As International Seminar Concludes, Panels Explore Japan’s Middle East News Coverage, Use of Visual Tools to Convey Region’s Reality

10 June 2014
PAL/2176-PI/2099

As International Seminar Concludes, Panels Explore Japan’s Middle East News Coverage, Use of Visual Tools to Convey Region’s Reality

TOKYO, 10 June — The twenty-second International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded today, with two interactive panel discussions that explored Japanese media coverage of events in that region, as well as the use of innovative visual tools to tell stories conveying the stark realities faced by Palestinians and Israelis alike.

The Seminar, which opened on 9 June, was organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, in cooperation with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sophia University, Tokyo.

During the first panel discussion — entitled “Japanese media coverage of the Middle East, including how the Japanese media covers its Government’s support for Palestine” — speakers highlighted the country’s decades-long involvement in international efforts to create the conditions for a durable, lasting peace in the region.  Panellists, several of them Middle East-based journalists, described the unique perspective that Japanese media brought to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.  Some explored key issues that captured public attention, while others examined how stories written for the Japanese public could reach a global audience.

The second panel discussion — entitled “New tools for the media in covering the Middle East — Infographics:  merging journalism with design” — explored the use of graphics to communicate complex information quickly and easily.  The four panellists presented colourful maps, charts, images and other interactive designs to convey the general complexity of daily life as faced by Palestinians, Israelis and Japanese.  They all emphasized the need to use visual images for communicating serious messages in ways that would garner the global attention they deserved.  The creation of compelling visuals required intense planning, skill and data mining, they said.

In closing remarks, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said it was not that diplomacy had lost its ability to find solutions, but rather that it had not been used in ways that would create the desired outcomes.  “Diplomacy only works when you build relationships,” he emphasized, adding that the last two days had been a stark reminder of the need to spend more time on building relationships.

Yutaka Iimura, Special Representative of the Government of Japan for the Middle East and Europe, said the Seminar had brought together participants involved in Middle East diplomacy, academia, journalism and the United Nations.  “I’m very glad the Seminar allowed us to have an honest and interactive discussion on the important role of the media in the Middle East peace process,” he added.  “We should not forget there are millions of people suffering, not only in Palestine, but in the Middle East.”

Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine at the United Nations, said he had held constructive meetings with Japanese officials over the last two days, and declared:  “We would like to see Japan playing a larger role.”  The Seminar was an effort to facilitate a bigger role for the country in the quest for a peaceful, just resolution of the conflict.

Panel Discussion 1

Lyutha Al-Mughairy, Chairperson of the Committee on Information and Permanent Representative of Oman to the United Nations, moderated the panel, which featured presentations by Waleed Siam, Representative, Permanent General Mission of Palestine to Japan; Hiroshi Fuse, Chief Editor, The Arab Magazine, and Senior Editorial Writer, The Mainichi Newspaper; and Yuki Hasegawa, Chief, Kofu Bureau, and former Chief, Cairo Bureau, Yomiuri Shimbun.

Mr. SIAM spoke highly of the Japanese Government’s support for the Palestinian cause, saying that the main portion of its $1.44 billion commitment was channelled through bilateral projects with the Palestinian Authority.  There were no cash exchanges as the funds were placed in a Japanese bank and distributed through Japanese companies to their Palestinian counterparts.  Noting that Japanese media tended to focus more on East Asian and North American affairs, he said the Middle East was generally not a priority.  It was a far-away region and its complexities were not of special interest to the Japanese public.  A number of factors affected the way in which Japanese media covered the Middle East, including the Japanese Government’s policy towards the region, its restrictions on movement and reliance on third-party news reporting.  In addition, Japanese media did not do a good job in simplifying their presentation to the Japanese public.  Japanese people held a negative perception of the Middle East because of all the news reporting about terrorist attacks and other violence, particularly after 9/11.  The media must provide deeper coverage of the regional situation and the plight of Palestinians, he stressed.  Although Israel was the biggest hurdle to completing the Japan-led Peace Corridor project, Japanese media tended to hide such complications.  The press had not covered the Jericho Agro-Industrial Park either, he noted, stressing:  “The media has to be more challengeable in covering these problems.”

