The fine line between public relations and propaganda

Since other articles in this forum will present the Israeli perspective, I will commit myself solely to the Palestinian perspective.

During the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a man who always openly expressed his support for peace efforts as the way out of this bloody conflict, a Palestinian-Israeli committee was formed to deal with the issue of incitement. Notably, the Israeli government saw it as a committee for handling Palestinian incitement. In response, in August Palestinians republished the 1997 presidential decree against incitement, which was issued by President Arafat as one of his obligations after talks with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at Wye River Plantation.

Subsequently, I began to see how many Israeli journalists and foreign correspondents in Israel and the Palestinian territories picked up on the issue of "incitement" and began to move across the barriers erected to separate the Palestinian and Israeli sides from each other in order to cover the story. Many of these journalists asked me for my opinion on the subject, but what caught my attention most was their reiterated accusations that the Palestinian educational curriculum and media was full of incitement.

While speaking to the correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, I related to him that the Palestinian governmental television and radio stations are those least watched and listened to, and are not at all influential in forming Palestinian public opinion. I told him that, according to public opinion polls, only five percent of Palestinians watch government television, and that only ten percent of Palestinians rely on its news reports, according to a survey carried out in October 2003. I also told him that all serious studies that have been done on the Palestinian school curriculum demonstrate that it is free of any text that might be considered incitement–that is, of course, if we agree that incitement means pushing the audience to hate others for their religion, ethnicity or opinions.

Still that correspondent continued his deluge of questions: "But an Israeli official asserted to me that a Palestinian math teacher in an elementary school in a Palestinian village teaches his pupils mathematics by using numbers of murdered Jews in questions of addition and subtraction."

I could not respond. Who can really give a negative or positive answer in this case, when no one knows who collected that information, and in which school and village it took place, or the name of the teacher? All the same, this "example" was used by the Israelis to prove the presence of Palestinian incitement in school curricula. It was evidence used by an official. Notably, the story has no room for a narrative that states that Israeli soldiers’ humiliation of Palestinians has an impact and is a source of "incitement."

Yesterday, Agence France Press Jerusalem bureau chief Christian Chaise protested via letter an article published by David Bedein entitled "Press Passes for Terrorists," which was published in on November 13, 2003. The author wrote that Palestinians seek to acquire press cards from the Israeli Government Press Office in order to facilitate their alleged terrorist activities. The author proffered the example of a stringer that he claimed worked for AFP in Jenin and had been arrested by Israeli forces for being "a terrorist." The writer used this to "prove" that Palestinians who work for the foreign press in Israel are terrorists, or at least potential terrorists.

The director of AFP in Jerusalem denied the story and challenged the author to substantiate it. Consequently, David Bedein apologized in an open letter to the Foreign Press Association in Israel, and said that he had used sources in his article that proved unreliable.

But the damage was already done, and there was no notice placed on the website that published the article indicating that the story was false. The extent of the change made was for the author to strike the line that accused the foreign press and Palestinian journalists of being terrorists, and supporting terrorism. But this all stemmed from a purely fabricated story about an alleged terrorist stringer!

So where then are the boundaries of incitement and political propaganda, and when do public relations reach their limit?

I fear that the media has become a "channel without a filter," that passes "messages" which politicians, security people and the military desire to send to the public, in this case, the Israeli public and world public opinion. Both of these publics are targeted because–after all–this competition is over who will win their favor.

The mechanism is very simple, particularly when the media does not question official stories, especially those coming from the military. When news stories are related to Palestinians, the principles of the profession, which dictate checking the source from a variety of perspectives, seem to vanish. These principles are ignored in favor of other principles: "national considerations in time of war."

This holds true in the opposite direction, as well, but the Palestinian and Israeli media experiences are vastly different. Each varies in structure, history, and composition, and has a subsequently unique impact. Israel’s media is immeasurably more influential, however, and when it errs, the consequences are graver and more dangerous.

I rarely find that anyone is interested in asking how this accumulation of hatred latent in the philosophy of the official line in times of war can be erased. Its impact on both the Palestinian and Israeli publics is very serious, and it will be difficult to rid ourselves of this hatred when the need for "propaganda" ends, and is replaced by public relations experts committed to reestablishing the bridges of confidence that allow for the minimum of coexistence between our two peoples.