lunes, enero 05, 2009

The Spanish media and the Middle East

According to a straw poll conducted by the Catalan newspaper, La Vanguardia, 58% of readers consider the Israeli incursion into Gaza to be justified, ‘providing it achieves the objective of destroying Hamas’s bases’. Only 42% of readers are opposed considering Israel’s reaction to be out of proportion.

Assuming that this is faithful measure of public opinion, and even if the figures are slightly skewed one way or the other, we can conclude that a considerable portion of public opinion in Catalonia, and presumably elsewhere in Spain, is supportive of Israel’s mission in Operation Solid Lead. The question I therefore put is this: If more than half the Spanish / Catalan public support Israel, why has the great part of the Spanish media expressed outrage and miscomprehension at the Czech President’s suggestion that the operation is defensive, and why has almost all reporting of the Israeli side of the story been blacked out? Are they really in touch with their readers? One would imagine that were the reporting more evenly balanced a considerably larger part of public opinion would favour Israel.

It is too easy to jump to simplistic conclusions. No, I do not honestly believe that the Spanish media is anti-Semitic. I also find it difficult to accept accusations of a conspiracy aimed at offering biased coverage of the conflict. Something however must explain why Italian, German, British or American newspapers are offering a more even account of events as they unfold, and not the Spanish.

One possible answer can be traced back to the history of the media in democratic Spain. Let us remember that Spain’s recent fascist dictatorship ended with the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975. The democratic transition would follow however even in the latter years of Franco’s despotic regime, liberal minded Spaniards were already preparing the ground for the creation of a free press. Many of the journalists that founded newspapers such as El País and the now defunct leftish Diario 16 were trained in journalism in the editorial offices of Le Monde, now with strong ties to El País. The French student uprising in May 1968 had led to a new current of opinion in Europe favouring pacifism and upholding as its standard figures such as the Argentinian born guerilla Che Guevara, now equally or even more controversially superseeded by that of the deceased PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

The Spanish media is in a great part modelled on the French and with the exception of Latin America, where the Spanish state news agency, EFE, has a strong hold, it relies for much of its coverage of international events on Agence France Press (AFP). It is not unusual for Spanish politicians to express indignation at the reporting of the Basque conflict by the official French news agency. AFP's reports are the most common factor leading to media across the world to refer to the armed Basque organization, ETA, as a separatist rather than a terrorist group. The reports transmitted from Gaza by AFP have also been put into question, following accusations that they too readily emit Hamas propaganda images without making all the necessary checks. The media in Spain does not seem to be so worried about that. "Blood and fire" ("sangre y fuego") sells well when it is not too close to home.

But would this in itself explain why, in a television report broadcast yesterday from a hospital on the Israeli side of the Gaza strip, it was suggested that the fact that the hospital lay almost empty was an outrage given that just across the border hundreds of Palestinians (many of them terrorists) were leading Gaza’s hospitals to overflow. The reality was that the patients had been moved to other hospitals in order to keep this one in reserve in case of serious Israeli fatalities: A move that any country that cares about its citizens would take, especially when they are under regular bombardment from rockets launched by Islamic militants from just across the border.

It is not easy to offer an opinion on a conflict at such an early stage when reliable information is so scarce. A wide range of factors influence media coverage and this is even more the case with TV since the images are so fundamental to the story. Israel is a democracy and does not spend its time harvesting images of Israelis suffering every time Hamas bombards their cities. Most of the images available to the international press are from Gaza and given the number of Palestinian casualties, there is no doubt that many of these images are indeed horrific. This conflict has been going on for many years and the Palestinians have always been very good at using this kind of material as propaganda aimed at turning worldwide public opinion against Israel. I am not suggesting that Israel’s record is untainted, however a media schooled in Europe in the aftermath of the ‘revolution of ‘68’ sees these images and quite naturally expresses horror and disgust. And I may add that in this case it is not just Spanish journalists who are indignant. But the palestinians are not the only victims in this conflict, and their suffering in fact has less to do with Israel and a lot more to do with the terrorist government they themselves elected.

In the face of these obstacles, Israel has a tough task to turn the worldwide, and particularly the opinion of the Spanish media back in its favour. Although I accept that there are many divergent opinions on this subject, on the whole I support Israel’s incursion into Gaza. I have visited Israel on more than one occasion, most recently when the country was still under the premiership of Yitzak Rabin – not exactly a hawk. Walking around Jerusalem one could feel the tension and our Israeli friends had to be constantly on the alert with gas masks close at hand in case of a chemical attack from Sadam Hussein’s Iraq. This was the time of the first Gulf War and since then things have got considerably worse.

On this occasion, notwithstanding past errors in Lebanon, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has done all that is in its hands to ensure minimum civilian casualties. Total success on this front is impossible since as part of its propaganda war, Hamas has installed its bases in residential areas in order to maximize the number of civilian casualties and is accused of using small children as human shields. (There is no understanding the minds of a bloody terrorist organisation). Israeli air attacks are preceded by the dropping of leaflets warning people to vacate the area, and they have even been reported to have been making phone calls to people’s houses. You could hardly imagine Hamas doing this prior to a strike on an Israeli village. IDF weaponry is extremely precise and even the exact angle of fire is closely calculated in order to ensure that damage is focussed precisely on target. Israel has been allowing the regular access of basic humanitarian aid and medical supplies into the Gaza strip, and supplies Gaza with 70% of its electricity.

Much of this is not reported in our media and all we hear are the calls for a ceasefire, without any suggestion of what should go in its place. Should Israel just accept that Hamas continue to fire rockets, and to build tunnels into neighbouring countries in order to supply itself with deadly weaponry and threaten to wipe Israel of the face of the earth? If they did not act now, what would happen when Gaza is armed to the teeth?

The Hamas propaganda war is unfortunately proving rather successful, however I know many of the people who oppose Israel’s actions in the current conflict, I have discussed this with them, and at least as far as I can gauge they are not in any way anti-Semitic. They are quite genuinely moved by the visible human damage. Perhaps something needs to be done to educate people more effectively about the history of the Middle East. I must admit that I do too often hear people suggest that Israel should never have been created. This is an outrageous assertion. In spite of all the past invasions and crusades, Jerusalem has always had an essentially Jewish population and the area that is nowadays Israel, was originally not much more than bare desert. Its economic success is evidence of the enormous effort put in by Israel ever since its foundation in 1948. Israel has the right to defend itself from the neighbouring theocracies whose main intent is for their destruction.

But before Israel can get these messages across, it needs to accept that its critics in Europe are not in the most part anti-Semitic. The solution is not to side with the Spanish right and organize debates on TV stations like Libertad Digital, but to initiate the enormous task of getting their messages across to the mainstream liberal media. A challenge: I wish them the best of luck.