Major media and the systemic silencing of Palestinians

Aline Batarseh

Mondoweiss  /  March 29, 2023

Excluding Palestinian voices and firing journalists who want to speak out about Israeli apartheid makes the mainstream media complicit in Israel’s “system of silencing”. 

When Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank face Israeli military courts, they have limited rights, trials are conducted in Hebrew (a language that most defendants do not understand), and the testimony of an Israeli soldier is enough to send the defendant to prison. The conviction rate is over 99%. When Palestinians face major media, their lives are often narrated by non-Palestinians. For example, a study by Maha Nassar in 2020 revealed that non-Palestinians wrote 99% of opinion pieces about Palestinians published by the Washington Post over a period of five decades from 1970–2019. 

The New York Times did not do much better in the same period. Less than 2% of the opinion pieces they published about Palestinians were written by us. 

Palestinians are constantly “on trial,” guilty until proven innocent––in actual courts and in the court of public opinion––without just and fair representation. While it may appear that repressive Israeli policies and exclusion of Palestinian voices in the media are not directly related, our latest visual at Visualizing Palestine makes the case that these suppression tactics are part of a multifaceted “system of silencing” that targets Palestinians and advocates for Palestinian liberation. 

When reading articles about Palestine, I am often stunned by the degree of bias and inaccuracy in portraying events that do not reflect my own lived reality as a Palestinian and my experiences living under Israeli military occupation in Jerusalem. Palestinians are commonly misrepresented at best and rendered invisible at worst by mainstream media. 

A 2021 study by Holly M. Jackson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reflects on anti-Palestinian bias in the New York Times during the two Palestinian Intifadas (or uprisings) in 1987 and 2000 respectively. Jackson concludes that in over 33,000 articles she analyzes of the two periods, less than 50% referenced Palestine or Palestinians, while over 90% referenced Israel or Israelis. Additionally, violent language used to describe Palestinians was higher than violent language used to describe Israelis, and Palestinians were referred to in the passive voice twice as often as Israelis. While there was a slight increase in positive representation of Palestinians during the Second Intifada, anti-Palestinian bias is consistent between the two periods. 

These results reveal the extent to which mainstream media in the U.S. has failed to reflect the reality and experiences of Palestinians on the ground, directly impacting public opinion as well as U.S. policy towards Palestine and Israel.

Headlines that distort reality

I remember the day that our beloved veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by the Israeli army in May 2022 very clearly. It was a time of collective grief for Palestinians, and the loss of Shireen continues to be painful for those of us who knew and loved her and want to see justice transpire. At a time of unimaginable loss for our community, and despite multiple eyewitnesses that told us the Israeli army assassinated Shireen during her coverage of a military invasion in Jenin, mainstream media played a major role in perpetuating a pattern of exclusion and erasure of the truth. The worst offender was Fox News, which ran the headline Al-Jazeera reporter dies following disputed incident in the West Bank.” The BBC News ran the headline “Al-Jazeera reporter killed during Israeli raid in West Bank,” obscuring the identity of the killer. The New York Times ran the headline “Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51” (and the print version of the article ran with the headline “‘Trailblazer’ in Mideast Reported Human Side,” completely failing to even mention Shireen’s death). 

As a result of major outrage against The New York Times, the headline was later changed to “Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist Killed in West Bank.” While the change in the headline reflects the importance of persistently raising our voices against mainstream media’s complicity in obscuring the truth, the revised headline still keeps the identity of Shireen’s killer and the cause of her death vague, while the article gives weight to the Israeli military’s framing of the shooting, which contradicted eyewitness reports by fellow journalists who were on the scene with Shireen. It took a month-long New York Times investigation to reach the same conclusion that eyewitnesses had immediately reported: that the gunfire that killed Shireen came from the position of an Israeli military vehicle. It is far from the first time the Israeli military has contradicted journalists’ reports from the scene.

We know that had the situation been reversed, and had the eyewitnesses been Israeli soldiers and not Palestinian journalists, The New York Times would not have left it to the readers to guess the identity and cause of death. Two recent examples include: “Hamas rocket attack kills two Thai workers in Israel” and “Palestinian gunman kills 5 in Israel’s fifth attack in recent days.” 

Censorship by social media

Palestinians who don’t see themselves represented in news media have turned to sharing their experiences directly with the world on social media. But social media companies have been censoring Palestinians, in large part in response to pressure by the Israeli government, which has been arresting Palestinians for their posts online. An independent report commissioned by Meta confirmed that the company’s content moderation policies “had an adverse human rights impact… on the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination, and therefore on the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred.”

In 2022, 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media documented 1,119 digital rights violations against Palestinians committed by social media companies and other parties. 7amleh was able to recover 30% of the deleted content from various platforms. We know the issue of censorship on social media is pervasive, but Palestinians are fighting back because we are determined to narrate our own stories. During the May 2021 Unity Intifada, our voices were so loud on social media that Vox News reported, “2021 is the year Palestinians proved they could compete with the Israeli government in the narrative battle.” 

Where do we go from here?

Words matter. Words have the power to shape public opinion. Words have the power to challenge policies and policymakers, especially in powerful countries like the United States that provide unconditional military and financial support to Israel. Words have the power to move people into taking action to call for justice and influence policy decisions. Words are tools for communities facing systemic discrimination to share their realities and lived experiences. 

Excluding Palestinian voices from major media makes the media complicit in Israel’s “system of silencing.” 

Obscuring the truth about the assassination of a Palestinian journalist makes major media complicit in Israel’s “system of silencing.” 

Firing journalists that want to tell the truth about Israeli apartheid makes major media complicit in Israel’s “system of silencing.” 

In the face of blatant bias and misrepresentation by mainstream media, Palestinians have been reclaiming the narrative through other platforms by us, about us. We continue to narrate our stories and our lived realities and to provide a nuanced analysis of Israeli policies and practices that entrench a system of apartheid that hinders our quest for freedom, justice, and equality. 

From independent media outlets that center the stories of Palestinians to civil society organizations that are creating narrative impact to Palestinians claiming space on social media, we refuse to be silenced. 

Aline Batarseh is the Executive Director of Visualizing Palestine