Citizen Journalism and the War on Gaza
What can we learn from the recent Palestinian and Israeli conflict? What was the role of both traditional and new media in collecting, organizing and distributing information and how might citizen journalism introduce a new voice in the ‘media war’ as described by Joris Luyendijk? Which tools are being used, what are the case studies available, and how might this shape the way the story is told in the future? How does the emergent trend of citizen journalism change or affect the political standoff between the Israeli and Palestinian people if at all?
ICT, Information, Connections, Mobility, Mobile, Internet, Israel, Palestine, Al Jazeera, Ushahidi, Citizen Journalist, Media, Souktel, SMS, Reporting, 2.0, Crisis, War on Gaza
I am not an expert on Arab culture and I do not claim to be someone who knows a lot about this subject. Having spent some time in Arab countries, I can appreciate the various discourses but remain an eager observer. This paper is an attempt to engage the content of the discussion in some more depth. This is not to say that my arguments are complete or accurate and I invite any feedback, thoughts or ideas that would help me better understand the subjects at hand. This paper is subject to constant revision.
Preface and Acknowledgement
I would like to thank the team at Ushahidi. This is one of the most innovative open source projects I have seen and it is great to see how a platform that emerged out of the political situation in Kenya (2008) can now be applied to new political situations in other parts of the world. The team helped me to understand the origins of this project and its development over time. Also in terms of the platforms implementation and how this approach changes the way these conflicts are documented and reported.
1.2 Al Jazeera
I would like to thank the new media team at Al Jazeera. They originally approached Ushahidi with the idea to set up the War on Gaza platform and were kind enough to participate in a written interview. It was also helpful for me to understand the approach they took to this process and the perspective they maintain as one of the leading media channels in the region.
I would like to thank Souktel for their groundbreaking work in Gaza. Their efforts in this area are entirely unique. Originally a mobile platform used for finding jobs and sharing information on Aid projects, the potential for the Souktel network and infrastructure is only now being fully realized. Their access to Gazan citizens is a vital channel needed to bring out a Palestinian voice that would otherwise remain unheard.
2.1 Knowledge is Power
Foucault is recognized for his work that links knowledge with power. His work illustrates how these two terms are interlinked and feed of one another. As Foucoult explains, “Power is based on knowledge and makes use of knowledge; on the other hand, power reproduces knowledge by shaping it in accordance with its anonymous intentions. Power (re-) creates its own fields of exercise through knowledge.” This theoretical foundation is crucial to any discourse and its accurate deconstruction.
It is on the foundation of Foucoult, that Edward Said is able to ground his theory of Orientalism. As a prominent scholar in Arab media, he argues that knowledge can work to empower its ‘creator’ over the ‘other.’ Specifically, Edward Said argues that the West proactively works to illustrate its Western superiority over that of the Arab world. He poses that the ‘creator’ is in many cases the Western scholars, government and media that work to propagate misrepresentations of the Arab World. The effect of this ‘orientalization’ is to distort cultural relations and understanding. This is partly in Said’s own effort to bridge Western thinking with an improved understanding of the Arab and/or Muslim world. He looks specifically at the historical setting, and argues we need to look past politics, if we are able to create real understanding for culture and religion. This approach allows us to dispel popular held notions and recognize our own constructed subjectivities. Needless to say, Said makes clear that this is not easy to achieve as Westerners. In the attempt to ‘understand’ Arabs and Islam we often ‘miss the point.’ As media researchers we have to do our best to look beyond our own ‘historical biases’ and in the effort to better understand the truth.
Edward Said’s theory puts forward the notion that there is an enormous gap in understanding between the Arab world and the West. This gap, or lack of real appreciation, is well illustrated by the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Whether we agree with Said’s theory or not, that there are two side of the Israeli and Palestinian story is apparent. As media researchers it is important for us to look into these diverging opinions and to critically examine the role of media, technology and information in this process. More importantly, we need to look into the emergence of new media as a potentially critical actor in this process.
