MEDIA SEMINAR ON PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST DISCUSSES CIVIL SOCIETY IN MEDIA AND FILM, AND YOUTH ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL MEDIA
13 June 2012
The 2012 Media Seminar on Peace this morning held two panel discussions in which it explored civil society in media and film in the Middle East, and youth activism in the Middle East: evolving attitudes towards and tools for social change and democracy.
The first panel of the day on civil society in media and film explored how films such as Budrus, Encounter Point and My Neighbourhood had influenced media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian relations and how journalists could be encouraged to cover more of the ‘common experience’ represented by civil society organizations that worked with both Israelis and Palestinians, including via social media. Participants in the seminar noted the transformative power of film, especially where communities had been totally separated from each other, and wondered whether it would be possible to have more films like Budrus with non-violence protest models.
The speakers in the panel were Mira Edelstein, Friends of the Earth Middle East; Sharon Kalimi Misheiker, Website and Social Media Manager of the Parents Circle-Families Forum; Moriel Rothman, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity and Rabbis for Human Rights; and Rula Salameh, Producer, Budrus, Education& Outreach Coordinator, Palestine, Just Vision.
The speakers in the panel on youth activism in the Middle East and tools for social change and democracy cautioned against attributing the Arab Spring to the use of social media and digital platforms only and said that there had been years of grassroots movements in those countries that were helped by the use of these platforms. In Palestine, the social networks and platforms were being built at the moment and it would be reckless to try to gauge how those structures were influencing the conflict right now.
The panelists were Joseph Dana, Journalist, Ramallah; Wessam Hammad, Al Jazeera, Ramallah; Mohammed Omer, Journalist and blogger, Gaza; Omar Rahman, Journalist and commentator, Ramallah; and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Huffington Post Streaming Network.
At 1:45 p.m. this afternoon, a documentary “My Neighbourhood” will be screened, to be followed by a question and answer session with Rula Salameh and Amal Alqasem, after which the 2012 Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East will close.
Panel 4: Civil society in media and film in the Middle East
EDUARDO ULIBARRI-BILBAO, Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the United Nations and Chairman of the United Nations Committee on Information, introduced the panel and the panelists and said that the purpose of this panel was to examine how regional and international media covered civil society activists who worked across boundaries, and explored how films such as Budrus, Encounter Point and My Neighbourhood had influenced media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
MIRA EDELSTEIN, Friends of the Earth Middle East, described the precarious situation of the Jordan River, which at the moment was in fact a sewage canal. There was a problem with the degradation of the eco-system of the Dead Sea too. The work of the Friends of the Earth on water issues in the Middle East had been recognized by the media worldwide. Water could not wait for the peace agreements to be signed by the leaders: it was getting polluted today. In the twentieth century only seven skirmishes had taken place over water, which was an indicator that water could be used as a basis to build peace.
SHARON KALIMI MISHEIKER, Website and Social Media Manager, The Parents Circle-Families Forum, said that several years ago the organization had understood that they needed to be inside social media. One of their main projects was bringing groups of Palestinians and Israelis together to explore national narratives; so far 13 groups like this had taken place. The groups had been followed around by a film crew and a documentary had been made on this reconciliation process which was not always easy. Ms. Kalimi Misheiker then showed the film Two Sided Story.
MORIEL ROTHMAN, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity and Rabbis for Human Rights, said that everything seen in the media was an op-ed or an opinion about peace; everyone had agendas and that was fine. What needed to be done was to put those agendas out in the open. Over the past several years thousands of young Jews had visited Palestine and peacefully protested against the occupation; this was very inconvenient for many media outlets, as it complicated the story which could no longer be told along the line of: We the Jew against them the Palestinians. The world needed more complicated stories and more transparent agendas.
RULA SALAMEH, Producer, Budrus, Education & Outreach Coordinator, Palestine, Just Vision, said she was the first Palestinian journalist for some foreign media outlets during the First Intifada. That was where she understood that Palestinians needed a better approach to the media to highlight the issues and better use the power of the media. Ms. Salameh described how Budrus, the documentary about a popular non-violent resistance movement in the West Bank, came about. This documentary presented a Palestinian model that could be used by Palestinians to train other Palestinians in non-violence and this was a particular source of pride for the producer. Budrus managed to change the image of Palestinians; online search showed 300,000 references to this film.
