Next month the Ethical Journalism Network launches a ground-breaking programme in Palestine. The aim will be to raise awareness within the world of Palestinian journalism and politics, both in the West Bank and Gaza, on the need for editorial independence and ethical journalism as an antidote to political propaganda and hate speech.
The role of media in promoting peace and reconciliation within the Palestinian community has come to the fore after almost a decade of bitter internal division and three major military confrontations between Israeli forces and militants in Gaza in which thousands of people, mainly Palestinian civilians, have died.
The programme is being carried out in co-operation with local partners including the Palestine Centre for Research and Education (CARE), the Palestine Syndicate of Journalists and five local universities working across the political divide between communities ruled by Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank.
What makes the programme innovative is that it will take the fight for editorial independence beyond the newsroom and into the wider community – including discussion with political and religious leaders about how they need to tackle the problem of hate speech in their own ranks.
Such a discussion is long overdue and much needed. Since 2007, when there were deadly clashes between the two groups, Gaza has been de facto under Hamas control. Now there are efforts to bring about reconciliation which, if they are to succeed, will require political leaders to combat hostile mind sets on both sides. That means also reducing the scope for propaganda and allowing more freedom for pluralist, tolerant and independent reporting.
But that will not be easy. Political interference in media is a routine feature of Palestinian information policy. Although most journalists willingly toe the line and rarely rock the boat, if they step out of line, even inadvertently, they can expect to be swiftly punished.
Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, who recently marched with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu and other European leaders in Paris to defend free expression after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, this week took action against the editor and a cartoonist who were suspended from the newspaper Al-Hyat al-Jadida.
Abbas accused the paper of a “grave mistake” over publication of a cartoon which was innocuous by comparison with Charlie Hebdo’s controversial portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed but which some readers thought depicted the Prophet.
The cartoonist, Muhammed Sabaaneh, told the official Palestinian news agency Wafa that his drawing, of a robed figure standing on a globe and dispersing seeds of light from a heart-shaped purse, was not of the Prophet Mohammed. “It was a symbolic figure for Islam and the Muslim’s role in spreading light and love for all humanity,” he said.
Even though the paper published an emphatic statement rejecting any misinterpretation of the cartoon, it acknowledged the confusion and apologised, but this did not stop Abbas from calling for an investigation and “deterrent measures against those responsible.”
The EJN will carry out four major events with young journalists in association with universities and will help the Palestine Journalists Syndicate to develop guidelines for the implementation of a code of ethical conduct for Palestinian journalists which will be launched in April.
At the conclusion of this phase of activity the organisers plan to hold a public forum bringing together journalists and political, religious and community leaders to debate how to strengthen independent journalism, to eliminate political and religious hate speech and to reduce direct political interference in the work of media.