International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Concludes with Discussion of ‘Hashtag Activism’, Reporting about Women in Occupied Territory

PAL/2235-PI/2272
12 September 2019
International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, AM & PM Meetings

International Media Seminar on Middle East Peace Concludes with Discussion of ‘Hashtag Activism’, Reporting about Women in Occupied Territory

ANKARA, 12 September — The 2019 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded today with robust discussions on topics ranging from better ways to report on women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to social media’s role in supporting Palestinian activism — or spreading harmful misinformation — in a rapidly changing world.

Aydan Karamanoğlu, Deputy Director‑General in Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in closing remarks that speakers throughout the two-day Seminar contributed to a lively and substantive debate.  “All of you have put a human face on the conflict,” he said, noting that diplomats — whose job it is to discuss global issues for many hours — sometimes lose sight of the fact that their conversations reflect real lives on the ground.  Urging participants to continue their crucial work, he said the Seminar itself played a small role in raising global awareness of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Seda Pumpyanskaya, Director of the Strategic Communications Division in the United Nations Department of Global Communications, said participants tackled important questions through interactive dialogue and eye-opening personal stories.  While many of those questions could not be fully answered, “these two days helped us better understand that peace is the answer to all questions” during conversations that were both rich and intriguing, she said.

During the morning panel, titled “Women of the Conflict:  Are Their Stories Reported?”, speakers discussed the ways in which women are impacted differently than men by the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as whether their stories are sufficiently reflected in news reporting.

Panellists and audience members from a variety of news outlets and online platforms, as well as university students, educators and others, offered their views on the complex task of providing accurate, informative reporting on women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory — especially when dealing with access restrictions and long-entrenched structural inequality.  Several speakers underscored the difficulty of striking a balance between factual reporting and compelling storytelling, with many cautioning against either victimizing women or glossing over their struggles.

Panellist Anat Saragusti, a filmmaker, book editor and freelance journalist based in Israel, said the stories of women impacted by the conflict are not sufficiently reported.  Recalling the domestic‑violence-related murders of two young women in Israel in 2018 — which led to protests across the country — she said that, while Israel’s media covered the murders and the strikes, it failed to make the connection to the long‑standing conflict, which has flooded Israel’s population with guns and ammunition.  She also described her own work as a feminist reporter, which often involves humiliation and discrimination.

Panellist Ali Ghaith, a contributor to the independent global media platform OpenDemocracy, said the vast majority of media outlets in the region lack gender‑specific reporting strategies.  Very few portray strong women as individuals with hopes and dreams, and gender-related topics are often dismissed as “seasonal”.  In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, many news outlets paint Palestinian women as victims with no agency of their own.  In that context, he called for more specific training on gender-sensitive reporting for journalists, both in the Middle East and around the globe, as well as stronger gender education and sensitization programmes for communicators at the tertiary education level.

In the afternoon, a different set of experts tackled the theme “The Israel‑Palestine Conflict and the Hashtag Activism Phenomenon”.  Panellists and other speakers — including many journalists — shared their experiences navigating social media platforms.  They outlined their views on such topics as the merits of online activism, attempts at State regulation of social media platforms and the enormous challenges posed by misleading content online.

Panellist Damian Radcliffe, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, United States, said recent social campaigns — including the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements — have used the “hashtag” tool quite successfully.  One such campaign emerged recently under the hashtag #IStandWithIlhan, referring to the United States President’s criticism of several Congresswomen who planned to visit Israel.  However, misinformation can also be easily spread online, either deliberately or accidentally, and is exacerbated by tools including bots, trolls and cyberattacks.  “Media consumers need to be more literate than ever,” he stressed, warning that new sophisticated digital editing techniques will only make matters more complicated in the future.

Panellist Orly Noy, editor at the Hebrew-language site Local Call and a contributor to +972 Magazine, emphasized that viral social media movements are difficult to monitor or control.  However, between those platforms and the traditional press is the alternative media, which adheres to the same journalistic standards as the latter.  Joining other speakers in raising concerns about “neutrality” as one of those standards, both online and in print, she rejected the concept as impossible in the context of the Israeli occupation.  “We cannot be neutral in such a deeply morally violated reality,” she stressed.

