LISBON, 22 July — The Eighteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened in Lisbon, Portugal, this morning under the theme “The role of the Media, including New Media, in Advancing the Middle East Peace Process”.
In opening remarks, Pedro Manuel Lourtie, Secretary of State for European Affairs of Portugal, said the United Nations played an important role in fighting information-exclusion and in bridging the digital gap, by ensuring that all voices and histories could be heard without making headlines. In fact, a global view was often a partial one, an important factor to remember, particularly when talking about the Middle East peace process.
He said the media could be very efficient in influencing perceptions of conflict. The Middle East conflict had lasted many years, but instead of dwelling on the past, issues for consideration should include the present, the future and the question of rights, such as the right of the Palestinian people to their own land and security. There should be a feasible solution that could be implemented within the next 24 months, entailing two States living side by side in peace and security.
In a welcoming statement, Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said the Seminar’s objective was not only to sensitize public opinion on the question of Palestine, but also to foster dialogue and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis, as a contribution to the creation of an environment conducive to peace.
He said the Seminar would focus for the first time on the role of new media, including social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, in advancing the Middle East peace process, including efforts by civil society. It would also focus on the role of women in the quest for peace and security in the Middle East. The United Nations hoped that the Seminar would encourage its colleagues in the media to inform their audiences about positive actions that people in the region on both sides of the conflict were taking to achieve peace.
Mr. Akasaka also read a message from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who noted that the Seminar was taking place as Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks got under way — and that the coming weeks would be critical in determining whether there could be a move to direct negotiations. The two-State solution was the consensus position of the international community as well as Israelis and Palestinians. That was essential for Israel to maintain its democratic character and identity, and to gain security and legitimacy throughout the region, the Secretary-General noted, adding that it was essential for Palestinians to achieve genuine freedom and national self-determination, and to end the occupation. A negotiated solution to the refugee issue should also be found, he said, pointing out, however, that time was working against a two-State solution and leaders on both sides must overcome their domestic political pressures and take bold steps for peace.
The Seminar then heard a keynote address delivered on behalf of Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority, by Richard Miron, his Spokesperson. Mr. Serry said the media had a crucial role to play in influencing opinion in favour of peace. The situation on the ground did not allow for complacency since tensions or an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem could threaten progress and derail the talks given that tensions had worsened, despite comparative restraint in the last few months. There had been an emergence of independent voices in the West Bank, he noted.
Mr. Serry went on to describe Israel's media as varied, representing freely and volubly different opinions across the political spectrum, noting, however, that efforts were required to protect and encourage free speech. The media occupied a rare and precious place in protecting freedoms, preventing tyranny and promoting peace, he said, emphasizing that freedom of the press was not an end in itself, but a means to the end of achieving a free society. That was the case in Israel and Palestine, with the media subjecting the actions of those in authority to scrutiny, and reporting on the events.
Following these statements and messages, the Seminar held its first Panel discussion, on the topic “The role of the Israeli and Palestinian media in reducing tensions and creating a conducive environment for peace”. Moderated by Mr. Akasaka, the panel featured keynote speakers Riyadh El Hassan, Chairman of the Board, Palestine News and Information Agency, WAFA, Palestinian Authority; and Mark Bleich, Columnist, Maariv newspaper, Israel. The four panellists were Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations; Eli Dayan, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Israel; Aydar R. Aganin, Head of Rusya al-Yaum Arabic channel, Russia Today TV Network; and Ian Williams, Senior Foreign Policy Analyst, Focus.
Issues raised during the panel discussion included the role of the media in not provoking tensions, ensuring objectivity, preventing incitement to hatred and violence, and providing a true reflection of events on the ground. The media had a crucial role to play in addressing fear and ignorance on both sides of the conflict, and in helping to moderate. In a situation of living under occupation, it was the duty of journalists to convey accurately the true life of those living under occupation — anything short of that would be a falsification of reality. The Israeli and Palestinian media were playing to their own audiences as well as an international one, and an American one. The truth was not just a moral imperative, but actually worked — in the end, the media that got it most right most often would still be reporting at the end of the battle. There was no doubt that the media could play an important role in promoting the peace process on both sides, and there had been progress in that regard.
