By Irfan Raja
The incessant Israeli atrocities in the occupied territories particularly in the Gaza-strip had reached to its boiling-point on 27th of December 2008. That year’s Christmas brought sad news to both Christians and the Muslims living in the region.
The 22-days long unlawful invasion and blockade of Gaza-Strip had left millions in grief and sorrow around the world. The whole world had witnessed one of the most terrible versions of the press freedom and human rights violations committed by the army that is heavily equipped with deadly smart weapons including the nukes.
Between 2009 and 2014 Israeli forces assaulted Gaza three times under following names: Operation Cast Lead’ (2009); ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ (2012) and ‘Operation Protective Edge’ (2014). These military campaigns led to cause one of the biggest human crises in the region since the World War I and II. The careful use of a phrase ‘operation’ suggest an ‘act of surgery’ against radical forces responsible to fire rockets at Israeli population.
Hence, ‘self-defence’ rhetoric gets a legitimate cover thus by avoiding words ‘aggression’ or ‘attack’ that describe a violent action. The battle between a well-trained regular army equipped with smart weapons and radical forces Hamas, the Palestinian Jihad and Al-Qassam Brigade capable of launching home-made rockets resulted in blockades, mayhem and worse civilian atrocities and sufferings.
During the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ the Israeli authorities had used every repulsive method to stop international journalists to report its brutal actions against innocent civilians. Because of this dictatorial approach towards journalism, according to the ‘Reporters without Borders’, Press Freedom Index (2009) Israel’s ranking dropped from 46 places to 93rd out of 180 countries.
Despite such bad press freedom reputation, ever since Israel’s 2008 brutal invasion of the Gaza, it continues to control the media, supresses aid workers and harshly target the international campaigners and including the UN agency members in Gaza which continues today in one form or another.
In recent years, new media have become the significant channel for the production, dissemination and provision of news particularly in places where the mainstream media is either banned or severely constrained.
New media have emerged as a challenger that provides a pathway to campaigning bloggers, activists and politically motivated individuals and groups to utilize a range of alternative platforms to debate, discuss, disseminate and share “restricted” information.
These platforms include Facebook, Frobes.com, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Demotix, Vimeo, NowPublic, Mahalo, Global Voices and Crisis Wire. A recent PEW study reveals that 92% of teens go online daily using smartphones that include 24% those use online sources “almost constantly” (PEW, 2015). But despite growing influence of new media yet no one can deny the enormous role and influence of the mainstream media.
According to a British journalist Phil Rees the role of the new media has been exaggerated precisely because it has not challenged the news agenda. It did not challenge a simplistic, often inaccurate perspective (a pro-Western, democracy seeking majority fighting a religious extremist and oppressive regime). Moreover, the social media was used only by the well-off, often Westernised groups and the forty percent who live in the countryside as well as the many poor urban dwellers were largely ‘disenfranchised’ by the social media. In that sense, the social media’s role is unrepresentative. Complex political dynamics cannot be explained in 100 words on Twitter (Interview with the Author, 2011).
To be fair, the media is polemic and in regards to Israeli-Palestinian enduring conflict some sections of the western media has shown through their reporting that not all the media are bias. An eminent Jewish Professor Norman Finkelstein argues, The point about the new media is not that it sets the news agenda; rather, because of the new media, the mainstream media no longer set the agenda: the mainstream media must now compete for an audience with the new media (Interview with Author, 2011).
Although the conflict has changed enormously in recent years as new media has gained decisive role in covering conflicts around the globe, the media disparity lies in a “conspiracy theory” that may or may not be correct that all the major media outlets are directly or indirectly controlled by the strong Jewish lobby.
But to hold the entire journalist community responsible for such acts would certainly be unfair and a denial of the objective position of journalists who stood the attitude of the Israeli government and even to their organizations. The IDF shooting of Raffaele Ciriello, James Miller, Imad Ghanem, Fadel Shana and others illustrated Israel’s harsh media strategies.
Over the last five years, both sides made excessive use of social media to reach out the world. In doing so, both sides have achieved a considerable success in raising their point of view using various resources including diplomatic and political support within Europe and America in particular.
The Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008 following an attack on an aid ship Flotilla captured the attention of new media, primarily because the Israeli establishment banned mainstream media outlets from entering the disputed Gaza territory. In the Flotilla case, people on board reported the incident, even though cameras were destroyed and films were confiscated.