Panel I

In the morning, the seminar convened its third panel discussion, which focused on the theme “Women of the Conflict:  Are Their Stories Reported?”  Moderated by Nanette Braun, Chief of the Communications Campaigns Service, Strategic Communications Division, Department of Global Communications, it featured four panellists:  Turgut Alp Boyraz, Middle East and North Africa News Editor at Anadolu Agency; Ali Ghaith, contributor to the independent global media platform OpenDemocracy; Maryse Guimond, Special Representative to the Palestine Country Office of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women); and Anat Saragusti, filmmaker, book editor and freelance journalist and writer.

Ms. BRAUN, opening the discussion, said conflict is known to affect women differently from men.  No country has achieved gender equality, and in conflict and post-conflict situations, the discrimination and inequalities experienced by women are often exacerbated.  Maternal mortality and child marriage rates rise, domestic violence increases and the right to land becomes more elusive.  Though women are rarely at the forefront of conflict, they often bear its brunt.  The Security Council recognized that in its landmark resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, calling for measures to address the special needs of women in conflict.  Still, not enough is heard about women in conflict and their perspectives remain underreported.  Citing figures from the Global Media Monitoring Project, she said 1 in 4 people seen, quoted or heard in the news media are women, and less than 10 per cent of stories focus on gender‑equality issues.

Against that backdrop, she asked panellists to consider specific ways in which women are impacted by the Israel-Palestine conflict and whether their stories are sufficiently reflected in news reporting.

Ms. SARAGUSTI responded that women do face different challenges and their stories are not, in fact, sufficiently reported.  Sharing the story of two young women murdered in Israel in 2018 as a result of domestic violence — which led to protests across the country — she said that, while Israel’s media covered the murders, strikes and protests, most failed to link them to the conflict, which has flooded the population with guns and ammunition.  Violence against women is also closely tied to discrimination and stereotypical attitudes, as well as women’s exclusion from the public sphere.  Describing her own work as a feminist reporter in Gaza, she said that, despite her expertise, male pundits were often invited to discuss the conflict on television programmes “above my head”.  Besides being humiliating, she said such practices lead media groups to miss important opportunities to view the conflict through a female lens.

Mr. GHAITH said reporting on women is crucial whether there is a conflict or not.  In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, women suffer under a patriarchal system that is present to some extent all over the world, trying their best to voice their views and engage in their communities.  The obstacles they face also extend into workplaces, pay checks, classrooms and homes.  “This is what we are not seeing in the media,” he stressed.  Recalling a time when he witnessed discrimination against a renowned Palestinian author, he said the men who bombarded her with aggressive questions and accusations were uncomfortable with her perspective.  “Men are afraid of women’s emotions,” he said, adding that they do not wish to be associated with reporting on those feelings.  In that regard, he urged media members to shift their perspectives.

Ms. GUIMOND outlined the challenges facing all residents of Gaza, including movement restrictions, settler violence, water shortages, human rights abuses and a decade-long blockade that has resulted in a perpetual humanitarian crisis and aid dependence.  However, those elements impact girls and women differently, as families choose to take their daughters out of school due to security concerns and women bear the added burden of finding water for their families when it is in short supply.  Moreover, the demolition of homes — the sphere where many women spend most of their time — affects them more heavily than men.  Such matters are rarely reported in the media.  When women do appear in news stories, they are typically presented as wives or daughters, not main actors, she said.

Mr. BOYRAZ, pointing out that Israel is the only country in the world that has instated mandatory military service for both men and women, said the militarization of Israel’s society — and the forced “masculinization” of young women — poses a major challenge.  Meanwhile, both Palestinian men and women face serious residency and movement restrictions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in parts of Jerusalem where homes are old and overcrowded.  Women and children are most negatively impacted by these daily challenges, he said, adding that children in poor and crowded homes in Jerusalem often find themselves spending time in the streets where they are vulnerable to violence.

Ms. BRAUN then asked the panellists to reflect on what should be done to bring women “to the headlines”, including changes needed in media organizations themselves.