The theoretical framework established by Michel Foucault and Edward Said serves as the basis for this paper, otherwise an effort to explore how both the Israeli and Palestinians struggle to control their own narrative. The recent conflict can be used as an example that shows the power of media and the ensuing struggle to engage and capture public opinion. Over time, media has become an increasingly powerful weapon during the time of war. The recent conflict between Israel and Palestine saw 24-hour coverage made by media outlets around the world. But this conflict was different for two reasons 1) the rise of Arab media presented a starkly contrasting story to the one presented by western media 2) the rise of new media as a way to source, organize and distribute information from a citizen base.
During the recent events, coverage went well beyond newspaper articles, radio broadcast and television reports to include new media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. These tools were used effectively to share information and mobilize public opinion. The use of these new media tools highlights an emerging frontier and a new struggle in the ‘media war’ as described by Joris Luyendijk, a media battle ground where weapons like the mobile phone, small cameras, laptops and wireless networks take the lead. Where governments set up Twitter feeds and citizens organize online campaigns. How innovative ‘Join my Cause’ applications can be used to rally friends on Facebook and create awareness for events that take place on the ground. Whether or not these virtual discussions seem remote or removed from real world events, their strategic significance is not to be underestimated. This latest conflict introduced an entirely new space that is yet to be defined and claimed by the best organized and most tech savvy of citizens.
Media coverage on the recent conflict shows an increased liberalization of views and opinions. Where governments were once able to entirely direct and control the flow of information (as maybe still happens in some parts of the world) local media and citizen journalist increasingly have the power to introduce a new and valuable perspective. The conflict also shows how citizens are becoming increasingly involved in the process and introduces new voices and opinions to the process. The later is a recent development that could play a significant role in shaping our views and opinions in the future.
The recent events in Gaza exemplify a broader shift that is taking place between the traditional and the new. For example, when western media were not allowed to enter the Gaza strip, being forced to report from the fences, Al Jazeera was able to leverage local contacts and make use of new media tools to report on the situation from inside the occupied zone. It is these types of projects that are breaking down traditional barriers and opening up new opportunities for citizens to participate in an ever growing and diverse Internet culture.
The aim of this paper is to build an improved understanding of how citizens in the Gaza region made use of new media tools to tell their own story. It is my effort to see how this fits into the broader rise of new media as a phenomenon in war reporting. Finally, this paper outlines the possible impact such a trend might have on situations that are otherwise locked in history.
War on Gaza
On December 27th, 2008, Israel launched a military campaign into Gaza. The operation, codenamed Operation Cast Lead, was an aggressive effort to stop Hamas rocket attacks on citizens living in southern Israel. Official targets included Hamas members, the police force and infrastructure. Unfortunately many civilians were killed, wounded and their homes destroyed in the process. From an Arab perspective the incursion was described not as an operation out of self-defense but an ‘unfair and unjust’ war waged against the Palestinian population.
The recent violence followed a six-month truce between Israel and Hamas. Both sides blame each other for not meeting their side of the agreement. Israel grew tired of the continued rocket attacks and Hamas the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Both actions were in violation of the peace accord and served to rekindle a familiar process. In the end, an Israeli attack on a Palestinian tunnel sparked a new wave of violence.
The attack consisted of heavy bombing by the Israelis that destroyed both Hamas and Civilian targets. In retaliation, Hamas increased the number of rockets fired into Israeli settlements. This time the rockets reached farther into Israel then had previously done before. The period of initial bombardment was followed by an Israeli ground campaign that resulted in heavy close proximity fighting that resulted in even more casualties.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health counts 1,314 Palestinians who died in the conflict, 412 of them children. The conflict took the lives of 13 Israelis. Exact causalities are still being debated, as it has been difficult to verify the numbers, as a limited number of journalist were allowed to report on the conflict from within the occupied zone. The aftermath is considerable. The BBC reported that more than 400,000 Gazans were left without running water. 4000 homes have been ruined leaving tens of thousands homeless.
The conflict ended on January 18.th
Criticism Media Coverage
4.1 Criticism Western Media
Media coverage on the recent conflict was greatly inhibited by the Israeli policy to ban foreign journalist from entering the Gaza strip during the military campaign. As a result, Western media lacked footage, interviews and reports needed to show what was happening on the ground. Instead Western journalists were forced to rely on Israeli military reports and document the events from fences surrounding the Gaza strip.
