls.
[xi]The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can by definition be labelled a civil war in that it is between two nations created from a formerly-united entity– the British mandate of Palestine. The aim of one side may be to take control of the nation or a region, to achieve independence for a region, or to change government policies.
[xiii] Sakwa, Richard (2005), Chechnya: From Past to Future, p. 208. Anthem Press.
[xv] Somalia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Afghanistan
[xvi] Chad, Sudan, Niger, Mauritania; 225 000 child slave labourers in Haiti
[xvii] Iran, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan
[xviii] South Africa
[xix] Tanzania, Kenya, DRC, Burundi
[xx] 53% of the UNRWA’s budget comes from the US and the EU; 2% comes from Arab countries.
[xxi] 2006, just under 6 billion USD
[xxii] GDP excluding island nations; 2005
[xxiii] Scholars who have argued in this vein: Lefkovitz, Etgar. "US congressmen demand UNRWA reform." Jerusalem Post. 27 May 2008; "Perpetuating refugees." ProQuest Archiver. 12 February 2007; Spyer, Jonathan. "UNRWA: Barrier to Peace." Bar-Ilan University. 27 May 2008; Romirowsky, Asaf and Jonathan Spyer. "How UNRWA creates dependency." Middle East Forum. 3 December 2007.
[xxviii] December 27, 2009
[xxx] The suggestion recently that Irish rock-star Bono should be the next director of the World Bank demonstrates the power celebrities wield