‘Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” — George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language.’
By Roger Sheety
"On June 5, 2011 more than 20 Palestinians were murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces as they marched alongside Syrian protesters towards the border of the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. The protesters were unarmed, carrying only signs and flags."
That is how a news story on the murder and maiming of scores of Palestinian and Syrian refugees near the Golan on June 5 could have begun—in plain, simple language and without obfuscation. Instead the mainstream North American news media took great pains to convince their readers and viewers that Israeli soldiers armed with the latest and most sophisticated American-made weapons did not open fire on unarmed Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators, that it was really the protesters’ own fault if they were shot, that, in short, murder was not murder.
A typical example of this sort of reporting was Martin Seemungal’s coverage for CTV News in Canada. Seemungal is a veteran, award-winning journalist and currently the CTV News Middle East bureau chief. Let us examine Seemungal’s story line by line against both the reality on the ground and a few well-established historical facts.
“Israeli soldiers fired on Syrian protesters trying to breach the border in the frontier of Golan Heights on Sunday, leaving at least 20 people dead and hundreds wounded. Hundreds of Syrian activists, joined by Palestinians, approached the border to mark the anniversary of the Six Day War.”
Fact: the protesters were both Palestinian and Syrian refugees, expelled from their homes and ancestral lands by the Israeli state and they were unarmed, two points not mentioned. Fact: the Golan Heights is recognized by international law as Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. Exactly which border were the unarmed demonstrators “breaching”? Certainly not Israel’s. Later in the story, Seemungal uses the term “Israel-controlled Golan” and even later he writes that the Golan was “seized” from Syria in the 1967 war. Nowhere, however, does he use the clear, concrete phrase, “Israeli-occupied Golan.” In other words, he prefers soft obfuscation instead of solid clarity.
“As the activists marched on the trench and barb-wire line that separates the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights from Syria, Israeli forces had warned them to turn away. The Israeli soldiers ‘shouted at them, warned them to stop and that they were endangering their lives if they pressed forward,’ CTV’s Martin Seemungal, reporting from Ramallah in the West Bank, told CTV News Channel. When Israeli forces opened fire, many demonstrators panicked and ran, but dozens more continued heading toward the trench, shouting ‘shahid,’ or ‘martyr.’”
This piece is another remarkable evasion of reality. Apparently, it was the demonstrators’ own fault that they were shot because they were warned beforehand by Israeli snipers. It does not occur to Seemungal that the demonstrators were not actually doing anything deserving of being fired upon by a foreign, occupying army. Further, he implies that the protesters somehow wanted to be shot because they were “shouting shahid or martyr.” This is low-level Orientalism not even worthy of Thomas Friedman.
“There was an order from the chief of the Israeli Defense Force that they would try not to use lethal ammunition — that they would fire into the air, fire tear gas and rubber bullets — and as a last resort they would shoot at the lower part of the body," said Seemungal. "So it’s very unclear how these deaths actually happened."
Both the substance and tone of Seemungal’s language throughout the piece is passive and innocuous to the point of naivety, but here we arrive to the most concretely deluded aspect of this story. It is as if this reporter truly has no idea just how these poor unfortunates were killed. He is dumbfounded, an innocent abroad it seems. A typical strategy by most Western media journalists on Palestine/Israel disguised as being objective is to report “both sides” of the story as if both sides were on equal terms. In this case, though, Seemungal doesn’t even bother to go through the motions of this faked objectivity, he simply ignores the Palestinian/Syrian side altogether and quotes in full the claims (that is, lies) of the IDF. Thus the unarmed Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators are non-persons in his report and are not allowed to speak. The IDF soldiers, on the other hand, are humanized: they really did not want to shoot anyone; they fired tear gas, rubber bullets, fired into the air, and so “it’s very unclear how these deaths actually happened.” In reality, it is very clear how these deaths actually happened—the demonstrators were murdered in cold blood.
“Israel is blaming the incident on Syria, accusing its neighbour to the north of trying to divert attention from its violent crackdowns on internal unrest. ‘This is an attempt to divert international attention from the bloodbath going on in Syria,’ said Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokesperson. ‘In the end, we are guarding our border,’ she said. ‘I wish they had obeyed our verbal warnings, but they chose instead to clash with the soldiers.’”
Here Seemungal repeats verbatim the official Israeli state propaganda on the matter without any substantiation or questioning whatsoever. He does not speak to any Syrian official nor (again) does he speak to any Palestinian or Syrian civilian who witnessed or took part in the demonstration. Note too, the use of the word “clash” by the Israeli military spokesman. A clash implies two equally violent sides fighting each other on a battlefield. This was simply not true in this case.
In all fairness, Seemungal’s dehumanized and decontextualized reporting is not the worst I have seen. Far more egregious was the yellow journalism which characterized North American media when Israel attacked the besieged Gaza Strip murdering more than 1400 Palestinians in December 2008/January 2009. Or when Israel attacked Lebanon and murdered more than 1200 Lebanese during that war in June 2006. Or when the mighty United States and its allies savagely attacked and occupied Iraq in 2003, murdering and injuring hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians in the process. No, Seemungal’s story is merely representative of the kind of bland, ethically indifferent and often morally objectionable reporting which today passes for journalism in both Canadian and American corporate media outlets. It is the type of journalism that shows contempt towards both its subject and its readers.
Since journalism is an art, it seems that William Hazlitt was right after all, that the arts are not progressive. Indeed, so regressive and backwards has mainstream journalism become in North America, especially when it comes to reporting on the Arab peoples, that it can no longer distinguish between right and wrong, between occupier and occupied, between colonizer and colonized, between state propaganda and historical truth.
As I read Seemungal’s report, I recalled another quote by Orwell: “To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.” It appears that far too many Canadian and American mainstream journalists, particularly when it comes to Palestine, have long ago given up that struggle.
– Roger Sheety is a writer and researcher. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.