Middle East Peace Programs

In the News: Journalists Call for Media to Foster Mideast Peace

Several journalists at a recent media symposium in Jerusalem expressed agreement that the media should actively work to influence events by seeking to calm attitudes among conflicting parties in Middle East conflicts.

They also criticized media companies for pandering to partisan and commercial gains while regional troubles continued to flare.

Some disagreed, however, as to what exactly journalists should do.

Their views were voiced at a panel discussion on "The Role of the Media in the Peace Process," organized by the Universal Peace Federation's Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) as part of a fact-finding visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories from April 10-16, 2007.

Larry Moffitt, US vice-president of United Press International, slammed the notion of impartial journalism as one of the great hoaxes of our time and called for the media to shift the paradigm of what is news.

"The act of an editor in selecting some stories to print, and some not to print, determines the issues that will end up on the agenda for discussion," he said. "In our media-driven world, if a tree falls in a forest [but] the media is not there to cover it, it does not make any noise, it never happened."

He said that the news media was pretty good at taking up various political positions, but he asked, "Are we helping?"

Moffitt clearly thinks not.

"We are not bringing clarity to the world, we are generating a lot more heat than light," he said, adding that part of that is endemic to the media and cannot be avoided.

But he told the audience of some 160 MEPI participants from the Middle  East, Europe and the United  States that the free press could do a lot more than it is actually doing and needs to be more responsible for the effect its presence has.

Moffitt made the point with an anecdote from a visit he had made to South  Africa during its apartheid era.

"In Soweto, South  Africa television crews would show up," he recounted. "As soon as they did, the kids would line the street with tyres and set them on fire; the kids knew what television needed. But that would get filmed and that would be the entirety of South  Africa for that night for the rest of the world."

Why not put something positive on TV, he challenged, and suggested more reporting on cross-cultural activities, or for media companies to sponsor youth service projects, and report on them.

"Let [these kinds of issues] dominate the international coverage," he said.

Moffitt said that the free press needed to do some serious soul-searching and make a major readjustment to the code and ethics of journalism.

"The definition of news cannot continue to be 'man bites dog,' because it generates more 'man bites dog,'" he said. "Somewhere the concept of being one's brother's keeper needs to be put into the equation, because the media has the power to change the discussion world-wide."

But Yoni Ben Menachem, general director and chief editor of Israeli radio station Kol Israel, said at the outset that his viewpoint was different than the earlier speakers.

Cautioning as naïve any attempt to try to change journalism's code of ethics, Menachem said that news is made when a man bites a dog, but not when a dog bites a man.

"I don't think there's a journalist in the world who doesn't want peace," he said, adding that this applies to Palestinian and Israeli journalists.

But, in apparent contradiction to that statement, Menachem acceded that journalists could be hostile to others.

"A hostile media doesn't help anyone. We need to give up the media of hatred," he said, suggesting, "We need media that is crossing the borders and trying to unite everybody for the goal of peace."

In fact, the rest of his remarks expressed more fundamental agreement of thought with the other speakers than not.

Sticking to the theme of practicality over idealism, Menachem praised a recent Arab peace plan as a great opportunity for Arab-Israeli peace, and urged the media on both sides to take a leading role in keeping momentum.

"I'm telling you, the way to push this initiative forward is through the media. Because if we wait for the politicians, nothing will move - you can count on that," he said.

"[The media should] call for peace, [and] encourage moderate people to take political steps, to stop incitement," he said, adding, "Let's be practical. This is the media's goal, to stop the killing and these stupid conflicts."

Rafiq Halabi, former director of Israel's Channel One News and a current producer expressed disappointment that the media was becoming more superficial in an ever growing appetite for ratings.

He said that Israel's Channel 10 TV station had once told its female journalists to dye their hair blonde "like the Europeans."

"Israeli media [is expected to] be young, talkative, without depth, without education, just talking and talking and talking," he said, "[and to] be nice, be blunt."

Israeli journalist Shuki Ben Ami, who is also director of the World Media Association in Israel, agreed.

"All of them are blonde and nice. Because all of them are celebrities. Because you know," he said, "this is show business, to be, now, in media, is to be in show business."

In former times, he reminisced, "people liked to hate the media," and in those days "I used to be able to write what I thought."

"I don't want to be 'reliable' [as a journalist]; I don't want to be 'responsible'; I don't want a code of ethics. I am the child who pointed to the king and said, 'he's naked,'" Ben Ami said, in reference to Hans Christian Andersen's classic fable, 'The Emperor's New Clothes.'

"But I can do that only if I want to teach, to educate, to change, and I believe in what I'm doing," he concluded.

Halabi said that rather than think of Israel as Jew and Arab, right and left, and so on, he thought of the country as being divided by two cultures. One culture believes in freedom of speech, liberty, equal rights and social rights, while the other culture believes in the opposite.

"Unfortunately, these days [the first] culture is fighting for its survival. And the media has the role to encourage this culture," Halabi said.

Romanian journalist Rasvau Roceanu told the audience that there is a small province in south-east Romania called Dobruja, which is without an ethnic majority and is populated by a diversity of minorities: Russians, Turks, Tartars, Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians and Italians.

"Despite this [diversity], there have never been ethnic conflicts. Simply because, I think, no political group, no government and no religious leader, has ever tried to profit by fueling or creating such a conflict. The people of Dobruja have simply been allowed to live side by side."

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