Mr. GHAITH said the vast majority of media outlets lack gender-specific reporting strategies.  Very few portray strong women as individuals with hopes and dreams, he said, adding that gender-related topics are often dismissed as “seasonal”.  In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, many news outlets focus on the impact of donor funding on recipients — many of whom are women — which further paints Palestinian women as victims with no agency of their own.  He called for more specific training on gender-sensitive reporting for journalists, both in the Middle East and around the globe, as well as more robust gender education and sensitization programmes for communicators at the tertiary education level.

Ms. SARAGUSTI said the limited numbers of Israeli women leaders have been forced to adopt the negative manners of their male counterparts.  Noting that men regrettably still outnumber and outrank women in media agencies all over the world, she pointed out that the same is also true of the upper echelons of national and global politics.  In Israel, the Women’s Journalist Forum created a database of female experts who can be called upon as sources.  Such solidarity is crucial, she said, adding that it can work across a range of media outlets — even those that compete with each other.

Mr. BOYRAZ, asked whether a higher percentage of women media managers and reporters will result in better coverage of women, responded that consumers are “fed up with hearing about Palestine” as the conflict has been in the news for so long.  Feature stories about the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including about women’s lives, often gain little traction and have low numbers of readers.  Unfortunately, journalists are often tempted to portray women in the clichéd roles of victims, including grieving wives or mothers, to boost their readership.

Ms. GUIMOND said that, while both men and women suffer under conflict, men — but typically not women — are able to take part in peace negotiations.  In terms of the media’s role, she said UN-Women created the “Step It Up for Gender Equality Media Compact” which asks media outlets to train their staff in gender-sensitive reporting techniques.  She urged media practitioners to look beyond statistics to share human stories the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asked whether — as a young male journalist — he has seen a generational change in the way media outlets report on women, Mr. GHAITH said today’s technological shifts offer great potential for positive change.  However, digital reporting techniques must be accompanied by larger structural and social changes.  Narratives in both the Palestinian and Israeli media must be closely scrutinized to avoid exploiting women’s stories and furthering the subjugation of Palestinian people, he stressed.

The floor was then opened for questions and comments.

Participants from news outlets and online platforms, as well university students, educators and non-governmental organization representatives, shared their views on the complex task of providing accurate, informative reporting on women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory — even in the face of access restrictions and long-entrenched structural inequality.  Several speakers underscored the difficulty of striking a balance between factual reporting and compelling storytelling, while warning against falling into the twin traps of victimizing women on the one hand or glossing over their struggles on the other.

TANIA HARY, Executive Director of the Israeli non-profit organization Gisha, asked panellists to consider the issue of comparative “women’s rights watching” in which critics on each side of the conflict accuse the other of oppressing women.

Ms. SARAGUSTI responded that the increasing number of feminist reporters, including young women reporters, are well trained in gender issues and better able to avoid such narratives.  Ms. GUIMOND said women on the different sides of the conflict are often isolated from each other, which can skew their perspectives.

AHMED SHIHAB-ELDIN, a senior correspondent for AJ+, drew attention to challenges of interviewing Palestinian women, who are often afraid to speak to outsiders.  He also raised the mishandled coverage of the recent murders of several women in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and asked the panellists to reflect on the difficult social structures that govern the lives of Palestinian women.

Mr. GHAITH, stressing that the media’s purpose is to inform the people, underlined the need to present credible, accurate information no matter the subject.  “A journalist needs to unearth facts,” he stressed, emphasizing that the same must be true even in the sometimes-sensationalized cases of murders and honour killings.

Mr. BOYRAZ agreed with other speakers who said the media “is moving in the right direction”.  However, many women still feel that the more technical roles in the field — such as camera operators — are not suitable for them, he said, stressing that more work remains to be done.  To that, Mr. GHAITH added that having women in such critical roles as camera people would literally “shift the lens” through which media stories are told.