The Seminar will reconvene at 2:30 p.m. today, to hold the first of two panels, on the themes “New media vs. traditional media: allies or adversaries in furthering the peace process”, and “The role of Israeli and Palestinian women in achieving peace and security in the Middle East”.
PEDRO MANUEL LOURTIE, Secretary of State for European Affairs of Portugal, said it was a great satisfaction to be able to host the Seminar in Lisbon, and thanked the United Nations for the opportunity. He said the words and images disseminated by the media through new technology were vital to perceptions of international reality. For that reason, and particularly in an increasingly globalized world, the role of the Department of Public Information was ever more important in disseminating the Organization’s values. The United Nations played an important role in fighting information-exclusion and bridging the digital information gap, by ensuring that all voices and histories could be heard, even without making the headlines.
The United Nations could not ignore the dialogue taking place among users of new media, and through social networking sites, both globally and locally, he said. That dialogue was taking place in parallel with others, and Governments often had to admit they were not aware of the parallel dialogues and events occurring around the world. Indeed, global views or perceptions were sometimes only partial views, an important factor to remember, particularly when talking about the Middle East peace process. The goals of the United Nations Charter, including international peace and security, could only be achieved if they were fully understood by all concerned, especially citizens, which was where the role of the media was crucial.
He said the media could be very effective in influencing perceptions of conflicts. The Middle East conflict had lasted many years, but instead of talking about the past, issues for consideration should include the present, the future and the issue of rights, such as the right of the Palestinian people to their own land and security. The mission should be clear — no actions should be accepted that would jeopardize negotiations. The efforts of the Palestinian Authority to build a State should be upheld, but in the context of a very clear political perspective. There should be a feasible solution soon, even within the next 24 months, entailing two States living side by side in peace and security, with East Jerusalem as the capital of a viable Palestinian State, he stressed, calling on both sides to make a commitment to that end.
KIYO AKASAKA, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said the objective in organizing the Seminar was not only to sensitize public opinion to the question of Palestine, but also to foster dialogue and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis as a contribution to the creation of an environment conducive to peace. The Seminar would focus for the first time on the role of new media, including social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, in advancing the Middle East peace process, including efforts by civil society. It would also address the role of women in the quest for peace and security in the Middle East, in light of the tenth anniversary this October of the Security Council’s adoption of resolution 1325 (2000). The United Nations hoped the Seminar would encourage those in the media to convey to their audiences in the region the wide array of actions undertaken by civil society and the media to involve communities on both sides in peace. Ultimately, it was people who had the power to demand, shape and deliver peace.
Mr. Akasaka, speaking on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the Seminar was meeting as Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks got under way. It was vital for the parties to refrain from provocations and seize the opportunity — the coming weeks would be critical in determining whether there could be a move to direct negotiations. The two-State solution was the consensus position of the international community, Israelis and Palestinians. He said it was essential for Israel to maintain its democratic character and identity, and to gain security and legitimacy throughout the region. It was essential for Palestinians to achieve genuine freedom and national self-determination, and to end the occupation. A negotiated solution to the refugee issue should also be found — but time was working against the two-State solution. Leaders on both sides must overcome their domestic political pressures, and take bold steps for peace.
The Secretary-General welcomed the Seminar’s focus on the role of Israeli and Palestinian women in seeking peace and security in the Middle East. Welcoming Israel's recent steps towards a new policy on Gaza, he said full and swift implementation was crucial, as were further measures beyond those announced — the goal must be an end to the blockade. Hamas, for its part, should enforce an extended ceasefire and move forward with the Egyptian proposal for reconciliation with the legitimate Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. With respect to prisoners, he continued to call for a prisoner-exchange agreement, noting that it served no Palestinian interest to keep Corporal Gilad Shalit in captivity. Jerusalem was a permanent status issue, and a way should be found for the city to emerge as the capital of both Israel and a future State of Palestine. Settlement activity in any part of the occupied Palestinian territory contravened international law, Security Council resolutions, and Israel's Road Map obligations, and should be frozen, he said.
