Merry Christmas, Mr. Messi, and Salaams to the People of Gaza

By Hassen Lorgat

Argentina and Messi’s won the – most pro-Palestinian – World Cup of Football, where African and Arab teams generally excelled. The king of football, Lionel Messi too, was draped in the Arabian garb of honor, the bisht, which caused a media frenzy in the Western world. It had more hits than the more substantial statements by this footballer, who won the one prize that eluded him for all of his playing career.

When Lionel Messi was playing for FC Barcelona, he said something modest but truthful, buried from the media. I remember it clearly. It was a few years ago whilst I was visiting family in the mountainous region of Aragón in 2014. We were then gathered just before the family lunch to catch a bit of the TV News. There he was Messi. Nothing unusual as I expected it was about football, given that Messi is generally not very talkative. About football and anything else. But our ears were raised when he spoke out against the impacts of “wars” on vulnerable children.

The timing was clear to many of us engaged in the solidarity movements. The Israeli Defence Force launched their attack on Gaza on 8 July 2014 under the name Operation Protective Edge, which resulted in the injuries and deaths of thousands of Palestinians. In 2015 the NGO Save the Children reported in The Guardian in their study, “A Living Nightmare: Gaza One Year On”, that “551 children were killed and 3,436 were injured, of whom 10% suffered permanent disability.

One Israeli child was killed during the war, and 270 injured”.Furthermore, The Guardian noted that “three-quarters of Gaza’s children experience unusual bedwetting regularly, the report says, while 89% of parents report that their children suffer constant feelings of fear, and more than 70% of children say they are worried about another war. Seven out of 10 children interviewed now suffer regular nightmares.”

When writing his message, Messi could not have known the full extent of the devastation on the people of Gaza and occupied Palestine. At that time, Al Arabiya English reported: “Gaza Strip where a month of fighting has claimed nearly 1,900 Palestinian lives”.

2014 was also a year after that ill-conceived tour of FC Barcelona, which they called a Peace Tour whose aims, they naively believed, were to “create bonds between the Palestinians and Israelis”. All they did was fall foul of Zionist propaganda as Netanyahu stole the day over Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians. Here FCB was wrong as they had to demand that the oppressor stop killing children, end the blockade, and to defend, alongside wider civil society organizations, the right of Palestinians to determine their own destiny.

Messi’s Call

The now World Cup winner and Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi dared to defend the rights of children in conflict areas – especially those in Gaza – with this simple message, caring, and in solidarity which read:

“Children did not create this conflict, but they are paying the ultimate price,” and urged that “this cycle of senseless violence must stop. We must reflect on the consequences of military conflicts and children must be protected.”

The message was supported by this photo.

What I want to do now is to explain a little bit about the context of Spanish media, particularly sports media, and how such a powerful and wealthy elite’s message can be downed out. The answer is clearly Palestine. Freedom of speech on any and everything but Palestine, it seems. Let us look briefly at the ownership, power, and influence of Spanish media and ask why and how this story could have been missed.

Even our beloved Barça TV Live, which featured Messi’s exploits on the field, was spineless in its collusion in the censorship of Palestine. They were censoring not Messi but Palestine. I will return to this but the reader must bear in mind that wealthy and powerful people’s views and opinions at times too may become victims of censorship. That is, when they speak the truth to power. Many take the easy road and stop speaking about justice so that they can stay in the limelight, which is obviously profitable.

When Messi posted the message on his Facebook page, Alarabiya reported that “at least 63,571 fans liked his post while 12,178 others shared it”. But it was clear that hasbara was at play as many tried to bury the story, working day in and day out to soften and silence Messi.

Media in Spain

In this brief exploration, I leave aside the social media scene which is dynamic and powerful and may or may not have carried the story. I will however confirm that it seems to not have gone viral in a country where internet technologies and mobile telephony are at the cutting edge.

When it comes to traditional media, Spain has at least six influential daily sports newspapers. Some of the more influential are Marca, Sport, Marca, Mundo Deportivo, Diario As, L’Esportiu, etc.) alongside TV stations of the big clubs like Barsa and Madrid. There are obviously regional-based papers and influences of language and culture which deepen and complicate any story.

