Journalists covering Palestine experienced an extremely difficult and horrific terrain in 2022. It was a year filled with human rights violations, censorship, detentions and outright killing. In this interview, international relations and legal expert Richard Falk discusses the growing awareness of the plight of the Palestinians and the ways repressive states have clamped down on a flow of information maintained by a democratic press. This past year’s murder of Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh, Falk asserts, is a stark reminder of the ongoing human rights and transparency issues for Palestinian journalists. Falk points to the deportation of French-Palestinian human rights lawyer Salah Hamouri (condemned by Amnesty International) and the temporary Twitter ban of Palestinian journalist Said Arikat (and most recently, human rights attorney and professor Noura Erakat) as further attempts to marginalize Palestinian voices. Finally, Falk breaks down the state of the corporate press and comments on the broader sets of tendencies that threaten democracy at its core.
Daniel Falcone: Attention to Palestinian affairs and politics, as well as support for the marginalized and their human rights, seemed to be increasing and gaining strength in 2022. Yet encroachments on the freedom and the security of journalists reporting on such matters can only be seen as a major setback. Could you elaborate on this apparent contradiction?
Richard Falk: Israel has long been aware, particularly [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, that delegitimizing setbacks are a greater threat to Israel’s security and expansionist plans than is armed struggle. The unexpected collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1990s confirmed this perception, and at the same time should kindle a spirit of struggle in opponents of the Israeli apartheid state that a successful liberation strategy can be fulfilled by mobilizing worldwide militant solidarity initiatives associated with international law and institutions, as well as strengthening civil society Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns and expressions of disapproval and censure by respected faith-based institutions, organized labor and moral authority figures. Also highly effective are punitive exclusions from cultural and sporting events. And, in the background, there is the supreme importance of maintaining various forms of Palestinian resistance, giving the substance and credibility of abiding commitments to the exercise of their rights of self-determination.
Such a Palestinian liberation strategy acknowledges weakness in the material domains of political behavior and places tactical emphasis on the symbolic domain of normative superiority — legality, morality, public sentiments and spirituality. It is within this symbolic domain that journalists play such a critical role, if they are able to report on the daily hardships of a people suffering from prolonged oppression combined with dispossession from their homeland. And precisely because journalists were playing this role in relation to the struggles for the symbolic high ground, they have been increasingly perceived as a severe threat that the materially dominant actor is challenged to address at its disposal, which centers on violence, including murder. Transparency in relation to oppressive policies is intolerable, and independent fearless journalists expose what government representatives refrain from saying if it offends the prevailing geopolitical order. The deliberate May 2022 killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera’s star reporter on Palestinian happenings in recent years, despite her being a U.S. citizen, disclosed the willingness of Israel to accept a big setback in its global public image to silence her voice and possibly intimidate others.
Can you comment more on how Palestinian journalists, [or how non-Palestinian journalists] have always faced an uphill battle in reporting on the region, and especially faced challenges when navigating stories that are controversial?
By seeking to report on the realities of occupation and the discriminatory features of Israeli apartheid, Palestinian journalists face harassment, imprisonment and sometimes, deliberate killing. It is not an accident that some of the most critical commentary on Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights comes from such dissident Jewish journalists as Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.
This tolerance of harsh criticism from within the Jewish camp also shields [Israeli human rights organization] B’Tselem from the sort of repression that responsible Palestinian NGOs, including Al-Haq and Addameer, face in seeking to carry on their peaceful, entirely professional, civil society activities. In other words, for the sake of retaining the surface credibility of being a democracy premised on ethnic supremacy, Jewish journalists in Israel or Occupied Palestine are allowed freedom of expression denied to Palestinians in their own homeland. Whether such freedoms are now in jeopardy given the ascent to governing authority of the extreme right in the form of the Religious Zionism coalition is one of several uncertainties about how far the settler-oriented newly formed Netanyahu government will go in enforcing what might be called “ideological loyalty” at home even against Jews, especially with journalists and scholars perceived as hostile.
Gideon Levy observed in my presence that he could not write as critically about Israeli wrongdoing in the United States and expect access to any influential media platform. In other words, the diaspora Jewish establishment is more protective of the reputation of Israel, reserving particularly harsh defamatory criticism for Jews like myself who are castigated as ‘antisemites’ or ‘self-hating Jews’ for seeking to report on Israeli wrongdoing. Recently, when influential mainstream NGOs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, issued long reports documenting the apartheid features of Israeli governance, they were not given the respect of being subjected to pro-Israeli criticism, but mostly dealt with through a journalistic version of “the silent treatment.” Hardly what one would hope for with the operations of an independent press. While Palestinian journalists are killed and jailed when subject to Israeli authority, criticism of Israeli behavior is always filtered, and often blocked, in North America and Western Europe by a superficially voluntary process of self-censorship and a culture of silence that is respected by most publishers and journalists for either commercial or careerist reasons.
Against this background, what are your general thoughts on the Twitter ban of Palestinian journalist Said Arikat and his reporting?
The suspension by Twitter of Said Arikat is yet a further effort to stifle Palestinians’ grievances and stop them from irritating U.S. government officials and taking advantage of social media platforms to convey their version of events and controversial Israeli behavior to a wider public. Arikat is a 74-year-old soft-spoken Palestinian journalist and longtime Washington [area resident], respected by his colleagues for courtly manners and his forthright questions on Israel/Palestine at White House press briefings and in other settings where journalists seek explanations of public policy. This widespread effort by leading social media platforms to allow hate speech and fascist messaging, but to deny access to those deemed too sympathetic with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, is a blemish on the quality of democratic practice. It is especially regrettable in the digital age, and particularly with special reference to issues where one would have supposed that the American public had the right to know. After all, $38 billion dollars of taxpayer revenue has been pledged to Israel over a 10-year period, much of it used for counterinsurgency and policing programs aimed at suppressing Palestinian rights of resistance.