While welcoming the reduction in the number of obstacles to movement in the West Bank, the Secretary-General noted that hundreds of checkpoints and other obstacles continued to stifle economic activity and deprive Palestinians of access to their lands, hospitals and schools. Despite such challenges, however, the Palestinian Authority’s State-building initiative showed remarkable progress. He also welcomed the Seminar’s attention to the role of new media in advancing the peace process, pointing out that their growing use offered truly exciting opportunities to reach wider audiences, particularly young people. He encouraged young Israelis and Palestinians to use the new tools to spread positive messages in order to promote a culture of peace, coexistence and better understanding between their peoples.
RICHARD MIRON, Spokesperson, delivered a statement on behalf of Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority, saying the media had a crucial role to play in influencing opinion in favour of peace. He said that in recent days, he had been involved in discussions with the Palestinian and Israeli sides and with the partners of the Middle East Quartet on prospects for moving ahead to direct negotiations on a final status agreement. This was a critical juncture in efforts to move to serious Israeli-Palestinian discussions aimed at achieving a two-State solution and resolving all core issues between the partners, including Jerusalem, borders, refugees, security, settlements and water, he added.
Noting that six rounds of proximity talks had now been facilitated, with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both having visited Washington, it remained the shared goal of the Quartet partners to bring about direct negotiations facilitated by the United States as soon as possible. Intensive discussions were continuing and the present opportunity for progress should not be missed, he stressed, warning that the situation on the ground did not allow for complacency. Tensions in Jerusalem or an outbreak of violence could derail the talks, given that, despite comparative restraint in the last few months, tensions had been exacerbated by the renewed demolitions of Palestinian homes, announcements of renewed Israeli settlement construction, and the threatened expulsion of Palestinian Legislative Council members from East Jerusalem.
He went on to underscore the continuing support of the United Nations for attempts by the parties to find a durable solution on Jerusalem that would enable the city to emerge from negotiations as the capital of two States. In the West Bank, the settlement restraint policy was still short of the total freeze to which Israel had committed itself under the Road Map, he said, adding that, despite those difficulties, the future institutions of the Palestinian State continued to be built, and the Palestinian economy continued to grow. The removal of some barriers and checkpoints had facilitated that progress, which should not be reversed. Given the performance by the Palestinian security forces, it was to be hoped that Israel would curb its own security actions in the West Bank, while further enabling the Palestinian Authority’s own efforts, he said.
The Special Coordinator said that the United Nations was at the forefront of efforts to establish a different strategy towards Gaza, where the situation was not in the interests of any party. In the last month, imports to Gaza had increased significantly and the United Nations system was working to ensure that the recent easing of the blockade was fully implemented. While approval had been given for a number of additional projects in the vital areas of education and health, more needed to happen in order to arrest the “de-development” of Gaza, so that people as well as exports could move through the crossings, while Israel's legitimate security concerns were respected.
He called on all parties to build on that positive trend by addressing underlying issues: end to all acts of violence; pursuing Palestinian reconciliation and unity; preventing the smuggling of weapons; and ending the captivity of Gilad Shalit. The media occupied a crucial position in the conflict, he said, noting that Jerusalem had one of the world’s largest press representations. There was an emergence of independent voices in the West Bank which must be nurtured and protected. Israel's media were varied, representing freely and volubly different opinions across the political spectrum, but constant vigilance was needed to guard against an encroachment on free speech.
Hamas routinely restricted the rights of journalists to report freely on events in Gaza, and journalists had been reportedly arrested, seemingly because of their affiliation to one political organization or the other, he said, adding that actions by the Israeli authorities also continued to weigh against journalists. The Foreign Press Association in Israel had recently protested against harassment, attacks and arrests of journalists by security forces during events in the West Bank. The media occupied a rare and precious place in protecting freedoms, preventing tyranny, and promoting peace, he said, cautioning that freedom of the press was not an end in itself, but a means to the end of creating a free society. That was the case in Israel and Palestine, with the media subjecting the actions of those in authority to scrutiny, and reporting on events.
Mr. AKASAKA, introduced the subject of the first panel, "The role of the Israeli and Palestinian Media in reducing tensions and creating a conducive environment for peace", saying it would consider a number of questions, including whether Israeli and Palestinian media had informed their audiences about the situation on the ground and the prospects for peace in a fair and accurate manner; whether they reinforced negative stereotypes; and whether they had been able to present new ideas and perceptions about the Middle East and its people.
