Impact of Journalism, Social Media, Arts in Resolving Middle East Conflict Explored as International Seminar Closes in Budapest, Hungary

13 July 2011

Impact of Journalism, Social Media, Arts in Resolving Middle East Conflict Explored as International Seminar Closes in Budapest, Hungary

13 July 2011
Press Release
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Impact of Journalism, Social Media, Arts in Resolving Middle East Conflict


Explored as International Seminar Closes in Budapest, Hungary


‘Roots of Peace in People’s Minds’ Must Be Nurtured, Hungarian Official Stresses

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

BUDAPEST, 13 July — As the International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace closed in Budapest, Hungary, today, top Hungarian and United Nations officials urged media creators to reach out to individuals in the region to foster a climate conducive to peace, following two final panels that explored the role of journalism, social media and the arts in that effort.

“The roots of peace reside in the minds of people and must be nurtured,” János Hóvári, Deputy State Secretary for Global Affairs of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in the host country’s closing statement, adding that it was the desire of individuals on both the Israeli and Palestinian side to come to a just resolution, after so many years of suffering, which held the brightest hope for the region, despite the recent lack of progress.

Noting that both optimistic and pessimistic views had been expressed in rich discussions during the Seminar, Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, in his closing comments, said it was important to remember that peace was not something that politicians alone could create.  He hoped that participants would be inspired to consider further how obstacles to a permanent agreement could be overcome through their work and pledged the United Nations continued, full assistance in that effort.

The annual two-day Seminar, launched by a 1991 General Assembly resolution, provides a forum for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian journalists and others from the region with the participation of the international community, aimed at enhancing understanding between peoples and achieving a just and lasting peace based on a two-State solution.

This year’s event, held in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, was themed “Prospects for Peace: Understanding Current Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles” and took account of the dramatic changes in the political landscape in the region, including the increased role of new media such as Twitter and Facebook in fostering political change.  Bloggers from the region and creators of music, art and theatre took part, as well as traditional journalists, media analysts and political experts.

The first day’s panels surveyed the current status of the peace process and the obstacles to reaching a permanent negotiated settlement of the conflict, as well as the role of the media in the context of political changes occurring in the greater region — the so-called “Arab Spring”.  Also considered were the current stalemate in negotiations and the lead-up to the end of the two-year Palestinian Authority State-building project, along with the Palestinian bid for State recognition through the United Nations in September.  (See Press Release PAL/2143-PI/1991 of 12 July 2011)

Today’s discussions centred more specifically on the role of traditional journalism, social media, television, photojournalism and the arts in getting out accurate, comprehensive information, as well as the narratives of all parties in order to propel genuine dialogue and an atmosphere conducive to negotiations.

The resulting discussions considered both the positive and negative aspects of the diversified media landscape in laying a foundation for peace.  The wide-ranging discussions also touched on the advantages and disadvantages of portraying the situation in a less simplistic, black-and-white manner, and whether or not the media and the arts retained potency in the face of other forces hampering progress.

In that vein, Anthony Mills, Press and Communications Manager for the International Press Institute of Vienna, noted that new media gave unprecedented access to situations as they were developing on the ground, but also presented a clear danger of disseminating damaging rumours that could inflame conflicts.  Palestinian violinist and master oud player Simon Shaheen stressed that arts could only have a positive impact in the context of “mutual respect and honest intent”.

Panel IV: Putting a Face on Conflict: the Role of Social Media, TV and Photojournalism

Today’s first panel was moderated by Levente Sitkei, Editor of Magyar Nemzet daily of Budapest.  Panellists included Anthony Mills, Press and Communications Manager and Director of Press Freedom Matters for the International Press Institute, Vienna; Riadh Guerfall, Co-founder of Nawaat blog, Tunisia; Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent of Israel’s public TV network, Channel 1, and Israel’s public radio Kol Israel, as well as Washington Bureau Chief for the Forward newspaper; and Nasser Shiyoukhi, photojournalist with Associated Press, from Ramallah.

Mr. SITKEI, in his introduction, asked if it was possible to give an accurate picture of the Israeli-Palestinian situation through the narratives of both sides, as most people had grown up with their idea of the conflict from particular perspectives.  He also asked participants to consider whether bloggers and other purveyors of new media gave a more or less biased picture of the situation.

Mr. MILLS said that the context for the media’s role in the Middle East conflict was extraordinarily rapid change both in terms of technology and the situation on the ground.  He surveyed the development from mainstream network broadcasting to 24-hour cable news, particularly the emergence of Al Jazeera and other Arab and regional networks.  He drew attention to the criticism of the 24-hour news need to constantly put out coverage, noting the label “Live Monkey” for a correspondent who was in a fixed position on the ground but limited in his access to new information on developments.