Media ownership is a complex issue and some of the sports papers belong to powerful conglomerates whose tentacles may extend beyond sports and print media. Let us look at the two big Barcelona sports newspapers: SPORT and Mundo Deportivo.

Mundo Deportivo was founded in 1906, and is the oldest sports newspaper still published in Spain. The paper is owned by Grupo Godó, who are also the owners of La Vanguardia, the biggest daily newspaper in Barcelona, and the fourth biggest in Spain (there are three bigger newspapers all based in the capital Madrid). It mostly represents the views of the Catalan bourgeoisie and generally Pro-Catalan.

The other big sports newspaper is Diario Sport or Sport which is part of the Grupo Zeta. It was formed in 1979 and it publishes the second most-read daily newspaper in Catalunya called El Periódico de Catalunya. Recently, I think it seems to be around the more working and upper working class.

Of course, you have daily sports – and here read mainly football – covered on TV and regional news and features, where they all carry those biases. This is alongside the pay channels like beIN Sport, and others provided through deals with the telcos, Orange, Movistar, etc.

Free Speech and the Responsibility of International Media

The Israeli regime’s army of disinformation programmers (including their military) and their supporters are endowed with mega resources as they are diverse and widespread. The Israeli state propaganda called hasbara is subject to major works and cannot be fully explored here in this short space. All that is left to say here is that it is meant to undermine the voice for liberation as represented by the undying resistance for national sovereignty and justice for Palestinians living in exile and under Zionist occupation.

In many parts of the world, but particularly in the UK, Europe (Germany is a hotspot of repression of freedom of Palestinian speech) and many states in North America have tried to criminalize advocacy for Palestinian freedom. In many places, they have attacked the BDS with various smears and, at times, the form presented as “through law” – policy or theory using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s so-called definition that seeks to conflate Israel and Zionism.

Any attack on the Israeli regime and its pernicious and calculated violence against Palestinians is deemed to be anti-semitic. This useless catch-all undermines the struggle against real antisemites. I do not have to tell readers of this platform that Palestinians too are semites, suffice it to say that these attacks on human rights activists are tantamount to a SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) suit. Suits, in this case, take people away from campaigning for justice and anti-racist solidarity with Palestine. Where they have been challenged, SLAPPS were unsuccessful but this has not stopped them in their march to stop freedoms of expression and organization for groups supporting Palestinian freedom.

If you are Palestinian, the repression is often far more brutal and direct. A repression that, in Palestine, results daily in the death and maiming of those who advocate for their own liberation.

I still wonder with the benefit of hindsight now with Ukraine, why CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, The DAWN, the Hindu – all newspapers of note, chose to ignore the story. Then, and now?

To conclude, if the Palestinian haters can do this to Lionel Messi, what about you and me? But things have changed in the world of football and in the streets. People are fighting back and organizing.

So, whilst we have draped Messi in glory and we do not depend on him alone to carry the flags of liberation for Palestine and other oppressed peoples. We, the activists, fans in the stadium and citizens of the world will organize and oppose oppression and exploitation everywhere it rears its head. I am an activist working with the BDS movement and daily we look for creative ways of uniting the oppressed communities in our country with others to resist injustices at home as we build solidarity with Palestine. As I write an email dated 21 December 2022 coming from Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement greets me. Coincidentally it is about the times I have written about above and it reads as follows:

“In 2014, following Israel’s 50-day massacre in Gaza which killed over 2,200 Palestinians, including 526 children, a genocidal chant went viral among the Jewish-Israeli far-right public: “There is no school tomorrow, there are no children left in Gaza. Gaza is a cemetery.” This overtly fascist tendency, rooted in the Zionist settler-colonial project since its inception, was once frowned upon by most Israelis as exposing what most of them really thought. Now it is squarely in the mainstream. Israel’s 74-year-old regime of settler-colonialism, apartheid, and military occupation is finally dropping its last, worn mask, presenting us with an opportunity to further isolate it”

– Hassen Lorgat has worked in trade union movement, civic associations, and anti apartheid sports movement led by the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) as well as NGOs for the past while. He is active with the SA BDS Coalition. He is currently the manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Bench Marks Foundation.

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