News of the incident reached the world and both sides used new media to manipulate public opinion. During the Gaza conflict, news was so channelled through social media that many viewed this phenomenon as watershed moment. Jon Burg described the Gaza assault as, “The World First Social Media War” (Burg, 2009, p. 1). In a same vein, Moeed Ahmad, head of new media at Al-Jazeera branded the conflict as “War 2.0” (Flora TV, 2009).
During the attack on Flotilla the eyewitness account reaches to the entire world as Ewa Jasiewicz, Just getting up to the minute information out but, it’s hard, the Israelis bombed the transmitters for phones and internet in the North of the strip, where I was most of the time, so, there was no tweeting or emailing or even calls I could make or take, not me or anyone else, so, there are some violent facts on the ground that can put the brakes on the means of communication during conflicts – i.e. fighter jets bombing the hell out of communication systems and targeting journalists. If the satellite communications were demonstrated that would be a different story (Interview with Author, 2011).
The most revealing accounts of human tragedy at the hands of those once themselves experienced horrific genocide, gassed and inhuman tortures were the thousands of pictures of innocent children with their bodies torn into pieces, blood-soaked women and men floated on Twitter and Facebook displaying the horrors, destruction and mayhem of war. About the role of social media Greta told me,
“There is no doubt that people’s perception of the conflict (if that is what you want to call a 67 year attempt at slow motion genocide of the Palestinians) has been changed dramatically. I have been involved in justice for Palestine since 1967. No one knew then what a Palestinian was. Thanks to social media, that equation has changed tremendously with people around the world now joining in to the BDS movement. BDS could not have been successful without alternative media getting the message out to them. I’ve been told that the majority of people under 35 only use social media for their news” (Interview with the Author, 2015).
The havoc in Gaza raises resentment among ordinary people in Britain, America and European countries. For instance, in Britain, on political spectrum, a minister at the foreign office, Baroness Warsi resigns describing Britain’s Middle East policy as “morally indefensible”. Later on the storm of criticism went further when the Irish Minister Sherlock pledges to continue Irish support for the Palestinian along with another Irish senator David Norris who objects Israel atrocities in his speech to parliament (31 July 2014).
Relatively, another major event that attracts the attention of thousands of The Guardian readers first that led to social media debate was the UN spokesman Chris Gunness who cries on camera over Gazan children horrific conductions. This single incident was shared by 43K people (meaning thousands) on various social media websites including Twitter and Facebook (See The Guardian, 31 July 2014).
A prominent British journalist Yvonne Ridley experiences a similar event in Gaza that she explained to me as, I felt emotionally damaged sitting for two hours watching the activities of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in the West Bank. It was a traumatizing experience and now I understand why so many Palestinian women die in childbirth and/or give birth at Israeli checkpoints. I tried to reason with one soldier – an Argentinean – to allow an ambulance through. We could hear a woman screaming inside but he remained impassive. I could not believe there wasn’t an ounce of humanity in him for this woman (Interview with Author, 2015).
These stories provide a diverse picture of the on-ground realities to people in faraway places who are eager to know about the conflict. It is evident that there has been a phenomenal rise in the use of social media platforms particularly in Gaza because of limited resources and mainstream media not being readily available.
Professor Noha Mellor has raised few interesting points, Social media in the MENA region, as elsewhere, serve as new platforms for virtual conversations, and these tend to become quite heated during crisis situations, such as the Gaza conflict in July-August, 2014. Both sides were highly active on social media sites, to rally support for their causes. Hamas’s Twitter account showed distressing images of dead and injured children in the Gaza Strip. Numerous hashtags appeared on Twitter, as part of Hamas’s crusades such as #GazaUnderAttack, #StopIsrael and #PrayforGaza. However, as Gilad Lotan argued, supporters of either party had access to social media campaigns tailored to their preferences, thereby propagating personalised propaganda (see here)” (Interview with author, 2015).
No doubt, the significant rise in the new media has given new life to Israel-Palestine old-age conflict which is happening not only in the Middle East but in European cities and on the internet. Today, there are evidently more sympathisers of Gazans in the European cities and political circles even though the PR machine is still in control of powerful Israeli authorities and lobbying groups who can easily fire journalists and politicians for raising their voices in favour of Palestinians.
– Irfan Raja is a freelance journalist from Pakistan who hols MA in International Journalism from Leeds University and a PhD from the University of Huddersfield. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.