The plight of Palestinian journalism is not limited to territory under direct Israeli control, but, through this punitive action directed at quieting Arikat’s overseas influence, extends to the United States and to many other countries. Such realities mock Biden’s claims about leading an alliance of democracies against governments headed by autocrats.
What can you say in general about the state of the press and mainstream corporate media? What are the social, economic, political and perhaps, moral implications concerning the popular press?
Recent encroachments on the rights and even the lives of journalists are part of a broader set of tendencies that have shifted state/society relations sharply to the right in most societies, endangering the future of democracy as an existential reality despite retaining its legitimating rhetoric. At stake is the invisible social contract that has struck a periodically uneasy balance between state and society for several centuries in the United States and elsewhere where supposedly democracy and effective government prevail, and independent journalism plays a key intermediary role in an overall framework of checks and balances that makes the machinations of the rich and powerful more visible and gives those at the margin outlets for their grievances.
With elections becoming more about raising money than ideas and values, it encourages an attitude of detachment from organized politics involving political parties and elections — what some call ‘procedural democracy’ to distinguish it from social democracy that somewhat levels the playing field when it comes to education, health and opportunities. The narrow failing of the January 6 insurrection presided over by a defeated and unscrupulous candidate, who has lost a fair and free election and yet refused the ritual act of peacefully transferring power to the winner, is a further sign that the practices of democracy, formerly taken for granted, are more precarious than they have ever been in the United States.
The free and independent press, although never living fully up to its claims of fierce independence, had been serving the public by fearless and honest reporting about public and private wrongs as a partial antidote to the behavior of societal actors in and out of government spending huge sums to hide inconvenient truths. Yet even this freedom is increasingly curtailed by expansive security claims of states, reinforced by secrecy, and compromised by the selective dissemination of news. Independence is further eroded by the tendency of the ownership of strategic media platforms to be taken over by large corporations or billionaires with private agendas, such as Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. It is no longer, and never was altogether, an ethic of “all the news that’s fit to print” but increasingly limits itself to “news that will not overly upset the rich and powerful.” Policies and practices seeking to maximize the transparency of government and corporations are still rather robust in most domestic contexts. The biggest compromises with press freedom are induced and voluntarily accepted when it comes to foreign policy and the nexus between the military budget, arms sales and defense industries, the so-called “merchants of death.”
It is in this latter area such trusted media venues as CNN and the New York Times cheerlead wars, while suppressing debate by excluding critics on the left from the invited roster of opinions, opting for right-leaning former generals, intelligence officials and think tank policy analysts. Only when a war goes badly, and the consensus among foreign policy elites is replaced by deepening cleavages in Washington, does journalistic reporting shift gears from one-sided support to an expression of doubt about a controversial overseas intervention. This sudden shift from Cold War orthodoxy to measured criticism happened toward the end of the Vietnam War. Stories were featured that were suppressed earlier.
A most spectacular instance is the New York Times reportage of the My Lai massacre, which it had reliable evidence about for more than a year prior to daring to publish it, seriously tarnishing government claims of safeguarding Vietnamese villagers. Shortly afterwards, again after hesitating in a manner not in keeping with the tendency of journalism to publish as quickly as possible to beat the competition and let the public know the truth, involved publication of excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, made public by the heroic efforts of that exemplary whistleblowing pioneer, Daniel Ellsberg. I know firsthand that Dan had struggled for weeks to persuade liberal media and anti-war Congresspeople to release the Pentagon Papers in whole or part to authoritatively enlighten the citizenry about the real character of the Vietnam War. Ironically, but not surprisingly, when he finally succeeded in making these classified documents public, he was threatened with criminal prosecution, which could have resulted in a long prison sentence, for revealing the truths of the war to a wider public.
And when an individual responsibly transgresses secrecy laws and regulation to allow the public to know the truth, even if it is a matter of revealing war crimes by the United States military operation in Afghanistan, it is criminalized as “espionage.” The cruel impalement of Julian Assange is emblematic of heroism from below and autocracy from above. Secrecy shielding evidence of official criminality is treated as a prerogative of the contemporary state, making those that lift the veils hiding truth the criminals, while those that kill and maim enjoy impunity. At the same time, the government celebrates the successes of its CIA operatives who learn the secrets of adversaries by whatever means they wish, even if what is disclosed is a matter of legitimate state policy within the broad frame of the international rule of law.
Technology is playing a major part in this corruption of the basic democratic mantra: “the truth will set you free.” It has facilitated the emergence of what is known as “the surveillance state,” which listens and watches every move, potentially of every citizen. This innovative set of tools developed by technocrats includes “face recognition” that closes the door on privacy in every domain, creating a multitude of opportunities for intimidation, if not outright blackmail, by hackers, whether employed by governments or Mafia-style cartels.
There are many root causes converging on modern society to create this situation where courageous patriots are branded as criminals and criminals gain status and even praise for their crimes. Journalists are forced to navigate these dangerous waters if covering controversial and sensitive behavior around the world or seek safety by swimming close to the shore, sacrificing their vocation to report the truth, being rewarded for their strategic silences by drinks at the hotel bar in the company of the culprits.