For many, the scenario seems to be only one small tactic as part of what Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk describes as the ongoing ‘media war.’ In his book, Het Zijn Net Mensen/They Are Just Like People, he dedicates considerable analysis to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Specifically, he deconstructs the term ‘media war’ in the effort to illustrate its real meaning. Otherwise a PR machine that works to control and direct specific messages. More importantly Joris Luyendijk works to uncover the tactics and tools media use to convey these carefully crafted messages. In the book he makes clear that newspapers and TV channels are not neutral windows on the conflict but stages where different ideologies are put forward. He says, “In the holy land, the newspaper pages and television screens are not only windows on the conflict, but actual stages that challenge the conflict itself.” He argues that in contrast to the popular notion that news still reports both sides of the story, they are heavily biased and slanted in their coverage. He explains that the perspectives between different media are so far apart that impartiality is close to impossible.
As part of the analysis he looks at the use of language and the framing of arguments. For example, does a newspaper or TV channel use the term terrorist or freedom fighter? What do these terms mean and how do they impact the reader/viewer frame of reference? Do media refer to the Gaza strip, the occupied territory or the Palestinian enclave and how do these terms signify the political leanings of the media that use them? From his book it is made clear that all media involved in the conflict do their utmost to manipulate the news and get their version of the story across and in a way that it meets the needs of their respective audiences, each works to mold their own narrative. Joris Luyendijk, who mentions that he sees no solution to the Middle East conflict, concludes that journalists and editors are only human and that to survive, like every industry, the news media must provide what the public wants to read and hear. The tactics described by Joris Luyendijk were again present during the recent conflict in Gaza.
Yvonne Ridley is an experienced journalist who has covered three decades of conflict, including the Falklands, first and second Gulf War, the Irish conflict and the ongoing conflict in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. In her article titled Gaza the Media Coverage, she explains, “The media coverage of the war in Gaza by Western television companies is largely unfair and biased because of a refusal to show viewers the real images of the victims. One of the reasons for this is Israel’s decision not to allow the Western media into Gaza.” She goes on to explain that in addition to the ban on journalist, much of the Western media defends itself by explaining that the images are too graphic to be shown on television in the first place. This explanation not only works to exonerate Western media channels, but also inadvertently snubs the tactics of their Arab counterparts in the process.
Ridley goes on to explain, “Admittedly, the horrific clip sent to me of a child’s head lying detached, among debris in Gaza did make me gasp. But this is war and this is real and if the Western media did show these sorts of images maybe the general public would wake up to the full horrors of what happens when bombs are dropped on civilian populations.” She highlights the aversion western media and audiences have for Palestinian casualties. Ridley’s statement helps to build an understanding of the differences in the type of coverage made by both Western and Arab media.
As a result, Israeli media have been blamed for their biased and patriotic slant that only showed the views of Israeli citizens affected by Hamas rocket attacks. The AFP described the Israeli media coverage as ‘patriotic’ and argued in their January 14th article Israel Media on Defensive over Gaza War Coverage, that, “ Israel’s usually unforgiving media has had to fend off accusations that it has practiced self-censorship and muzzled dissent with its overtly patriotic coverage of the army’s offensive in Gaza.” In the same article the AFP goes on to explain that while other media tagged the conflict the ‘War on Gaza’ Israeli media called it the ‘War in the South’ and included mostly reports from Israeli towns that had been hit by Hamas rockets.
Similar tactics were used by the Israeli newspapers. They ran headlines that leaned to either supporting or in some way justifying the attacks. Yediot Aharonot (Israel’s paper with the largest circulation) ran the headline ‘Better Late Than Never’ and the paper Maariv used the title ‘Fighting Back.’ As with the television channels we can see that the newspapers also work to push forward a specific message as described by Joris Luyendijk. To illustrate the point, I borrow a quote from Yizhar Be’er. As head of Keshev, an Israeli media watchdog, he was quoted by AFP as saying, “The media’s coverage of the first days of the fighting was characterized by feelings of self-righteousness and a sense of catharsis following what was felt to be undue restraint in the face of attacks by the enemy, along with support for the military action and few expressions of criticism.” It is clear that Israeli media in this instance refrained from engaging a full Palestinian perspective. But as Edwad Said makes clear, this process grounds itself on previously constructed views that are difficult to break down. Sometimes they are so embedded it becomes difficult to recognize them at all. The senior editor of the privately owned Channel 10 News was also quoted by AFP as saying, “There is a patriotic coverage of the war, but not as a result of conscious decision.” The comment highlights the fact that some historical biases are so deeply rooted that they emerge without ‘consciousness.’