Social media presented many more possibilities, he said, particularly in giving access on the ground where the freedom of the media was stifled.  That was seen in Syria, from which YouTube postings were flowing daily.  In addition, new possibilities for people-to-people dialogue could be encouraged, he said, citing a Facebook page frequented by Israelis and Palestinians that discussed everything from politics to football.  Such media could help fill the gap in traditional media, where stories from the perspective of the “other” were lacking.

The risk of social media and blogging, which had been able to get out information during the turbulence in North Africa and the Middle East, was that there was no editorial gate-keeping that could separate or confirm fact from rumour.  That was particularly risky as the impact of information could be instantaneous.

He gave the example of a blog of the United Kingdom’s Guardian, which used snippets of information from Twitter, which were not confirmed, and as a result, wildly inaccurate information made its way in.  There was a disclaimer, but the average reader could be moved to suspension of disbelief and “rumour could spread like wildfire”.  He also cited the so-called “Gay Girl of Damascus” blogger covered by CNN who turned out to be a European man.  In addition, though some bloggers were journalists, some were political activists.

For traditional journalists, he said, the gap in portraying “the other” could be filled by integrity-driven reporting and the respect for journalists’ fundamental rights.  Fundamental among those rights were freedom of movement and access to information.

Mr. GUERFALI, agreeing with many points raised by Mr. Mills, said that in any situation of tyranny, the tyrant had enough legitimacy to remain in place, but it was the legitimacy of the autocrat.  Social networks could be used to erode that autocratic legitimacy.  That was what had happened in Tunisia.  Speeches were criticized and their lies exposed.  The regime had purchased advertising space in international newspapers, such as the International Herald Tribune, and those ads were deconstructed by bloggers as well.

From 2005 onward, more and more Tunisians had spoken out through such social media, becoming increasing bold.  As a result, the autocratic legitimacy had been increasingly eroded, until finally, on 14 January, people had been emboldened to come out onto the streets.  The kind of revolution that occurred had not been seen at first as a revolution because of its difference from the French Revolution or the American Revolution, but there was consensus on the need for respect of human rights and for democracy to take hold.  That consensus had been shaped partly by civil society through the use of social networks.  “If you have more people on both sides stressing democratic values, good changes can take place,” he said.

Mr. GUTTMAN noted that the drama of war was very attractive for editors; peace was less compelling.  Stalemates were even harder to convey in an interesting way, and that was where the media started to slacken.  Viewers took away visual images and conflict images; children dying or wearing suicide vests, for example was most powerful.  Right now, the Israeli occupation and the peace process was not being told in a compelling way.  The story of a booming economy in the West Bank engaged readers because it was new, but ongoing roadblocks and people in bomb shelters did not.  International political negotiations could often reach the media, but that was not what concerned people on the ground most.

He said that more news from the standpoint of ordinary people was needed.  Israelis were struggling with the question of whether Palestinians were really committed to non-violence, and Palestinians were grappling with the question of whether Israelis were really committed to peace.  Dealing with those questions in an in-depth manner was critical.  Social media could be helpful in those areas, but the use of such media was different than in the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions.  In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two sides needed to know each other.  As opposed to previous decades, the two sides had become totally separated.  “Social media could in a sense go beyond the separation wall to connect the people of both sides […] in a way that could open up discussion between them.”

Mr. SHIYOUKHI, presenting his photographs of confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, said the images were self-evident in their display of truth.  The credibility of the written word could always be doubted. “Peace needs photos,” he said.  So far, photography had not shown images of peace, but only conflict.  Citing a photo of a settler trying to pull aside the veil of a Palestinian woman with soldiers looking on, he said that Palestinians did not enjoy protection.  Photographers just needed to post such pictures on websites and they would speak for themselves, despite any restrictions.

He said, however, that he was frequently forbidden from taking photographs and had been detained and wounded many times.  The Israeli side did not allow him to convey the willingness for peace among Palestinians.  Palestinian photographers wanted to portray their peoples’ experience in the way that he had depicted the struggles of other Arab peoples this year.  He expected a “Palestinian Spring” through the use of new media, which he hoped for early next year.  He did not make up reality; reality was present in his photography, he reiterated.

