"Left or Right: Israelis are Pro-War." That was the headline for a report by Steven Erlanger in The New York Times on 9 August 2006. Anyone following the recent conflict in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as northern Israel, in the Indian media would have no reason to doubt that statement. Much of the media coverage of the troubles in that part of the world over the past few weeks focused on the violence perpetrated by the Israeli military and the Hezbollah militia - particularly the death, destruction and devastation in southern Lebanon and Beirut, the statements of political leaders at home and abroad and, of course, the tortuous debates and negotiations around the global high table: the United Nations Security Council, which finally resulted in a problematic UN resolution followed by what appears to be a fragile ceasefire.
However, there was an immediate response to the NYT piece from Gila Svirsky, a prominent Israeli peace activist with the Coalition of Women for Peace, a group formed in 2000 by nine organisations, in which Israeli and Palestinian women work together towards a just and viable peace between the two would-be neighbouring countries (http://coalitionofwomen.org). "There is ongoing, vocal, and visible Israeli opposition to the war," she wrote in a letter to the editor. "Every day, the Women against War movement holds vigils in three cities -- Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa -- yes, Haifa, even under shelling. Every Saturday, we hold mass marches through the heart of Tel Aviv, the most recent one over 5000 people strong. Several men have refused call-ups to serve in Lebanon, and a dozen young men and women were arrested (8 August) for blocking the road to an air-force base in an effort to prevent, in their words, 'the carrying out of more war crimes'."
Democracy Now! had been calling attention to the activities of the Israeli peace movement for some time. On 24 July it reported that the previous Saturday some 2000 protesters had held a demonstration in Tel Aviv against the war and the country's alliance with the US, calling on Israeli soldiers to refuse military service. On 17 July it announced that Staff Sargent Itzik Shabbat had become the first Israeli soldier to refuse to participate in the attacks on Lebanon.
On both days the show's host, Amy Goodman, interviewed Yonatan Shapira, a former Captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves who, in 2003, initiated the group of Air Force colleagues (including colonels, brigadier generals and squadron commanders) who published what has come to be known as the "pilots' letter," refusing to fly missions over Palestinian territories and carry out attacks on civilians. They were, of course, subsequently dismissed from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Shapira is also one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, a group of former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian militants who together "came to the conclusion that there is no military solution to the violence and the conflict in the Middle East."
Even some "mainstream" international media provided glimpses of dissent and protest within Israel. For example, The Observer (UK) reported that at least two Israeli fighter pilots had deliberately missed bombing targets in Lebanon because they were concerned they were being ordered to bomb civilians. A 17 July report from Haifa in The Guardian (UK) noted that "as the sirens continued to sound, a small group of women stood outside the entrance to the train depot to lodge a small protest against the fighting. Yana Knoboba, 25, a psychology student from Haifa University, sat on the pavement holding a banner that read in Hebrew: 'War will not bring peace.'"
Svirsky's 23 July update from the Israeli peace front quoted Hannah Safran of the Haifa vigil of Women in Black on their experience a few days earlier: they had to temporarily suspend the vigil to seek shelter from the shelling but then returned to complete it as scheduled. Later the same evening the women participated in the daily demonstration of Women against War in front of the Foreign Office and the foreign press. "We will not be silenced," Safran wrote. "War must be stopped now. Every minute counts as people's lives are in danger."
Perhaps these regular, determined and courageous efforts are what the NYT correspondent dismissed in a single sentence -- "There have been weekly demonstrations against the war from smaller, more pacifist groups, but they have rarely drawn more than a few hundred supporters" -- while extensively quoting several representatives of peace organisations more supportive of the recent offensive. For example, Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, was quoted in the piece making a categorical statement that "There is no real peace camp in Israel right now."
Yet even some of those quoted in the NYT report had obviously changed their minds before it appeared. Take Yossi Beilin of the "dovish" Meretz Party. He was also quoted in a 25 July Washington Post article headlined "Israeli 'Doves' Say Response Is Legitimate" suggesting that, instead of invading Lebanon, Israel should have attacked Syria for arming Hezbollah. But an 8 August update to an article by Jon Wiener in The Nation (posted on Alternet on 12 August) referred to an article written by Beilin in the respected Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, that day. Denouncing "the revelry of war" and asserting that it was wrong for Israel to "violate ethical norms" by killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians, he stated: "Our national interest is in completing the moves toward peace with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon, and there is no alternative to an agreement."