Criticism of Western media coverage really heated up when UN schools were attacked on January 6th killing nearly 50 people in the process. The only official release (by the Israeli government) explained the schools were believed to be hideouts used by Hamas militants. This served to show how Hamas was using civilian targets as a base in which to operate their counter insurgency. Be’er explained to the AFP, “There was no independent investigation of the facts by the media, which relied on the army’s version and not on facts from the ground, even though the army spokesman was uncertain about the facts.” The result is that all media had difficulty confirming the facts in this instance. To this extent we can clearly see how the truth is left to Foucault’s ‘creator.’
Senior Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar explained, “There are no means to develop criticism because we receive very few details from the army on the fighting inside Gaza… When there is no criticism there is more room for patriotism.” Eldar goes on to explain that the bulk of Israel’s media paints the country’s recent war as a battle for the Jewish state’s survival. She says, “Since the outbreak of the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 2000, the media has said that the Palestinians brought it upon themselves. The second Israeli civilians are hurt in attacks inside the country, the media presents Israel’s response as a ‘battle for our home’ and ‘a defensive war of no choice’.” Israel’s refusal to allow any journalists into the occupied zone, and the army’s tight control on information coming off the battlefields, worked to seriously limit access to independent information.
Israel’s decision to ban foreign journalist from entering Gaza seriously limited the ability of journalist to cover the events as they happened. Ridley explains, “in each conflict there is the constant battle by journalists and war correspondents to get to the truth of the matter, but the battle to tell the truth is becoming more and more difficult despite the amazing technology now available. People in powerful places who do terrible things do not want the truth to get out, which is why journalists are finding themselves banned or censored more and more.” Israel’s decision to block the foreign press from Gaza exemplifies this struggle to control and direct the flow of information. It also serves to illustrate the limitations of traditional media, despite the new technologies she mentions, during the time of conflict. The approach of the Israeli government and the coverage by Israeli media further supports the work of Joris Luyendijk and the tactics he illustrates in his book. As such, there is a need for a new space that allows for views and opinions that come from outside traditional media.
4.2 Criticism Arab Media
Arab media has also been blamed for their extensive, 24 hour, in your face reports depicting the severe Palestinian casualties. This coverage is criticized for showing a constant stream of casualties and dead bodies. Often, this coverage was streamed without an Israeli context or reporting on the rocket attacks Hamas made on Israeli citizens.
It is interesting to recognize that this dramatic and unrestricted form of coverage partly explains the popularity of Arab channels like El Arabia, Al Jezeera and Press TV. Ridley explains that, “There is no such reticence in the Arab media which is why more people with satellites are switching on to television from the Middle East to watch the unfolding genocide in Gaza.” From this previous quote it is important to recognize her use of the word ‘Genocide’ which not only explains her personal position on the matter but likely the views of the media she represents. She goes on to say, “You see the truth is a very strong and influential weapon which can be used against those people. Sadly when it is twisted and manipulated it can wreak even more havoc.” Her final statement illustrates the power of Arab media but also brings into question its own independent view of the matter.
This criticism leaves open a space for new voices and additional perspectives that can help broaden the discourse. What I find the most interesting is to see how this is starting to happen outside the boundaries of traditional media.
New Media and Citizen Journalism
5.1 New Media
The government of Israel is well aware of the power of media and launched a sophisticated media campaign in the effort to influence and direct public opinion. This not only included traditional media strategies but also introduced for the first time a new media approach.