During the first round of questions, a participant commented on the precarious situation of the Dead Sea, also called “Red Dead” and asked about prospects for its conservation. The transformative power of film, especially where communities had been totally separated from each other, had been noted too. Another Palestinian participant commented on the “Two Sided Story” and asked how a victim and executor could be compared and how long Israel would benefit from impunity.
Ms. Edelstein said that the Friends of the Earth Middle East was proud to be a part of a film “Last Call at Oasis”, produced by the same company which had produced “An Inconvenient Truth”, which focused on water problems all over the world. The regional approach to solving water problems applied by the Friends of the Earth Middle East was unique. The project to save the Dead Sea by digging a canal to feed it water from the Red Sea was developed to save the Dead Sea; the project was not yet approved. The environmental study undertaken by the Friends of the Earth showed that mixing those two waters would be an environmental disaster that would change the composition of the Dead Sea and wipe out the coral reefs.
Ms. Kalimi Misheiker acknowledged the feelings expressed by a Palestinian participant and said that, similarly, she heard the same from Israelis, who were also asking how it was possible to compare them with the Palestinian murderers. Pain could not be compared, she said; pain was pain everywhere. The physical and emotional walls needed to be cracked; Israelis did not know the Palestinians and Palestinians did not know the Israelis. Changes started when those walls of hostility, hatred and not knowing what was happening on the other side, were cracked.
Mr. Rothman said comments by the Palestinian participant raised a series of questions on the solidarity movement and added that anybody who was familiar with the reality on the ground in East Jerusalem knew that no one was looking for joint movements. His movement was a Jewish movement, not an Israeli-Palestinian one, which did not experience the reality of day-to-day occupation directly.
Ms. Salameh said that Just Vision was not a Palestinian or Israeli non-governmental organization, but an American one whose main job was to make movies and do outreach. It was not only about the production, but about reaching students, politicians, children; it was about screening films in as many places as possible, and asking and answering questions.
In a second round of questions, a participant asked about the relationship of the Friends of the Earth to the Government of Israel. All organizations presented in this panel worked with both sides and a participant wondered how they dealt with ideologies. It was rare to find a film like Budrus that had 90 per cent approval ratings, said another participant and asked whether there were enough films like that and whether there was a need for a figure such as Nelson Mendela.
There was no real popular resistance movement in Palestine, said Ms. Salameh, who had researched 13 different models in preparation for the Budrus. The idea behind the film was to show an honest and clear model of non-violence and promote them among students and youth at universities.
On ideologies, Mr. Rothman said that organizations were working against power structures and in solidarity with the oppressed. It was against ideology and exclusion of those who had the power to act on it. Ms. Kalimi Misheiker talked about bringing people together to hear each other narratives and this brought about incredible change. Different people would talk about Zionism in different ways and the best way to handle any ideology was to get people together and hear their personal and national narratives.
Ms. Edelstein said that much of their work was done through national parliaments; since recently, there was a person in charge of relations with governments in the region and that was why the Friends of the Earth Middle East had impressive relations with Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
Panel 5: Youth activism in the Middle East: evolving attitudes towards and tools for social change and democracy
DEBORAH SEWARD, Director, Strategic Communications Division, Department of Public Information, United Nations, introduced the panel and panelists who would discuss whether the use of social media led to greater youth empowerment and a sense of ownership of processes or movements for change, or raised unrealistic expectations.
JOSEPH DANA, Journalist, Ramallah, said that practically speaking there was social media in Palestine but this was not of great importance at this point, the networks and platforms were being built at the moment and it would be reckless to try to gauge how those structures were influencing the conflict right now. Those very proficient in media platforms came from privileged backgrounds, with Western education and good knowledge of English and they used the platform to tell their side of the story. Social media platforms in Palestine at the moment did not have a major impact on the ground; however, when the next major outbreak occurred, they would be an important factor to take into account. The Israelis had invested amazing efforts in developing a narrative about the conflict, which portrayed it as a symmetrical conflict, which managed to engage even Western liberals who felt they understood the Palestinian cause. Israel harnessed the power of social media platforms, for example the Twitter account of the Israeli military was very active and followed. The most interesting thing right now in the absence of open rebellion and mass use of social media platform on the ground was the effort of Israel to rationalize its politics towards Palestine on the platforms and networks.