On 13 August, on the eve of the ceasefire, the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom published an advertisement in Ha'aretz that said, "A mountain of suffering has turned into an anthill of achievements. Nothing has been gained in this foolish war. Every drop of blood that is being shed now is being shed in vain."
A number of highly regarded Israeli journalists and academics have been consistently writing in Ha'aretz, criticising the violence as well as the mind-set leading to it, and advocating peace-promoting measures - among them Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Tom Segev and Ze'ev Sternhell. In her letter to the NYT editor, Svirsky wrote that the paper "is filled with articles criticising the war -- not because 'it is going poorly' but because the idea of preventing aggression by bombardment is both ludicrous and immoral. These acts of criticism represent the views of thousands more, and if the war continues, they will also be out on the streets. Let's hope it will end before that is necessary."
By mid-August polls in Israel were reportedly recording that public approval for the government's management of the war was plummeting, with 40 per cent of Israelis disapproving of the war and less than half supporting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's handling of it.
None of these developments found mention in the Indian media. What's more, as in the case of the massive anti-war protests and peace demonstrations held in many parts of the world before the attacks on Iraq began in March 2003, the many events across the globe calling for an end to Israel's attacks in Lebanon and Gaza also barely figured in the media here.
On 24 July Democracy Now! reported that in Toronto an estimated 10,000 protesters had marched from the Israeli consulate to the United States consulate that weekend, calling for sanctions and a boycott of Israeli goods. In addition, around 7000 people had joined a protest in London, and several hundred took part in marches in Birmingham, Amsterdam, and downtown Chicago. Svirksy's 23 July dispatch listed 55 demonstrations across the world that weekend. On 5 August, the Stop the War Coalition rallied at least 20,000 marchers in London (going by police figures -- organisers put the number at 100,000). According to DN!, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in several US cities on 12 August, protesting against Israel's attacks on Lebanon.
In addition, a "petition for US Jewish solidarity with Muslim and Arab peoples of the Middle East statement, drafted by US Jews committed to stopping and holding accountable Israel for its destructive policies and practices -- and most immediately for a halt to the current attacks on Lebanon and Gaza," which was initiated on 8 August, had attracted 695 signatories within a week - despite the condition that only those who agreed with all five points made in it must sign. The statement, which the drafters planned to publish in The New York Times and other publications, began thus: "As Jews of conscience living in the United States, we are outraged by the violence being perpetrated in our name both as Jews and as US citizens. We, the undersigned, represent Jews across the United States who are choosing to stand in solidarity with the peoples of Gaza and Lebanon ..."
The lure of war
How is it that we never read or heard about any of this in our media, despite the considerable coverage given to the conflict, with a few Indian correspondents even traveling to the region to provide on-the-spot reportage, and despite the welcome independent analyses provided by several well-informed Indian commentators, especially in the print media?
Information about action for peace was not very difficult to find. And quite a lot of it, besides being important and noteworthy, was novel and dramatic enough to qualify as newsworthy. Could it be because "for the journalist violence is interesting because it is fast and something happens (whereas) peace formation is always a slow process," as suggested by Johan Galtung, founder of peace studies as an academic subject, who is also credited with having introduced the concepts of war and peace journalism?
There has been resistance within the media to the idea of "peace journalism," which is reminiscent of the opposition to the term "development journalism" some decades ago. In both instances, the assumption is that proponents of development or peace journalism are promoting an agenda that is not compatible with freedom of the press and professionalism. Opponents defend the notion that professional journalism must be "objective" and must not take sides -- even in favour of indisputably worthy and non-partisan goals such as peace, if not development (which is clearly a more contentious issue).
Such knee-jerk reactions sidestep the myth of objectivity, which is different from and less realistic and meaningful than accuracy and fairness. They also foreclose the option of honestly evaluating current media practice in order to improve professional norms, standards and ethics. An attempt to understand what Galtung and others who have taken his ideas further, such as Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, mean by "war journalism" reveals that quite a lot of current media coverage of situations of conflict everywhere fall into that category. It also reveals that peace journalism - as Galtung and others describe it - is far more complex and difficult than war journalism, requiring greater attention and adherence to the principles of good journalism. (See "The Peace Journalism Option" -- http://www.transcend.org).