In the discussion that followed those presentations, speakers agreed that there was a lack of depiction of the face of the other as well as of meetings between Palestinians and Israelis.  One Israeli participant said that there was especially a dearth of reporting on what he called “new Palestinians”, represented by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  He also objected to biased photojournalism, because of the selectivity of photography and captioning.

Some correspondents objected to the attitude of Israeli journalists as speaking from the position of the occupiers.  One complained that Israeli media often portrayed Palestinians in a comedic light, on donkeys or with many wives.  “They are enjoying themselves; they cannot feel our pain,” he said.  He appealed to Israeli journalists to be serious and depict Palestinians as partners for peace.  An Israeli journalist agreed with much of that criticism, but noting a tendency of making the situation seem black and white, said that there was not one single angle to cover the story; everyone was grappling with bad options.  He also noted that Israeli journalists were not allowed into many Arab countries to cover developments there.

Panel V: Towards Peace: Understanding the “Other”

The final panel was moderated by Deborah Seward, Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information.  Panellists included Samir el-Youssef, novelist and co-author of Gaza Blues (with Israeli writer Etgar Keret) and columnist for the Guardian (United Kingdom); Benny Ziffer, Literary Editor of Ha’aretz, Tel Aviv; Simon Shaheen, Director of the Arab-American Arts Institute and Professor at Berklee College of Music, Boston; Samia Steti, Director of Programmes for Freedom Theatre of Jenin; and Celil Sağir, Managing Editor of Today’s Zaman, Istanbul.

Ms. SEWARD, in her introduction, said that the sense of fear and mistrust of the other was rife in the Middle East, and that writers and musicians could dispel those negative attitudes.  She noted that the topic had been a threat in yesterday’s discussion and hoped that the panel would shed light on how to better convey conflicting narratives to increase mutual understanding.

Mr. EL-YOUSEFF asked the question of whether understanding the other indeed helped to promote peace.  He said that his collaboration with an Israeli on his book had helped him to become more aware of the complexity of the situation as opposed to the simplified messages of the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, greater mutual understanding did not always serve to promote peace.  Israelis were a very successful people in many ways, and for that reason, there were more peace activists there, possibly, than anywhere else in the world.  It was no surprise, since if one had the elements of a good life, one desired peace.

Israelis might be too successful for their own good, however, he countered.  Their military successes, for example, made them willing to fight all the time, he suggested, asking why else would they have become embroiled in a war in Lebanon over a border incident or be willing to have a major confrontation with Iran.  It was not their fault that they were a warrior nation, but they had become that way through their military successes.  For that reason, it was unlikely there would be peace in our time.

Mr. ZIFFER, citing three famous sentences on the “other”, said that the notion, which had been developed by Edward Said and others in the discipline of neo-colonial criticism, was in a state of collapse.  “It’s very easy to love humanity, but it’s very difficult to love one human being,” he said, quoting Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Unfortunately, he suggested, we can no longer differentiate between who is the “same” and the “other”, and he asked whether a Palestinian woman, a settler or a gay Palestinian were the other or the same in his world.

He said, for example, that he was named for an uncle who had been killed in the war of independence.  The uncle had come to the region fleeing anti-Semitism in Turkey and had died at the age of 19.  He then spoke of the Arab fiancé of his daughter who had died during a demonstration against the separation wall.  He asked, in those cases, “who then was the other?”  The old separation between the victims and the perpetrators, the bad guys and the good guys, did not apply anymore.

He asked, in the same vein, how one would classify the theatre director with a dual identity who was assassinated by Palestinians, and whose death was attributed by the peace camps on both sides to the occupation.  In general, he commented, peace activists were constantly simplifying a very complex reality in order to merely get attention.  The flotillas and the influx of foreign protesters were part of that.  They were falling into the genre of reality TV and advertising.  Through such simplification, one lost the connection with the plight of individual human beings.  “The man they have forgotten all about,” he cited, paraphrasing from Anton Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Mr. SHAHEEN said it was clear that music or other arts could not increase peace and understanding by themselves, without mutual respect and honest intent.  Without those elements, there was a risk of assuming understanding when there was none.  In forming his own musical group, which included musicians from varied backgrounds, he had wanted to create a context for exchange of musical languages and individual experience through fundamental respect and enthusiasm.  In 1996, he had founded a retreat for studying Arabic music that drew people from all over the world.  Both situations required mutual respect, honest intent and musical integrity for genuine musical conversation.

Growing up in Haifa, he had been involved in many similar activities and worked with Peace Now, in order to promote the same values and to create a kind of vision that would help to resolve the differences.  At the same time, there was an influx of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and the Peace Now movement had dissolved into nothingness.  How then could music bridge differences and resolve conflicts when the intent was missing? he asked.

