Friday, July 25, 2014

Distortions and Inaccurate Assumptions: RTÉ's coverage of Operation Protective Edge, another Israeli Assault on Gaza

An open letter to Carole Coleman and RTÉ regarding the Six One News report of July 23rd 2014.

Ms. Coleman,

Over recent weeks I have watched your news reports of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza with increasing dismay. Your passable report on yesterday’s Six One News (July 24th) does not erase the effect of relentless distortions over many more bulletins. As for RTÉ's wider coverage, it continued to entertain Israeli propaganda in last night’s bulletin, a matter that merits separate discussion elsewhere. At a time when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are killing upwards of one hundred Gazans per day, your reports regularly seek a balance that simply does not exist in this conflict. In less creditable instances, you regurgitate Israeli wartime propaganda or let it pass unquestioned. To focus on just one case in point, I refer specifically to your Six One News report from two days ago, July 23rd. The report is typical of yours and RTÉ's coverage over recent weeks in its underlying assumptions, content, and framing.

On the morning of July 23rd, Haaretz reported at least seventy-five deaths in Gaza during the previous 24 hours. Meanwhile, your dispatch began by taking us to Ben-Gurion Airport, the usually "bustling hub" in Tel Aviv. The airport was having to deal with a brief and partial interruption to international flights due to Hamas rocket fire, or, more precisely, a Hamas rocket fired from Gaza. Tel Aviv suffered zero casualties from rocket fire on July 23rd as it has every day over the past three weeks. Shimon Peres was next on our screens to speak about flight cancellations. He suggested a solution to the problem, from which we could infer a solution to the whole conflict: Stop the rockets. 

U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon provides the deceptive semblance of balanced reporting. Although clearly not the most important matter of the day, Ban was, nevertheless, "pressing the matter of Palestinian casualties", which vaguely reminded us that a place other than Ben-Gurion Airport might warrant our attention. At the time of your report, over 600 people, of whom 147 were children and three-quarters civilians, had died in the IDF bombardment and invasion of Gaza. You were aware of the figures, having seen the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights quote them that day, but you chose not to worry us with the details. 

We rarely, if ever, glimpse the broken bodies of Israel's victims on RTÉ, and on July 23rd you kept Palestinian death, the real story on this day and every day for the past three weeks, far from our eyes. Instead we saw what an airstrike looks like from a safe distance. You told us how the war continued "unabated from both sides". More accurately, it continued at a rate of 150 Palestinian civilians killed for every civilian killed in Israel. Free from the nuisance context of Palestinian dead, your report cuts to an enraged Palestinian woman who, you tell us, is shouting about becoming a suicide bomber. Thus, in a crude distortion, an effect of Israeli brutality takes the guise of a cause.

Following this, and for a second time in your report, a senior U.N. official's statement garners your edifying commentary, whereas an Israeli representative speaks without qualification. You help us to understand the restrained message of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights by distorting it: According to your report, Navi Pillay "outlined instances where she believed Palestinian civilians had not been protected by Israel". In fact, just seconds after your explanation, the High Commissioner, referring to far more pervasive violations than the individual cases you cite, says the following: "These are just a few instances where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes". A casual viewer of the RTÉ News might miss the distinction between the High Commissioner's believing that Israel is not protecting Palestinian civilians (your distortion of her message) and the studied view that Israel may be committing war crimes (her understatement). 

Next up in the name of balance is the Israeli Permanent Representative to the U.N., Eviator Manor, who is given more air time than any other speaker in your report. You find no reason to qualify his words, unlike the U.N. Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Israeli Representative tells us that "there can be no moral symmetry between a terrorist aggressor and a democracy defending itself". I would suggest, by way of filling the gap in commentary, that the Representative is correct in his abstraction, but not for his reasons: Israel and the West torpedoed Palestinian democracy when Palestinians made the mistake of electing Hamas (the wrong side) to power in 2006. Over the following eight years Israel has punished this mistake by increasing terror and devastation across Palestinian civil society, through Western-backed economic sanctions, increased settlement building in the West Bank, the brutalising blockade on Gaza, regular airstrikes, and three full-scale military assaults. RTÉ, via the Permanent Representative, urges us to reflect instead on moral asymmetries and prefers not to discuss the very real military asymmetry of the current conflict or to show its consequences. Israeli historian Avi Shlaim's words during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 remain depressingly relevant to the present Operation Protective Edge. Summarizing the real-world asymmetry, he noted that when exercising its right of self-defence from "the pinpricks of rocket attacks", Israel has gone way beyond the “savage” Biblical principle of "an eye for and eye". Instead, “Israel's insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash." 

You round off your report with plans in Ireland to send aid to Gaza's faceless victims and U.S. efforts to end the conflict by talking to "all sides". Naturally, "all sides" does not include Hamas, an inadmissible partner in any negotiations, given its unreasonable demands for an end to the blockade of Gaza – a blockade which has led to a 72.8% prevalence of anaemia and a 31.4% prevalence of stunting in Gazan children.

The Six One report of July 23rd is illustrative because it is unremarkable. The assumption of moral Israeli intentions forms the basis of all RTÉ reporting on Israel-Palestine and leads to gross distortions of what is actually happening. One quick thought experiment illustrates this final point: Let's imagine how a balanced RTÉ report might look in an alternate reality. Leaving aside the horrors of the blockade, let's say that three weeks of Hamas rocket fire has killed 450 Israeli civilians (the estimate of July 23rd in this inverted universe), while three Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israel in the Gaza strip: 

The report opens with the worrying disruption to flights arriving at the normally bustling Yasser Arafat International Airport after a close call from Israeli shelling. Senior Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh gives his opinion on how to get the airport back to full functionality, while a pestering Ban Ki-moon wants to talk about Israeli civilians. A Hamas rocket is shown to hit some kind of building, and a furious Israeli woman raves about retribution. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights believes that maybe Hamas is not doing enough to protect Israeli civilians, but the Palestinian Representative doesn't want to talk about that, and nor does RTÉ. Instead, he gets to the core of the matter - the moral superiority of the Hamas freedom struggle. We do not hear from any Israeli politician, hawk or dove, or any details on the suffering of civilians in southern Israel. We are told that, in an attempt to broker a ceasefire, Hamas allies Qatar and Turkey have sent envoys who are speaking to all parties (a term which does not include the Israeli Government).

Respectfully yours,

Thomas O’Rourke