Gaza – Conflicts and the current human rights crisis
More than 27,000 people dead and beyond three-fourths of the population displaced. These are the staggering numbers from Gaza since the conflict broke out between Hamas and Israel Defence Forces on 7th October 2023. A serious dearth of food, water, and medicines among other necessities coupled with extremely confined shelters with questionable sanitary conditions has posed a consequential catastrophe in Gaza. Interviewing 11 displaced Palestinians in Gaza, Human Rights Watch reported the scarcity of potable water and the lack of food. The Israeli government is starving civilians in the Gaza Strip by imposing a total blockade, preventing the entry of fuel, water, and food supplies. Reports from the city claim people are eating grass and drinking polluted water. CNN’s interviews with citizens of Gaza further reveal the grave human rights violations in the city. The blockade, coupled with military campaigns bombing Gaza has had a devastating impact on the city and demands the world’s attention.
However, this is not a crisis solely developing since the recent Israel-Hamas conflict. The Chief Economist at the World Food Programme, Arif Hussain, reports that two of every three people in Gaza were dependent on food support before 7th October 2023. The narrow strip of land between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea has suffered endless violence and the vicious cycle of attack and retaliation between Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups. Moreover, owing to this repeated cycle of violence, Gaza’s economic development is hindered. For context, a brief history of 75 years of conflicts in Gaza can be found here. With a traumatic history filled with conflicts and ongoing human rights violations, investigating the media’s representation of the crisis is now pertinent. Therefore, through evidence drawn from the ongoing conflict in Gaza, this essay attempts to illustrate the significance of quality journalism and a non-partisan media landscape.
Media’s Watchdog Role in a Democracy
While public opinion is among a fundamental component of a democracy, citizens lack the expertise to make knowledgeable decisions on complex issues and are therefore heavily influenced by the information provided by the media. Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion” (1922) although written a century ago, argued that public opinion is often irrational as they are manipulated by emotional appeals and largely shaped by the media. Added to this, the public’s opinion of governments and their policies could potentially be flawed owing to their lack of access to public records. Regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, the news media is responsible for bridging this gap between access and knowledge. They are expected to play a watchdog role and are imperative in holding governments, political parties, and representatives accountable while accurately reporting facts without any bias.
In general, however, it is established that news media are for-profit organisations, commanded by market demands, owned, and managed by listed companies and their shareholders, and therefore affiliated with the society’s economic institutions. Simeon Djankov’s study (2003), revealed that media outlets in 97 countries around the world were largely owned by political parties, their leaders, or families closely associated with them. More recent studies illustrate how political elites and organisations like Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Disney, and Time Warner own and control the media, extending their agendas and influencing public opinion. Added to this, media outlets rely heavily on governments for income through advertisements and contacts. Political elites further leverage perception management to propagate discourse about their “good intentions” while ensuring their interests and ideologies are promoted. Through humiliation, lies or uncivil speech and interviews, people in power discredit any arguments or ideologies opposing theirs. This strong association of media with politics and instances of representatives’ and parties’ direct or indirect control over the media and its narrative has consequently resulted in biased reporting and a highly partisan media landscape in what is a competitive market.
Palestine – Historical Context and its Media Landscape
As per reports published by the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics, the total population in mid-2022 was estimated at 5.35 million. In the Gaza Strip specifically, the population was estimated at 2.17 million (40.56% of total population). Since the 7th of October 2023, there have been a total of 27,746 deaths with 27,365 of those in the Gaza Strip itself (figures as per 4th February 2024). A detailed view of casualties, IDPs, damaged infrastructure and more can be found at the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
While over 40 newspapers existed in Palestine by 1939, the British launched the first radio station called Palestine Broadcasting Services (PSB) to counter the existing politicised print media and other emerging small-scale broadcasters. However, the Israeli authorities banned all forms of broadcasting in 1948, creating a communication vacuum in the occupied territories. But the onset of the 1960s witnessed Palestinians in exile broadcasting through other neighbouring state media networks like the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Syria. The first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli government (Intifada) between 1987 to 1993 widened the growth of journalism with international media organisations recruiting local Palestinians. Further, through the 1993 Oslo Accord, for the first time, viewers could watch TV news programmes produced by Palestinians. Although television is now the main source of information for Palestinians, independent broadcasting regulators are not in place. Therefore, Palestinian media outlets are believed to have certain biases based on their political opinions. With a highly controlled media that is constantly being obstructed by political force, foreign media’s accurate representation of the country becomes vital to expose issues to the outside world.