Ms. GUIMOND described a recent study of masculinity in four countries in the Middle East, including the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which found that young men were, on average, more conservative than their fathers on gender equality.  In that vein, UN-Women is focusing on household roles and social attitudes in the context of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms. NOY spotlighted the “Women Wage Peace” initiative — in which Israeli and Palestinian women have united to demand the launch of peace negotiations and women’s participation in them.  She nonetheless voiced disappointment that, because of its broad scope, that movement is also unable to make more specific demands.  She asked the panellists whether the identity of “woman” can ever eclipse other identity differences, such as race or religion.

Ms. SARAGUSTI, speaking about her experience working with “Women Wage Peace”, said it represents an exploration of the core agenda of women in Israel — both Palestinians and Jews.  Agreeing that there are differences among its members, she asked whether Israeli settler women could ever be considered feminists, as they are sitting on Palestinian women’s land.  Stressing that one must at times collaborate with her opponent, she cited the example of women in Liberia who successfully took part in peace talks.

Similarly, Ms. GUIMOND underlined the need to build trust among women’s groups, “agree to disagree on certain things” and give the process time to work.  She cited the role of women in Northern Ireland’s peace negotiations as a positive example.

Panel II

The meeting’s fourth and final panel, also moderated by Ms. Braun, focused on the theme:  “The Israel-Palestine Conflict and the Hashtag Activism Phenomenon”.  It featured presentations by: Çetiner Çetin, journalist and regular commentator on HaberTurk TV; Orly Noy, editor at Local Call and contributor to +972 Magazine; Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, senior correspondent for AJ+; and Damian Radcliffe, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, United States.

Ms. BRAUN noted the rising influence of social media in shaping public opinion and building movements.  “Today, anyone, anywhere with Internet access or a mobile phone can directly engage with large audiences — or become part of an easily reached target audience,” she said.  While social media facilitates citizen activism by providing a platform to share information and join forces, there have also been sophisticated campaigns to spread misinformation and manipulate people.  Describing the tool as a double-edge sword, she said its power to promote peace or exacerbate violence has rendered “hashtag activism” a hotly debated topic.  Criticism of social media has focused on its lack of publication standards and editorial oversight, she said, asking panellists to reflect on the role of online activism in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Mr. RADCLIFFE, noting that the hashtag phenomenon has only existed for a decade, said several major social campaigns have used it successfully — including the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements.  One such campaign emerged recently under the hashtag #IStandWithIlhan, referring to the United States President’s criticism of several Congresswomen who planned to visit Israel.  At the same time, he said, the trend has received criticism from people describing it as “slacktivism” and emphasizing that real activism takes time and effort.  Turning to the challenge of misinformation, he said it can be spread either deliberately or accidentally, and is exacerbated by tools including bots, trolls and cyberattacks.  “Media consumers need to be more literate than ever,” he said, warning that “deep fakes” and other sophisticated digital editing techniques will only make matters more complicated.  He also referred to five emerging trends, describing them as misinformation and disinformation; weaponization of social media; privacy media concerns; migration to closed networks; and algorithms.

Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN, voicing his view that journalism itself is a form of activism, recalled that the press was once the gatekeeper of the world’s information.  Today, shifts described by Mr. Radcliffe have totally changed that paradigm.  The specific facts that are used — and how they are framed — greatly impact the social conversation, he said, describing his own life experience as inextricably linked to his work as a journalist.  In the case of the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict, he posed the question of whether journalists claiming to be objective are, in fact, concealing a larger truth on the ground.  Displaying slides of retweeted media headlines — notably about Palestinians killed by Israeli forces during protests in Gaza — he said their framing frequently omits important facts, for example, about who caused the deaths.  “This, to me, is stunningly irresponsible,” he said, adding that headlines are widely shared on social media and then influence public opinion.

Ms. NOY said social media has presented both new possibilities and limitations for activists.  Such platforms have helped Palestinians overcome physical obstacles, such as the geographic fragmentation that used to prevent people in different areas from joining together.  “It also allows them to engage in a kind of activism that does not endanger them — as much,” she said, stressing that using the wrong hashtag can still land individuals in prison.  While many successful hashtag campaigns have taken off globally, very few have been launched about the occupation in Hebrew.  Those issues are closely linked to the failings of Israel’s mainstream media, she said, noting that social media was created in part to “bypass the gatekeepers”, but is not actually playing that intended role in Israel.  To drive a successful social media campaign, the public must be primed to absorb information, which she said is not currently the case in that country.