One example is the launch of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) channel on YouTube. Drones, capable of filming the government’s strikes on Gaza, were used to collect footage of the campaign. The videos were edited and then uploaded to the YouTube channel where viewers could rate them, leave reactions and share or embed the movies into other websites like Facebook or MySpace. Not surprisingly the channel attracted 5 million page views in the first week. The PBS.org article How Social Media War Was Waged on Gaza explains, “the most popular videos on the site were the surreal aerial-cam attack videos, which have a detached, robotic feel that provides a stark contrast to the more palpable videos filmed on the Gaza streets.”
The article goes on to explain, “the site also features the IDF’s lone Arabic spokesmen, Avichai Adraee, who addressed the Arab world by playing Quranic excerpts over IDF footage in an attempt to prove that Hamas violated Islamic Law by fighting out of mosques.” This new media tactic is a result of Israel’s previous experience in Lebanon, learning again first hand the importance of media and the need to control the public narrative. The major lesson, according to IDF spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich, was the need for increased ‘transparency.’ In this way the IDF hoped the YouTube channel would show the world that “Israel is a moral army with nothing to hide.” This same strategy was applied to other forms of new media as well. This included the launch of a Twitter feed needed to track events as they happened. For the first time, the IDF even held a press conference via the Twitter feed. Some critics asked how a military operation, which often resulted in the loss of life, could be reduced to 140 characters.
But it wasn’t only the Israeli government that made use of new media tools. Israeli citizens and support groups joined the process too. One example is Stand With Us, a pro Israel advocacy group based in the U.S. The organization set up a social media ‘command center’ with the objective to promote a pro Israel standpoint. Niv Calderon, the 29 year old who commanded the ‘Israeli Social Media War Room,’ explained, “It wasn’t about the money at all. I would have done it for free. It was all from the heart.” Calderon was tasked with mobilizing an international team that would be able to communicate across language barriers. Members included people who spoke French, German, Dutch, Russian, English and Spanish and were willing to go ‘AWOL from their day jobs for a few weeks.’
One of the members, Ahuva Berger, an American immigrant to Israel now working in Israeli startups, says, “We are fighting against the mainstream media who prefer to ignore certain bits of information about Israel. Social media is an effective way of providing the right information passively.” Berger’s choice of words is important to take into consideration. He uses the word passive to describe his campaign. In the world of ‘opt in choices’ users decide whether or not they want to be part of a group or subscribe to a feed in which they receive certain information. In this way the campaign remains passive until someone chooses to become an active subscriber or participant. However, I don’t entirely agree with this notion as many tweets, feeds and community messages are visible by a larger group whether they choose to receive them or not. This is where some users become subject to a new media campaign regardless of their own choosing. Of course you can delete your friends or take steps to remove these messages, but it is non-the-less a subtle tactic used by a very pro-active group.
The article goes on to explain, “The group called themselves “Help Us Win,” and created a website with the same name, serving as an online database for news with a pro-Israel viewpoint. They worked in an office donated by a local college, the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, which also provided office equipment and Internet access. There they spent countless hours scanning the Internet for what they saw as biased blog posts and erroneous news stories, as well as other opportunities to tell their side of the story.” Needless to say, this initiative is remarkable in its form and function and clearly shows how citizens can come together using digital tools.
What is interesting about this approach is that the group had different messages to communicate then what the media had been distributing via print, radio and tv. The aim of their work was to show that Israel was fighting Hamas as opposed to the Palestinian people. Their effort was to balance media coverage with their own opinion and in a proactive effort to influence online discussions on YouTube, Facebook, and Al Jazeera. Specifically, the group tried to change commonly used language, referring to Hamas as ‘terrorists’ rather than ‘fighters’ and to the ‘War on Hamas’ rather than the ‘War on Gaza.’ In this way the group worked to introduce their own opinion and viewpoint to a discussion they felt was short-sided or incomplete. They filled a gap that was otherwise left open by more established media.
The most surprising part of the initiative is the Qassam Counter they developed as an application for Facebook. Every time a Qassam rocket landed in Israel the Qassam Counter would automatically change the Facebook status of anyone who subscribed to the application. The tool was successful in mobilizing a social network that reached 75,000 users from 150 countries. Each member “donated” his or her Facebook status and many would follow up with ‘tweet’ messages for their networks on Twitter. After checking some of the feeds, I was not surprised to find a dedicated Qassam Counter on Twitter as well.
