Those who dismiss claims about the influence of pro-Israel lobbyists often demand ‘evidence’ akin to a smoking gun; proof of a chain of causation between ‘lobbying’ and ‘self-censorship’. There are plenty of smoking guns, but to focus on those alone would ignore the far more insidious way pro-Israel lobbying efforts work on media organisations: the culture of self-censorship lobbying campaigns slowly and cumulatively entrench; the unspoken rules which become dogma, such as the necessity of ‘balancing’ Palestinian voices; the ‘common-sense’ frames that slowly start to reproduce: two-state solution, Hamas, ‘right to exist’ etc.
John Lyons’ latest book, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment, lays out the blatant interference by pro-Israel lobby groups in the media’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. The testimonies presented corroborate my own experiences with Australian establishment media.
Sometimes we Palestinians are shut out for ideological reasons. For example, Schwartz Media, which postures as one of Australia’s leading progressive media outlets, has what seems almost a policy position of avoiding coverage of Israel (and not publishing Palestinians, let alone Palestinians critical of Israel). In Lyons’ interview with Morry Schwartz, Schwartz condemns our social media campaign efforts as ‘information terrorism’ and ‘anti-Semitism’, racist smears against Palestinians daring to challenge their erasure.
Then there are our opinion pieces: either flatly ignored or rejected on the grounds that ‘there’s no space’. Many times we have been fed such an excuse only to then see that ‘no space’ translates to instead offering space to pro-Israel voices only.
Even when there is something significant to be shared, we face deflection, blocking and censorship. In 2020, a historic statement of solidarity for Palestine signed by prominent First Nations peoples, academics and artists in the country was ignored or rejected by mainstream media, leaving us with no choice but to fundraise to publish our statement as an advertisement.
The rare times we are conferred ‘permission to narrate’, to use Edward Said’s words, we are back-and-forth with editors and legal teams who judge the terms on which we define our liberation struggle from the point of view of the pro-Israel lobby. On countless occasions I have had to challenge editors who consider the terminology of apartheid or settler-colonialism as ‘inflammatory’, as though I, a Palestinian writing about Israel’s crimes, should self-censor to protect myself and the media outlet from blowback by Israel’s defenders. I experience this as a profound act of violence on my agency and right to self-determination.
Sometimes, editorial feedback is fed directly from the Zionist lobby. Last year, Palestinian author, playwright and poet, Samah Sabawi’s submission to the ABC was passed on to the Zionist Federation of Australia for scrutiny, without her knowledge or consent.
When we are given a speaking platform, it is often ‘shared’ with a pro-Israel speaker for ‘balance’, as dehumanising a process as asking black South Africans to share a platform with apartheid-defenders, or an African-American to entertain ‘polite’ debate with a White supremacist.
In 2018, as Israeli snipers shot-to-kill Palestinian protestors in Gaza, including children and clearly marked paramedics, I appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program. I shared a panel with staunch Zionist ally Greg Sheridan and fielded questions from Zionist audience members. Rather than talk about the patently obvious—Israel’s war crimes against protestors and the crippling, brutal blockade on Gaza—I was forced to defend the right of Palestinians to not only exist and resist, but simply be mourned as human beings. On mentioning the murder of baby Leila Ghandoor, an audience member, a cocky grin on his face, blamed Leila’s death on Hamas’s supposed ‘dead baby strategy’.
Such casual dehumanisation of Palestinian children on national television is normalised because the media dare not insist that Leila’s murder, and the murder of any Palestinians, should be named and condemned by a Palestinian without extending a ‘right of reply’ to those who follow the racial logic that ‘there are no innocents in Gaza’.
In May this year, I again appeared on Q&A, while Israel bombed Gaza, ‘balanced’ by former Australian ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma. The first question asked was from a well-known Zionist academic, about Hamas rockets into Tel Aviv. She was concerned about her son, his wife and their ‘totally distressed dog’ in their ‘safe room’. I felt as though I had been punched in the face.
Despite the fact that a Palestinian in the audience had been pre-selected to ask a question, the next and last question on the topic was again posed by a pro-Israel audience member and again about Hamas.
We are permitted to speak but only under cross-examination; forced to account rather than given the right to hold to account. This is no accident. It is the cumulative impact of a lobby that has normalised the idea that Palestinians must prove their humanity before they are allowed to dare to mention Israel.
In the media’s effort to appease the pro-Israel lobby, Palestinians must suffer such dehumanisation. And still it is not enough for Zionist lobbyists who relentlessly pursue the silencing of strong Palestinian voices, meeting with ABC executives to complain about the Q&A episode, repeatedly attacking the ABC in a series of media reports which never bothered to seek a Palestinian point of view, and finally complaining to the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) alleging anti-Israel bias.
As social media presents incontrovertible, real-time evidence of Israel’s crimes, it is indefensible to allow Israel’s apologists to censor Palestinians or set the frames of reference upon which media coverage will be based. There is already evidence that Lyons’ book is emboldening journalists to publicly speak up about their experiences. It is incumbent on all who believe in transparency, accountability and truth-telling to stand together against the intimidation tactics, interference and smear campaigns.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is a DECRA Research Fellow at Macquarie University and award-winning author.