Mr. EL HASSAN of the Palestine News and Information Agency said that when discussing the media’s role in creating an environment for peace and creating peaceful coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, it was necessary to speak about developments in the Palestinian media. The past few years had seen significant progress, including in terms of efforts to make the media more open and to reduce their use of provocative language. The media had slowly shifted from transmitting a mere reflection of events, to helping to clarify the peace process and developments in Palestinian society. That shift had coincided with enormous efforts made locally, regionally and internationally towards an acceptable end to the peace process, as well as other positive developments, including legislative reform and improvements in the rule of law. Improvements in stability and the economy had also paved the way for a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace that would culminate in an independent Palestinian State, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
However, the development of the Palestinian press faced a number of challenges, he cautioned. For example, Palestinian public opinion was influenced by external rather than internal sources, and as a result, Palestinian media themselves did not necessarily make a significant impact on the ground, and could even distance themselves from the people through their reporting. Palestinian media also faced constraints on their movements, which had led to negative sentiments. The role of the media was not to provoke, but to be objective, stop incitement to hatred and violence, and provide a real reflection of events on the ground, he said. It was not an issue of hatred between Jews and Muslims, he said, pointing out that there had been no attempt to define incitement in the past 10 years. Israel and the world knew what was needed to achieve peace, but no positive actions were seen on the ground. An effort should be made to put a framework in place to follow up on attempts to help Israeli and Palestinian media inform their respective publics, and to determine the main sources of media that incited hatred and discrimination. That could help to combat those sources and their negative impact.
Mr. BLEICH of Maariv said the media landscape had changed, and an editor could alter the atmosphere of tomorrow through the use of one word or a single photograph. Did the media create public opinion, or did it try to fit public opinion? Journalism was competitive and commercial, and everyone had learned the trick of capturing headlines. That had resulted in a headline game that did not reflect reality. The stereotypes created by Israeli media were incorrect and detracted from the peace process, he said.
The ways in which journalists could improve the situation depended on themselves, although the international community could help, he noted. The main obstacles to the peace process were fear and ignorance. The fear and ignorance on both sides of the conflict were something that the media could moderate by reaching a decision to try to understand the other side. When fear was overcome, an arrangement could be reached. Efforts should be made to quell the flames and prevent the voice of radicals and extremists being the only one heard. Journalists must be the first to get to know the other side, and each other, which could be done through various means, with the aim of increasing understanding. When journalists knew each other, the media would have a greater opportunity to help the peace process.
Mr. MANSOUR, Permanent Observer of Palestine, said that in a situation of people living under occupation, it was the duty of journalists to convey accurately their true life — anything short of that would be a falsification of reality. On the Israeli side, if the media were to be objective and convey reality to their audience, without assumptions or hidden agendas, they should tell their public what the occupying Power was doing to the Palestinian people, and what was needed for peace. There could be no falsifying land confiscations; illegal settlement construction; construction of an illegal wall; immoral, illegal and inhumane blockade of the Gaza Strip; and severing of Jerusalem, the heart of the Palestinian nation, from the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Palestinians read the Israeli media to know what they were writing about them, and it was the duty of journalists to reduce tension and allow both sides to improve their relationship.
Mr. DAYAN, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Israel, described the important cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli mayors promoting projects aimed at improving mutual understanding, which could promote the peace process. In the last several months there had been quiet both in Gaza and in the West Bank, as well as a liberalization of Israeli policy towards both areas, with a relaxation of restrictions, and a willingness to allow the Palestinian Authority to man the land crossings. The Israeli Government had honoured the moratorium on settlement activity, and had a clear policy to reach agreement on the basis of the two-State solution. In Israel today, the Prime Minister could take tough decisions, since he enjoyed great political support. Hopefully, there would be full agreement in one year, although implementation would take longer, as the right atmosphere and background existed for promoting the peace process. The media had the educational task of informing both sides about cooperation, he said.