These examples demonstrate how both the Israeli government and pro-Israeli citizens are able to engage, mobilize and distribute messages via new media tools.
5.2 Reaching the least connected
What is important to recognize in this analysis is that access to infrastructure and technology are a pre-requisite to being able to participate using new media tools. When trying to do the same thing in Gaza the situation is completely different. Public transportation is fragmented and some 500 checkpoints around the area make travel time-consuming and difficult. Most people don’t have regular Internet access, and newspapers are expensive.
It is unfortunate that the people who are most affected by such a conflict (in this case the Palestinians who were inflicted with the greatest casualties) have the least access to the tools needed to tell their own story and voice their own opinion. At the same time, there is reason to believe this situation is starting to change. The rise of the mobile phone and Internet affords new opportunities for the individuals who have previously been unconnected. It is only a matter of time before every person on the planet is connected by mobile phone and is in some way able to participate in local debates that reach a global audience.
In 2006, a small organization called Souktel started to tap into this opportunity in Gaza. The service uses SMS to connect users for two reasons: job opportunities and humanitarian aid. The name comes from “souk,” the Arabic word for “marketplace,” and “tel,” or “telephone.” The co-founder, Jacob Korenblum recognized the potential of the mobile phone early on and explains, “At least 80% of people in the West Bank have cell phones, but Internet access is a problem for people here.” It is clear that the mobile phone is the most ubiquities two-way technology present in the occupied territories. This is the tool that can be used to address one of the areas major hindrances, a simple lack of access to information. Korenblum explains, “I came to the West Bank to work for an NGO. The main thing I realized was that there wasn’t so much a lack of aid, but rather a lack of good ways to find out about it.” The mobile phone is the perfect tool needed to address this issue and improve the flow of information from within and outside Palestinian communities. He goes on to say, “SMS is pervasive. It is also by far the most cost-effective way for people to get the information they need.”
This infrastructure proved to have a purpose during a time of conflict too. When Al Jazeera saw the events unfold in Gaza, and the hindrance of Western reporters, there was a unique opportunity to fill the gap. A pilot project launched by Al Jazeera (a major channel in Arab media) and Ushahidi (an open source platform for reporting on crisis situations) demonstrates some of the new tools and approaches that can be used in the effort to engage citizens who remain otherwise unconnected.
5.3 The Tools
The rise of the mobile phone as the world’s most ubiquitous piece of technology opens new means of communication. It is only a matter of time before mobile infrastructure allows anyone, anywhere and at any time to connect with the web. Mobile phones have moved well beyond simple voice functionality and now allow users to capture audio, text, photo and video. Peripheral devices like blue tooth enabled keyboards; external microphones, enhanced flash devices and solar powered battery packs expand the functionality of the phone to levels of simple computing. As these reporting tools develop, and market access improves, their prices decline. This makes them easily obtainable to the average person on the street. Given access to Internet or GPRS connection, content made via the mobile phone can now be uploaded to
This opens up a whole new area in reporting previously not possible. And this is happening now, even without advanced phones or GPRS enabled networks. Frontline SMS is a service that allows mobile phones to send SMS messages to a central computer. These messages can then be formatted for publishing to the Internet. This means that anyone with a mobile phone, and SMS capability, is able to participate in this process.
5.4 A Pilot Project
Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili, is an open source engine. The project was developed in the effort to better map out reports of violence in Kenya. This was after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008.
The aim of Ushahidi is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up his or her own platform for collecting and visualizing information. They explan that, ‘the core Ushahidi platform allows for a plug-in and extensions that can be customized for different locales and needs. The tool is open source allowing others to download, implement and use the engine so that they can bring awareness to crises in their own region.’
The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in ‘near real-time.’ It was no surprise that when the conflict in Gaza began, Al Jazeera’s new media team contacted one of the Founders (Erik Hershman) of Ushahidi via Twitter. Al Jazeera downloaded the alpha code and launched the platform The War on Gaza, a website that was used to monitor and track events within Gaza during the conflict.