Mr. FUSE, recalling a visit to the Gaza Strip in 1988, said that Israel had imposed a curfew hours after his arrival, restricting movement and cutting off phone and electricity service.  That night, a Jewish woman friend had given birth at a hospital run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), while her husband, a Palestinian, hid from Israeli soldiers.  He said that the owner of his hotel had explained that that was daily life in Gaza, adding that after 26 years, he had not forgotten that story.  He went on to recall arriving in Jerusalem with great joy in 1995, having studied the Middle East.  During that time, he had attended several funerals for students killed by terrorist attacks, and in the same year, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated by a Jewish youth.  In 2002, a cafeteria at Hebrew University had been targeted in a bombing that had killed seven people and injured 80 others, he said, expressing shock that the cafeteria was one in which he had loved to spend time while in Jerusalem.  Underlining the paramount importance of dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, he said that because Japan had good relations with both, it could play a larger role in peace efforts.

Ms. HASEGAWA said that, as a reporter, she felt that she was perceived as “more or less” neutral.  “We are less bound up in the notion that we’re on one side of an issue or another,” she said.  Japanese media did not represent Christians or Muslims, she pointed out.  “We represent our values”, which was perhaps a different perspective, but a common stance of the Government and media that had served reporters well.  She said that in her visits to Palestine, notably for the funeral of the founder of Hamas, she had been received with good will by all parties, possibly because she was a member of Japan’s media, which were sympathetic to the Palestinians suffering injustice while recognizing at the same time that Israel had legitimate security concerns.  The criticism that Japanese reporting was “cosmetic” probably meant that Japan was not on one side of an issue or another.  “We try to be more objective,” she said, describing Japan’s media as dedicated, impartial and devoted.  She added that while her newspaper had offices in Cairo, Jerusalem and Tehran, it lacked outreach, and although her stories were read by some 20 million people in Japan, the language barrier prevented them from reaching a global audience.

Responding to a question from the floor about how a balance could be struck between the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the story, she said:  “We should not take sides.”  While journalists tried to be neutral, there was no such thing as perfect neutrality.  “We’re not the ones living the reality so we try to examine things by reporting the history.”  Providing the background of events in the Middle East would make for a better balance.

Panel Discussion 2

Moderated by Margaret Novicki, Chief, Communications Campaigns Service, Department of Public Information, the panel featured presentations by Ramzi Jaber, Co-Founder, Visualizing Impact and Visualizing Palestine; Roni Levit, infographic designer; Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Huffington Post Live; and Takashi Tokuma, bowlgraphics.

Mr. JABER said people were “narratively wired”, illustrating the point by recounting the story of Khader Adnan, a Palestinian administrative detainee who had gone on hunger strike.  A small group of people had created the “Dying to Live” campaign to attract public attention to the unfolding drama, and the first major media attention had come from Al Jazeera.  Reuters, The New York Times and CNN had picked up the story after 62 days, and 66 days later, a court had set Khader Adnan free.  He explained that in order to communicate the story visually, his company had illustrated the physical facts of a hunger strike, mining data from reputable international and local organizations, academic institutions and medical journals.  It had created other infographics to illustrate the issue of water in the West Bank, showing the disparity of water resources and distribution among London, Israel and Ramallah.  Other infographics had visualized the number of babies born at checkpoints, the routes between Jerusalem and the settlements, and the roads that Palestinians were not permitted to use.

Ms. LEVIT noted the similarities between her work and that of Mr. Jaber, but emphasized that she worked neither in journalism nor politics, but in graphic design.  Creating infographics required researchers, translators, writers and designers, she said, illustrating her point by presenting a “sound map” of Jerusalem, in which bright circles of sounds were associated with calls to prayer at various mosques, orange circles indicated bells at various churches, blue and red circles showed police and ambulance centres, and grey circles showed the origin of the Shabat calls.  “On the map, you can see how Jerusalem is divided,” she said, pointing out that the Jewish population was in the city’s western part and the Muslim population in the east.  Standing in the city centre, one was bombarded by the sounds of different religions, she said.