WESSAM HAMMAD, Al Jazeera, Ramallah, showed a documentary filmed behind the scenes during the 2009 war in Gaza, The War around Us. It was important to emphasize the role of social media as a tool but they had disadvantages too. It could make people think that they were actively participating by posting, they might raise false expectations and they also increased the vulnerability to security or occupation forces.
MOHAMMED OMER, Journalist and blogger, Gaza, showed a series of pictures on the crossing to Egypt from the Gaza Strip, including the protests by the youth on the Rafah crossing concerning the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. Social media participants were often quoted as drivers of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution, but that was not completely accurate; the role of Al Jazeera in Arabic must not be forgotten. There was a powerful youth movement in the Gaza Strip, which started to call for an end of the division between the Palestinian authorities in Gaza and in the West Bank. Activism in the Gaza Strip was not started by the youth of Gaza, but by foreign activists who came to the Strip to protect Palestinians and challenge Israeli occupation. They pioneered activism and inspired the Palestinian youth; it was not the result of the Arab Spring. Activism in Gaza was changing with the use of social media and by greater participation of youth.
OMAR RAHMAN, Journalist and commentator, Ramallah, said that the majority of social activists on the ground were women and that popular resistance by its very nature was inclusive. The world was attributing the events in Egypt to the use of Facebook, but there had been years of grassroots movement in Egypt, which had been helped by the use of the social media. It was possible to call for a revolution through Facebook or Twitter, but the revolution would not happen. Mr. Rahman spoke about the instances where social media helped youth activism in Palestine, such as during the March 15 2011 youth demonstrations and mass protests, participation of Palestinian youth activists in the Tahir square in Egypt, and in highlighting the hunger strikes. Youth activism was growing in Palestine and it was a very interesting phenomenon to observe. Social media amplified the voice and made people heard beyond the borders and frontiers.
AHMED SHIHAB-ELDIN, Huffington Post Streaming Network, said that social media connected like-minded people but also enabled people to learn about places, people and concepts they never heard of. It was important to recognize that democratization of the Arab world had been directly related to democratization of the media. Social media and the symbiotic relationship between activists and social media allowed Arabs to show the world they were not terrorists or something to be afraid of. Social media and journalism could exist next to each other and there was no fear that social media would replace journalism.
A participant asked how the participants felt about the coverage of the Arab Spring by Al Jazeera Arabic, whether it did more harm than good and how much it did for women.
Mr. Hammad said that it was hard to cover the countries where there was no correspondent on the ground. The material had been taken from the social media and it had been important to ensure that the material was accurate. In fact, in its coverage of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera had made several mistakes in establishing the accuracy of the social media materials. Mr. Omer said that Al Jazeera English was changing radically and was declining, while the quality of the news was becoming mainstream. Mr. Shihab-Eldin said that editors decided on what would be reported on and as long as it was truthful and honest it was fine; however, for instance when Al Jazeera had reported on Syria they had failed to mention that rebels were armed and who they were being armed by. This should have been reported on. It was never a good thing for any media organization to be headed by persons who did not have media experience and were not journalists themselves.
In his presentation, Mr. Dana commented on Israeli narrative and a participant asked for a comment on the Palestinian narrative. Why did speakers refer to people in Gaza as Gazans and not as Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip?
Mr. Dana said that the First Intifada should be analyzed for its communication strategy and found it unbelievable that it was forgotten in the Arab Spring. Everything that had come since then had been choreographed to ensure that that kind of resistance did not come back. There had been no discussion on the undemocratic measures undertaken by Palestinian authorities to ensure unified Palestinian narrative, which included jailing of journalists and shutting down of websites.
Mr. Rahman said that the Gazan identity versus the Palestinian identity was a part of the wider context in which divide and conquer politics of the past 60 years had been in place. Palestinians were raising their voice in the English language and Western media and telling about the conflict and so breaking the old norms and spearheading the movement into the mainstream media.
Mr. Shihab-Eldin said that the question of power and media was an important one; there had been a time not so long ago when any Palestinian questioning anything, from Israel to Palestinian policy, was missing from the mainstream media, and even if it did show up in the media, would be immediately discredited. Being critical about injustice had been permitted everywhere but in Palestine and that was changing now also thanks to the work of the activists on the ground and journalists.
For use of the information media; not an official record