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Starving for Journalism

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Issue: 22 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Middle East Palestine Topics: media

September 30, 2004

Starving for Journalism

Canadian media avoid fundamentals of Palestinian Prisoners

by Dru Oja Jay

palestinianprisoners.jpg
Arrested Palestinians, escorted by Israeli soldiers; many prisoners are never charged with a crrime. photo: bethlehemmedia.net
Over 600,000 Palestinians--roughly 40 per cent of the male population of the occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--have spent time in an Israeli jail since 1967. According to official government data, there are currently over 7,300 Palestinians in Israeli prisons; of these, 530 are "administrative detainees", which means that they won't ever be charged with a crime. An additional 2,600 are awaiting trial. 351 are children under the age of 18. According to Israeli Human Rights organizations, prisoners are regularly abused and kept in sub-human conditions, subjected to frequent strip searches and in some cases tortured.

These facts, which are not disputed and are widely available, would be useful information for anyone reading the news that the majority of these prisoners have gone on a month-long hunger strike. Not so, according to Canada's national media.

The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and CBC all provided minimal coverage of the strike. All three outlets provided truncated or rewritten versions of a handful of Associated Press stories, and one Agence France-Presse report.

The first, featured by the Globe as a brief on page A8, simply noted the beginning of the hunger strike. Clocking in at 97 words, the brief simply provided a vague estimate of the number of prisoners that were participating, and quoted an Israeli official as saying that the strike would be "futile".

An Associated Press article which only appeared on the Globe's web site went a little farther, listing a few of the prisoners' demands. "The prisoners want more family visits and telephone access, but an Israeli cabinet minister said he'd rather let them starve," the report said. The article provided a slight elabortation towards the end, adding "a cessation of strip searches" to the list of strikers' demands. As a result of the placement of this additional claim at the end of the article, any readers who look at the brief form of the article (common in printed newspapers) would leave with the impression that prisoners were striking for "more family visits and telephone access".

In reality, the demands (accessible to any journalist with an internet connection) were far more extensive. While it would be unreasonable to expect journalists to list them all, several are significant. Among the demands: an end to the presence of male guards in female detention facilities, improving conditions for minors, access to education, access to toothpaste, reinstatement of weekly cleaning, limits on solitary confinement, and the application of the Geneva convention.

It has long been the policy of Israeli governments to ignore the Geneva Convention when it comes to the occupied territories. According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, "Israel's position is that there was no recognized sovereign in these areas before 1967, so they are not 'occupied territory' as defined in the convention."

Again, a discussion of such topics would be relevant in the context of a report on a hunger strike. Nor would they be particularly controversial, except among those who are convinced that Israel can do no wrong.

To be controversial would require that the CBC, Star, Globe and numerous other outlets extend their coverage of a month-long hunger strike beyond two short (and in the case of the Globe, inconsequential) articles. This is a prerequisite that Canadian media seems to lack when it comes to Palestine.

As a case in point, the Canadian and American media (all relying on the same wire stories) have commonly referred to recent suicide bombings as breaking a "lull" in "mid-east violence". That is to say, no Israelis were killed in bombings for six months. What these reports almost universally neglect to mention is that during this so-called "lull", Israeli forces killed 336 Palestinians; children and a pregnant woman among them. Of these, only the high-profile assassinations made front page news. During the same period, Israel bulldozed 400 Palestinian houses, leaving 1,700 people homeless.

There can only be one reason for the disparity in coverage: the media considers Israeli lives lost to be more newsworthy than those of Palestinians. Analysis has shown that this is a long-term trend in reporting. Indeed, it is seldom, if ever, that the Canadian national media mentions the total number of Palestinians and Israelis killed since September 2000 (3,315 Palestinians and 948 Israelis since September 2000--reports are much more likely to mention the combined total, perhaps because it is less biased).

Evidence overwhelmingly shows that Canadian and American media have little to no interest in understanding the conditions of life under occupation--in Israeli prisons, or at the hands of occupying soldiers. If they had a minor interest, they would include these and other non-controversial facts in their reports.

If they had a real interest, they might even investigate relatively controversial (but nonetheless substantiated) claims: of sexual humiliation of Muslims as an interrogation tactic perfected by Israel and used by US jailers in Iraq; of torture; of hundreds of Palestinian children shot; of entirely different legal standards for non-Jewish Palestinians and Jewish citizens of Israel.

The whole truth about such "controversial" topics will not become public until media organizations with the resources to investigate pay attention to these things. Similarly, if these are in fact malicious rumours spread in the form of reports from respected human rights organizations, they can only be disproven if investigated. If the media continue to ignore topics that aren't served to them by the wire services, as they do now, neither of these things will happen.

In the end, the prisoners' hunger strike managed to gain concessions from their captors, but at a heavy cost: they have been denied medical care, and many claim they were heavily abused by prison guards. The CBC covered the end with a severely truncated Associated Press report, which quoted Israeli jailers as saying that "nothing is being discussed". The Star and the Globe only ran one other story after the first, which briefly discussed the Israeli tactic of baking cakes and cooking meat outside the prisons to break the will of the strikers.

For a compilation of in depth media coverage of the strike, see FromOccupiedPalestine.org.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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