Mr. TOKUMA, discussing interactive infographics, displayed one example in which a person could understand the costs associated with travelling 1,000 kilometres.  Using the illustration of an odometer, a person could see the increasing amount of money needed.  “You can touch it and the figures talk to you,” he said.  “You can feel how much money you’ll need.”  Infographics had been created to attract attention and visualize the concepts behind numbers, he said, adding that in a “data visualization” example, he had taken statistics used by researchers of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.  To make the visualization more user-friendly, he said, he had displayed the numbers as icons showing, at a glance, the number of people engaged in research and development in various industries.  “In the age of social media, you look at the data and respond,” he said.  “Data is available to anyone.”

Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN noted that participants had laughed during the visual representations of injustice, most likely because of the “ridiculous reality” being communicated.  People did not generally care to read a 1,000-word article about the six-day Gaza war because it appeared that nothing had changed.  Some stories could not be advanced without an innovative way to communicate the gravity of the situation, and infographics provided a way to do that, he said.

Mr. JABER, responding to a question about what the United Nations should do with infographic tools when working with Governments that were not susceptible to the usual pressures of advocacy, said the Organization had a major voice, noting that although Palestinian voices were usually discredited, they were covered when the United Nations publicized them.

Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN said journalists often “parachuted” into situations and then moved on.  The United Nations could find people who were not traditional journalists but who were always finding new methods to keep the conversation alive in ways separate from what was happening on the ground, he added, stressing the need to “partner with people”.

Closing Remarks

PETER LAUNSKY-TIEFFENTHAL, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, delivered closing remarks, sharing messages that had provided “food for thought” over the last two days.  Participants had underscored the importance of coming to the table as equals, and finding different approaches to diplomacy.  The media had a responsibility to call attention to the peace effort, and Seminar participants, in discussing the “false balance” in media coverage, had underlined the importance of presenting the facts as they were.  Participants had said that thanks to new media, the narrative was shifting and the mainstream media could no longer ignore stories.  It was not so much that diplomacy had lost its ability to find solutions, but rather, that it had not been applied in such a way as to arrive at the desired outcomes.  “Diplomacy only works when you build relationships,” he added.  The last two days had been a stark reminder of the need to spend more time on building relationships that would give diplomacy a better chance to work.

YUTAKA IIMURA, Special Representative of the Government of Japan for the Middle East and Europe, said the Seminar had brought together participants involved in Middle East diplomacy, academia, journalism and the United Nations.  “I’m very glad the Seminar allowed us to have an honest and interactive discussion on the important role of the media in the Middle East peace process.”  The new Palestinian Government had accepted the Quartet principles, which hopefully would lead both sides to restart direct negotiations.  It was meaningful that the Seminar had been held at such a critical juncture since it allowed for a better understanding of the challenges involved and of the media’s role in the peace process.  “We should not forget there are millions of people suffering, not only in Palestine, but in the Middle East,” he said.

RIYAD MANSOUR, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine to the United Nations, said that over the last two days, he had held constructive meetings with Japanese officials in which they had discussed the relationship between the two parties to the conflict.  They had also discussed the positive programmes that Japan was carrying out vis-à-vis the question of Palestine.  “We would like to see Japan playing a larger role,” he said, describing the Seminar as an effort to facilitate a bigger role for Japan in the quest for a peaceful, just resolution of the conflict.  He said that in the last two days, he had been pleased to interact with young Palestinian leaders, who were conveying the daily struggle to stay in their homeland in innovative ways that reached millions of people.  “I am proud to say I’m willing to yield to them to be the future leaders of Palestine,” he declared.

For information media. Not an official record.