Watching the watchdogs: Law, propaganda, and the media walk into a bar


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ANALYSIS: By Rami G Khouri

Last month, the world watched South Africa initiate International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings on the genocidal acts Israel committed in Gaza. In a two-day session on January 11 and 12, the court heard the extensive evidence the South African legal team had gathered to support their case against Israel, and the rebuttal by the Israeli team.

The hearings were historic for two reasons. First, this was the first time that Israel’s decades-long aggression against the Palestinians was articulated in detail for the world to hear, without having to pass through the distorting lens of Western media or politicians.

Second, this was the first time that Israel was substantively held to account in public under international law, without being shielded from such accountability by its Western backers, as it has been for the past century.

The unprecedented nature of the hearings drew international attention. The media around the world covered the proceedings extensively, often with live feeds of both presentations. But in the West, once again an anti-Palestinian media bias became apparent.

Channels like the BBC were accused of not fully showing the South African presentation, while broadcasting more of the Israeli one. American, Canadian and British newspapers were chastised for not featuring the ICJ case on their front pages.

The bias was clearest in the glaring parallels between the main points in Israel’s presentations to the court — which reflected the longstanding main themes of Israeli propaganda — and the reporting of Western mainstream media, with some exceptions. Indeed, Western coverage of the war has been skewed since day one.

‘Heavily favoured Israel’
The US progressive publication The Intercept did its own analysis of three leading US newspapersThe New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times — and found that their reporting “heavily favoured Israel”. It said that they “disproportionately emphasized Israeli deaths in the conflict; used emotive language to describe the killings of Israelis, but not Palestinians; and offered lopsided coverage of antisemitic acts in the US, while largely ignoring anti-Muslim racism in the wake of October 7.”

According to The Intercept’s analysis, the word “slaughter” was used in reference to Israeli deaths vs Palestinian deaths in a ratio of 125 to 2; the word “massacre” in a ratio of 60 to 1. Anti-Semitism was mentioned 549 times, while Islamophobia just 79 times.

This anti-Palestinian bias in print media “tracks with a similar survey of US cable news that the authors conducted last month that found an even wider disparity,” it concluded.

Many other such studies and examples of Western media bias towards Israel are now available.

Tweeting The Intercept report, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, asked a pertinent question: “After months of western media misrepresenting or not reporting the unfolding genocide in Gaza and all sort of int’l law violations against Palestinians: I have a question. Don’t journalists have codes of conducts and professional ethics to abide by and be held accountable to?”

To answer her question: They do, in principle. But in practice, journalists and their media managers and owners operate in the context of most Western media playing a central role in the continuing legacies of Western-Israeli settler-colonialism, apartheid, and genocide against the Palestinians.

Settler-colonial brutality
Consequently, the majority of citizens and politicians are convinced that they must support Israeli policies, even if these include settler-colonial brutality and apartheid.

It is no surprise that American, and most other Western, public opinion in the last half-century or so heavily sided with Israel over the Palestinians — because citizens mainly heard Israeli perspectives that dominated the news media and the statements and policies of their governments.

Over the past three months, however, the war in Gaza has revealed just how much Israeli state propaganda shapes US policy and the media’s dominant narrative of events. As Norman Solomon, media critic and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, put it in a January 18 Common Dreams article:

“What is most profoundly important about the war in Gaza – what actually happens to people being terrorized, massacred, maimed, and traumatized – has remained close to invisible for the U.S. public … With enormous help from US media and political power structures, the ongoing mass murder – by any other name  – has become normalized, mainly reduced to standard buzz phrases, weaselly diplomat-speak, and euphemistic rhetoric about the Gaza war. Which is exactly what the top leadership of Israel’s government wants.”

This dual legacy of the US’s distorted reporting and dysfunctional state policies is no longer as potent as it used to be, as the global public reactions to the ICJ genocide hearing have shown.

Discredited Israeli propaganda
The global protests in solidarity with Palestine revealed that Israel and its Western protectors and media parrots, who repeat largely discredited Israeli propaganda arguments, can no longer convince global audiences to the same extent they did in the past. This is due to Israel’s own brutal actions, but also the changed global information system.

The world now sees daily on social media and some alternative media Israel’s genocidal actions and apartheid policies. The ICJ presentations and thousands of associated articles, commentaries, webinars, public talks and other events across the world exposed these Israel-Palestine realities.

Changed information flows have caused serious concern in Washington, as well as Tel Aviv, because decent, justice-loving citizens reject the US’s fervent support for Israel’s military brutality — and many say they are likely to reject voting for “Genocide Joe” Biden in the presidential election this November. This is what happens when ordinary citizens see the full story of events in Palestine — for the first time in modern history.

A new US opinion poll confirms that likely voters are more inclined to vote for candidates who supported a ceasefire in Gaza, by a 2-to-1 margin (51-23 percent). Among young and non-white voters, who are crucial for a Democratic win, between 56 and 60 percent said they would back ceasefire supporters.

But the growing awareness of what is going on in Israel-Palestine has had an impact well beyond US politics. As South African journalist Tony Karon noted in an article in The Nation on January 11:

“So Israel is waging a classic colonial war of pacification of a native population resisting colonization — at a moment when much of the global citizenry is producing the receipts of centuries of Western violence and enslavement, demanding justice and a reordering of global power relations. Standing up for Palestine has become shorthand for that global struggle to change how the world is ruled.”

Indeed, the intense global support for Palestine, which peaked during the ICJ hearing, represents the Global South challenging the political and economic hegemony of the North. People across the world are saying they support justice and will continue to resist Western colonial forces that have ravaged scores of societies for half a millennium.

Rami G Khouri is a distinguished fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a journalist and book author with 50 years of experience covering the Middle East. This article was first published by Al Jazeera.

Cafe Pacific Publisher
Cafe Pacific Publisher
Café Pacific's duty editor.
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