Mr. ÇETIN said that, in many Middle Eastern countries, there are no laws governing how to use social media.  In others, users face grave consequences if they break national rules.  While tweets often become news in themselves, their sources can rarely be verified, posing major challenges for journalists.  Describing strict social media checks by State authorities in both Syria and Iraq, he said such surveillance is sometimes used to block entry into those countries.  Though some online campaigns about the Occupied Palestinian Territory are gaining traction, Israeli authorities have removed thousands of related hashtags, thereby preventing nascent movements from taking root.  The Palestinian Authority also imposes strict sanctions against social media users, he noted.

Ms. BRAUN, agreeing that the issue of online rules is an extremely complex one, pointed out that calls for regulation have clashed with the view that any limits on social media use constitute an attack on the right to free speech.  She asked the panellists to offer their views on that question in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and to propose some effective actions.

Ms. NOY said viral social media movements are difficult to monitor or control.  However, a third sphere — the alternative media — can act as a mediator between social platforms and the traditional press, while adhering to the same journalistic standards as the latter.  To the question of neutrality raised by other panellists, she agreed that no such position is possible in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “We cannot be neutral in such a deeply morally violated reality,” she stressed.

Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN agreed that neutrality on many issues — including online movements such as #BlackLivesMatter — is impossible.  Major structural inequities exist around the world, notably in the case of violence perpetrated against African-Americans by police officers.  He voiced alarm that several social media platforms have been working with Israeli authorities to determine which posts are permitted and which are taken down.  Urging participants to question their own social media use, he stressed that there is no country in which speaking out on those platforms is totally without repercussions.  Indeed, some Governments — especially in the Gulf region — have enacted strict laws about social media use and imprison people who violate them.

Mr. RADCLIFFE pointed to the impossibility of any real systemic regulation, noting that the sheer volume of content on social media platforms is too massive to oversee effectively.  Individuals always find a way around regulations.  Against that backdrop, he urged social media users to better understand how these platforms work and can shape information.

Mr. ÇETIN said that, while social media use varies around the world, the viral nature of its content remains widely uncontrolled.  Expressing concern about the imminent rise of “social media cults”, especially in the Middle East, he called for action to prevent such dangerous movements and to combat trolls who seek to sabotage their enemies online.  Noting that mainstream media outlets have begun using social media as a source of information, he said leaks that previously appeared in traditional outlets now appear online.  While many Twitter accounts persistently criticize Turkey’s Government, authorities have declined to ban them.  “Turkey does not suffer from such politically motivated bans,” he asserted.

The floor was then opened for an interactive discussion with the panellists.

Participants offered comments, asked questions and shared their own experiences with social media platforms.  They outlined their views on the merits of online activism, the role of State regulation and the challenges posed by misleading content.  Some also shared their experiences with direct threats from troll accounts.

AMIRA HASS, who participated in the morning panel discussion, pointed out that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Donald Trump of the United States use social media to bully and delegitimize journalists.  While they largely refuse interviews with the traditional press, they instead speak directly to audiences “above the head of the media”, which could hold them accountable for their words, she said, describing this behaviour as dangerous.

Mr. GHAITH, another participant in the morning panel, stressed that what may be considered activism by Palestinians may be perceived as incitement by the other side.  He asked the panellists what they consider to be the best social media techniques for Palestinian activists.

Mr. RADCLIFFE agreed that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”.  Noting that social media gives users insight and perspective into other people’s lives, he said a new breed of “solutions journalism” — which seeks to illustrate positive examples of people engaging with their communities — is useful in combating negative, one-sided narratives such as those often seen around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To the same point, Ms. NOY spotlighted a Palestinian initiative called Hamleh, which works to educate civil society groups and activists about launching effective social media campaigns.  Mr. SHIHAB-ELDIN described hashtags as somewhat superficial, emphasizing that “content is king”.  Striking a similar tone, Mr. ÇETIN said powerful images of the occupation — even those removed from platforms by Israel’s authorities — will somehow find their way to consumers.

For information media. Not an official record.