Mr. AGANIN of Rusya al-Yaum Arabic Channel, Russia Today TV Network, said that in the Russian Federation today, Arabic-language channels were oriented mainly towards world news, and not only towards Arab or even Arab-Israeli issues. A member of the Quartet, the Russian Federation had its own stance and opinion on the Middle East. When looking at the Israeli and Palestinian societies, it was clear how differently they lived. When asking people on the Israeli street about the situation, it became clear that they were not living in an atmosphere of conflict — they were living normal lives, even without thinking that there was a conflict or a military operation going on in the Palestinian territories. There was a distinct perception of people living in entirely different societies, which therefore caused the media to act differently. That should change, he said, adding that Israel should feel that there was a conflict going on, and that they must live with certain aspects of occupation, as that would lead to a better understanding of the other side and what must be done.
Mr. WILLIAMS of Focus said he was somewhat cynical about the role of the media, who were no angels and were often prone to group-think. Al-Jazeera and other Arab media had been demonized, for example, and whenever the words "terrorist" or "terrorism" entered the conversation, all rational thought disappeared. The Israeli and Palestinian media were not only playing to their own audiences, there was also an international and American one. Were journalists part of a tribe, or were they there to tell the truth? he asked. The truth was not just a moral imperative, it actually worked, he stressed, noting that, in the end, the media that got it most right most often were usually the ones that would still be reporting at the end of the battle. The media’s job was to explain the context and check the facts. Unfortunately, most journalists were not doing that — they were following the group and trusting sources blithely. They had a duty to put things in context and to step out of group-think, he said.
As the floor was opened for comments and questions, among the issues raised was the view that journalists needed to be tough or provocative in order to capture headlines, and that could affect their objectivity. Such unbalanced reporting could also mean that the media had missed its role of promoting the peace process. Speakers also raised the issue of the difficulty that Palestinian journalists faced in gathering information and meeting their Israeli counterparts, owing to severe restrictions on their movements and the effects of the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.
Mr. DAYAN, responding to the comment on the difficulty of movement, said the reality was the problem of terrorism, not only in the Middle East but worldwide, and that must be taken into account. Progress in the peace process would resolve the issue of restrictions on movement. He said that to make real progress, there was a need for secret channels, rather than the media or public relations.
Mr. MANSOUR agreed with a view that Israelis did not understand or see how Palestinians lived, and expressed support for more Israelis hearing Palestinian narratives and stories. That would contribute significantly to understanding the plight of the Palestinian people, and to reaching the peace sought by all. The world was fed up with the situation of the Palestinian people, as much as they were themselves fed up with continuous occupation. They wanted peace and security alongside their Israeli neighbours, and once that was accomplished, the journey towards equality would have begun.
Mr. WILLIAMS asked how one reported the truth, suggesting that some ways included the media avoiding the use of stereotypes and clichés and stating the facts.
Mr. AGANIN added that reporting was about news but also about views. When the media concentrated only on reporting, it was lacking because there was a need for balance, for attempts to identify the reasons behind events as well as what could be done to reach resolution, from the perspective of all sides.
In a further round of questions and comments, speakers pointed out that the assessment that Israelis did not live with the conflict was not entirely correct. The truth did not always come out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it was difficult for some journalists, as Jews, Muslims or Palestinians, to remain entirely objective. The role of education in reducing tensions and violence was also raised, including a suggestion that Israeli public opinion had fallen hostage to the information services, not least because of their own biases, and thus alternatives must be found.
Mr. BLEICH said he was “quite surprised” that the panellists had barely referred to the role of the media, but had spoken mostly about the occupation. However, he agreed with Mr. Mansour that the occupation would end, but the question was how.
Mr. EL HASSAN, responding to a view questioning when Palestinian journalists would ask the same kinds of questions posed by their Israeli counterparts, said that would never happen because, on the Palestinian side, the conflict was a question of basic human rights, while for the Israeli side it was a matter of additional benefits arising from the end of the occupation. Palestinian media must stay in touch with the reality on the ground, he emphasized.
Mr. AKASAKA highlighted the views expressed on the role of the media, their role in stopping incitement, and the tendency of some media to use stereotypes rather than report the facts. When that occurred, the media could do harm, he said, expressing hope that, as the Seminar continued, it would address additional important issues.