However, to control the narrative, the Israeli government has banned foreign journalists from entering Gaza. Owing to this, a military conflict between 2008-09 which claimed the lives of nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis did not garner adequate attention from the media. While Palestinian journalists in Gaza reported the issue, foreign journalists were stationed on hills outside. However, the subsequent conflicts in 2012 and 2014 that killed 2,000 Palestinians and 72 Israelis gained focus from mainstream media since Israel lifted the ban on foreign journalists, enabling an easier flow of gut-wrenching images from Gaza to the rest of the world. Due to Western mainstream media’s bias and pro-Israel stance, the public opinion in the West was skewed and managed by the media. However, with a rise in internet penetration, social media usage increased and the 2014 conflict witnessed a spike in civic journalism in Palestine. The violence against Palestinians was exposed through images shared widely on social media and for the first time, the people outside Palestine had access to alternative sources of information and reality. Media coverage was obstructed by the Israeli government again during the conflict in May 2021. Reports claimed 37 media buildings were attacked while WhatsApp and Facebook accounts of Palestinian journalists in Gaza were blocked. A complete report of Palestine’s media landscape has been complied and published by CDAC. Throughout these conflicts, Israel attempted to obstruct media coverage and control media narrative in Palestine. Added to this, owing to the Western mainstream media’s pro-Israel stand, Palestinian journalists exposing stories through social media assisted in bridging ground reality to an extent.
Western Mainstream Media and its Coverage of the Conflict
Unlike social media, where what you read is decided by an algorithm, in news media outlets across the world, an event’s newsworthiness or the time and coverage that a potential story deserves is decided through human intervention. Therefore, the editor’s evaluation of newsworthiness is often influenced by a strong inclination to allocate a higher rating to stories that reflect personal viewpoints or ideologies. Added to this, to strengthen the credibility of an event becoming a news, studies suggest news factors are added through strong appeals and texts. While it is justified to prioritise stories based on news factors and newsworthiness for political leverage, to gain more readers or essentially survive in the market since these organisations are for-profit organisations, perpetuating biased news is problematic. As mentioned above, news media is a watchdog of a democracy and hence becomes vital they present fair, accurate and unbiased information to the public. In this case, the West’s coverage of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict has been prejudiced. Emphasis on certain ideologies or viewpoints take precedence, shunning historical context which is paramount while propagating biases.
Dana Najjar and Jan Lietava’s analysis of 600 articles and 4000 live feed posts between 7th October 2023 to 2nd December 2023 revealed a disparity in BBC’s coverage of Israeli and Palestinian deaths. Words like ‘slaughtered’ (Israel-20 : Palestine-0), ‘massacred’ (I-23 : P-1) or ‘murdered’ (I-101 : P1) were linked to Israelis deaths over Palestinians. Further, referring to Israelis, the word “killed” was more likely to be used, characterising Palestinians as an aggressor. On the contrary, “died” was a word generally used to describe Palestinian deaths, eliminating Israel’s military oppression. Some of the examples included “At least 1,300 Israelis were killed, and over 1,400 Palestinians have died in air strikes on Gaza”, and “Some 1,200 people have been killed in Israel, while more than 1,000 have died in retaliatory air strikes on Gaza”. These discrepancies in usage of words revealed a huge bias in describing people from two different nations and significant inconsistencies in BBC’s reporting of the conflict. However, these biases are not limited to BBC only.
Describing attacks conducted by Palestinian militant group on the 7th of October, The Guardian’s headline read “surprise Hamas attack on Israel”. Further reporting Israel’s attack, an article from CBS news read “stunned Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza”. With terms like ‘surprise’, ‘unexpected’ or even ‘stunned Israel’, the historical context of the event is ignored. While media narrative led readers to identify Hamas as an aggressor and that the attack happened unprovoked, years of occupation, exploitation, blockades of resources, bans and restrictions imposed on journalist and Palestinian sufferings were unaccounted for. Here classifying Palestinian resistance as an act of aggression, the subsequent Israeli attacks were only reported as an act of self-defence or retaliation by a government protecting its citizens. A story without any historical context, hence, fails to provide an unbiased report.
The inconsistency in coverage, difference in framing and the lack of historical context are some critical factors that reveal the West’s biased reporting of the Gaza conflict and its human rights violation. Further, the spread of misinformation claiming Hamas militants beheaded babies from Israel and more were promptly reported by the media. However, no evidence of the same were found and they failed their crucial journalistic responsibility of reporting fact-checked and accurate stories. Israel’s claims that have turned into stories without verification has not only significantly damaged journalistic practices, but played a role in the killings of innocent civilians. Further, as per Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 85 journalists have been killed in Gaza while their families are being constantly targeted by Israel. This coupled with restrictions on foreign journalists entering Gaza have created a gap in information with Palestinian journalists like Mota Azaiza attempting to fill the void.
With the growing violation to human rights, and events that will have significant geo-political implications, the Western media has failed to report the ongoing Gaza conflict accurately and without any bias. As mentioned above, while the media outlets have become crucial to expose and break stories to the public owing to Palestine’s complicated media landscape, the West, however, has clearly taken a Pro-Israel stand. This has not only created a gap in knowledge and ground reality, but cost lives in Israel and Palestine. To that end, this essay concludes that the media has failed its vital role as a democracy’s watchdog and reflects on the need for ethical journalistic practices.
About the author …
I’m Pranav Rao, a graduate of MA in Political Communication from the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University. My research interest includes the rise in right-wing populist governments, public opinion and the media’s representation of democracies. Through my research and work, I aim to inspire positive political decisions.