Ms. SETI told the story of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of a Palestinian from Nazareth and a Jewish mother, who had established her theatre, the Freedom Theatre in a refugee camp in Jenin in 2006.  He had decided to end the occupation through arts, and he had been killed for pursuing an alternate way of resisting, she said.  Through the arts, her theatre tried to convey the suffering of the Palestinian people and helped to train Palestinian youth to express themselves through writing.  It also tried to expand the notion of resistance into the arts.  The local population did not readily accept that approach and so the theatre had to focus first on children.  “Some people could resist through stones and some people could resist through words,” she said.

The theatre also aimed to make the voices of the children in the camps heard, she said.  It helped empower them by allowing them to express themselves in freedom and to escape the cycle of violence that was interminable.  The theatre showed them that through passive resistance and experimental work, one could do things in theatre that could not be done in reality.

Mr. SAĞIR said that over the past two days there had been optimistic and pessimistic remarks, but as a journalist from a country that had long ruled an empire, he would try to be optimistic.  The Ottoman Empire had been multicultural, but the nation State of Turkey had become more nationalistic.  Kurds, Jews and other ethnic groups became “others”.  The process of attempting to join the European Union had reversed that trend.  State broadcasting had even started airing Kurdish programming, and Turkey had created a cooperation zone in the region.

The media was part and parcel of that change, he said.  Only in 1996, journalists had rushed to show Turkey planting flags on tiny islands in a near war with Greece.  Those journalists now were working to increase empathy with other peoples in the region.  Some 40,000 people had been killed in the conflict with Kurds, but people retained personal ties, and now television and movie producers were creating media that created more empathy.   In the Middle East, as well, it was important for journalists to strive to increase empathy.

Ms. SEWARD, in closing remarks, recapped the main themes that had been broached in the discussion and spoke of the shared sense of responsibility that she had noticed as rife among artists and journalists in June and July of 1988 when she had been in Budapest, just a year before unimaginable changes had occurred in Eastern Europe.  For change to happen in the Middle East, it was important for journalists there to renew the possibility of peace, even though change might seem as unlikely now as it had in Europe in 1988.

In the discussion that followed, speakers debated the value of injecting complexity into messages about the Middle East, particularly if there was a situation of oppression and oppressor.  Some speakers agreed with the importance of building empathy, noting the lack of opportunity for meetings between people from both sides.

In that light, a correspondent said that it was counterproductive to an atmosphere of peace to call Israelis warriors and make other such one-sided depictions.  Mr. El-Youssef replied that he had been collaborating with Israelis for many years and was blacklisted as a result from Arab forums; he understood Israeli desire for peace, but also recognized a structural problem in Israel, which was important to point out.  Another correspondent said it was important to “outsmart the stupid people” by creating opportunities for understanding and respecting the narrative of the other in a way that did not feed sensationalism.

Closing Statements

JÁNOS HÓVÁRI, Deputy State Secretary for Global Affairs of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the debate closed on a very interesting and constructive note.  At this crucial moment, he was convinced that the event was an important contribution to advancing the peace process.  His country was invested in a negotiated outcome for all final status issues and the establishment of a State of Palestine living side by side with Israel in peace.

The Quartet meeting might have been disappointing in its outcome, but the international community must persevere in its efforts to help the parties move towards peace, he said.  “The roots of peace reside in the minds of people and must be nurtured,” he added, speaking of the role of the media in building confidence in a region that had suffered for such a long time.  Hungary had high hopes for an agreement in the near future, as so many people in the region had expressed the sincere desire for it.  His country supported both sides towards that goal.  He thanked the Department of Public Information and all participants for their contributions, hoping they would take a positive message back home.

KIYO AKASAKA, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, welcomed what he called the rich and candid discussions that had occurred during the Seminar, saying that this year would be particularly memorable following the Arab Spring and the lead-up to the forthcoming General Assembly session.  Journalism and all other sectors would be even more important than usual in the period ahead, in both traditional and social media.

Noting that both optimistic and pessimistic views had been expressed in the Seminar, he said it was important to remember that peace was not something that politicians alone could create.  Journalists and artists had a critical role.  He hoped that participants would be inspired to consider further how obstacles could be overcome through their work.  His Department, he affirmed, looked forward to continuing to provide the information and access to the United Nations to help constructive reporting to occur.

Finally, he expressed deep appreciation to the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, panellists, other speakers and all those who had contributed to the success of the Seminar.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.