Media coverage of the 1999 "Kargil conflict" between India and Pakistan, which a senior army officer described as "India's first war on television," conformed to many characteristics of war journalism. As A.K. Sachdev, research fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, pointed out soon afterwards, the media worked overtime to quench what he understood as the insatiable public craving for news on Kargil. He linked Indian media coverage of Kargil with the "exemplary" copious and glamorous coverage of the 1991 Gulf War by CNN, which rendered the TV viewer a virtual ringside spectator of the events of that conflict.
Pointing out that a former Chief of Army Staff had exhorted the army to use the media "as a force multiplier and not as a force degrader," he said that, in the context of information warfare, the media can be viewed as a veritable 'force multiplier' with as much of a potential for altering the course of a war as any military force multiplier with a more tangible, more visible material existence. Interestingly, a Pakistani commentator, Adil Najam, has suggested that the dominant interpretation of "the Kargil predicament" in that country appeared to be based on the theory that what Pakistan really lost was the so-called 'international media war'."
According to Chattarji, "A local war in the global village led to the consolidation of almost tribal identities, pushing back any possibility of peace between the two neighbours by years, if not decades. Any notion of truth and analytical gestures were swiftly marginalized in the media, and this suited perfectly the desires of the political class."
The Indian media are, of course, not alone in falling back on "patriotism" in times of war. Analyses of media coverage of several conflict situations in different parts of the world have clearly established that the holy cow of objectivity and even the more critical goals of accuracy and fairness are often given the go-by in the interest of closing ranks against an external enemy.
An innovative media initiative launched on 4 August by the well-known Latin America based Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE) exposed several gaps in "mainstream" media coverage of the situation in Israel and Lebanon. It also demonstrated that even relatively small media enterprises can be proactive in undertaking an essential task of peace journalism: bringing to the fore the "polygon of perspectives" which alone can challenge the bipolar, zero-sum analysis of war journalism. The 'Voices of Resistance' Marathon organised by FIRE generated numerous messages of solidarity and support for women affected by the recent armed conflict from callers around the world, all stressing the need for an immediate end to the violence.
Several women interviewed for the programme were vocal in their criticism of the media. According to Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Center for Research, Training and Action (CRTA) in Beirut, in a situation where nearly a quarter of the Lebanese population has been displaced by the recent violence, the "mainstream media is focusing primarily on the military action and ignoring the voices and perspectives of people, particularly the poor." On the other side of the border, Lily Traubman of Women in Black and Bat Shalom echoed her concerns and added that the "media have not given enough coverage to peace actions because (the coverage) is concentrated on military actions and conflict."
Marieme Helie Lucas, an Algerian with the international organisation, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, talked about how the media have largely ignored the profound anger that the crisis is producing across West Asia. She also deplored the fact that they have overlooked the demonstrations for peace held by women in Israel, who "have the courage to protest against the war inside an aggressor country" -- withstanding the mocking, insults and, in some cases, violence that they have been subjected to. According to her, "war produces more war for women, not only related to military violence but also domestic violence." Pointing out that the escalation of armed conflict in the Middle East will strengthen the hands of fundamentalists, she said it was important to "reject the theory that what is happening was due to a 'clash of civilizations'."
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), highlighted the vital role being played by Israeli and Palestinian women in the International Women's Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace (IWC) and regretted the fact that the mainstream media have provided little coverage of the peace-promoting work of these women leaders.
The eight-hour Voices of Resistance webcast, produced by FIRE in English and Spanish, was rebroadcast by several radio stations and networks, and reproduced or covered in other media, in various parts of the world - but not in India.
It could be argued - though not very convincingly - that the Indian media lack the resources and/or are too preoccupied with all the pressing events and urgent crises constantly unfolding on their home turf to devote much time and space, let alone special coverage, to international affairs. Even if that line of reasoning were to be accepted at face value, it does not quite explain why similar sins of omission and commission are generally evident in coverage of conflict situations even within the country, not to mention the region.
According to proponents of peace journalism, their aim is not to convert all journalists into peace reporters. Rather, they believe that their analysis, and the insights and values distilled from it, can form the basis for a healthy debate on the subject within media organisations, in institutions of media education, and among the public. Such a debate is clearly essential because, as they say, "taken together, mass media technologies, institutions, professionals, norms and practices constitute one of the fundamental forces now shaping the lives of individuals and the fate of peoples and nations .... (and because) the media constitute a major human resource whose potential to help prevent and moderate social violence begs to be discussed, evaluated, and, where appropriate, mobilised."