The platform is simple to use as anyone with access to a mobile phone can essentially participate. Using a mobile phone number users are able to submit text messages via the Souktel network which are then published to the website. Users can also submit voice recordings, photo and video. Each event is recorded and published to the website and then listed as ‘verified’ or ‘not verified.’ This could have been useful to document some of the events as they took place at the UN schools and then to engage other community contributors, local officials and media in the effort to verify the facts.
In an effort to further explore this project I invited Moeed Ahmad, Head of New Media, and Riyaad Minty, Senior New Media Analyst, of the New Media team at Al Jezeera to answer a few questions.
1) How was the coverage of Arab media channels different than Western media? We were the only international English language reporting news organization on the ground in Gaza and Israel. Providing live updates 24/7 on the situation as it unfolded throughout the conflict. Our use of New Media to distribute and visualize the conflict as it unfolded meant that people from around the world were better able to follow the event live as it unfolded.
2) Where did the idea come from to use new media as a tool in documenting and reporting on the conflict? The New Media team at Al Jazeera have been around for 3 years. They have rolled out many projects in that time (http://labs.aljazeera.net). When the war broke out- the team thought it was a good opportunity to trial some of their new mapping tools to provide greater depth and understanding to a live conflict.
New Media form an integral part to the overall strategy of Al Jazeera. The team works on building communities around the Al Jazeera content, interacting with our audiences and distributed distribution. The war in Gaza was a good opportunity to work on trialing out some of the new concepts.
3) What were the biggest lessons learned from this process? During conflicts the first thing that gets affected are the communication/electricity infrastructure of the region. As such it was difficult to get crowd-sourced information from the ground, especially from people who were affected the most.
4) What was the most surprising development or success achieved by incorporating a new media strategy? The twitter page embedded on our website was one of the most visited pages during the conflict. Users around the world expect to receive near real-time reporting of specific conflicts.
5) What role do you foresee New Media playing in the future/ and in such related situations? Providing greater depth and understanding to the conflicts. By using new tools of visualization/reporting users are able to get a true sense of the situation on the ground as it unfolds.
6) How do citizen journalist influence the reporting process and what impact could they have on the political situation if any? Our journalists cannot be everywhere during a conflict. Citizens on the ground provide a great opportunity to potentially expand the amount of information that a network can receive and thus provide a great in-depth report. Issues such as verification of content then arise which we addressed on case-by-case basis.
Needless to say, the project is not perfect and there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed moving forward.
Infrastructure: The issue of electricity, as mentioned in the interview, is crucial and hinders the citizen reporting process. Often conflict arises in places with little to no infrastructure and this will remain an issue moving forward. Specifically, there is a clear need for viable mobile networks that are not under the direct control of local governments and state owned or influenced telecom companies. This might include satellite networks that can operate irrespective of the local infrastructure. An example is the O3b network partly financed by Google.
Distribution: Another practical issue deals with content distribution. It is interesting to note that the website received most of its traffic via Twitter. It is important to remember that you need a pretty decent Internet connection to be able to fully exploit the capabilities of this service. This also highlights the fact that the people, who need the content most, arguably those living inside the Gaza territory, are the ones who have the greatest difficulty accessing such a platform. In this respect, such a process is not only about getting content out of a conflict region, but also to look into ways in which the content can again be distributed amongst the local networks who actively need it. Frontline SMS is a system that would be able to do this. In this case Souktel could also have played a role in this process.
Character Limit: The character limit of the SMS messages has also been a challenge. Korenblum of Soektel explains, “There’s a 70 character limit in Arabic. Conveying clear meaning in 70 characters is a challenge.” This makes it difficult to summarize entire events or present complete stories. The result is that SMS messages are far more effective in terms of highlighting an event or spreading the word that something happened as opposed to being able to bring forward intricate details and complete stories. It is important to think about both the possibilities and the limitations of SMS moving forward and how these short messages can play a valuable role in the reporting process. The character limit is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge.
Culture Factors: Benjamin Doherty, in a comment on the blog White African, raises an interesting cultural point when he asks how such a platform deals with synonymous names of locations. In Gaza there are multiple names for the same place making it difficult to verify events. Each used by different groups. This is only one small example of how a technical platform needs to be adjusted and adapted if it is to meet the needs of real world situations.
Bias: Although I commend Al Jezeera for their efforts, it is important to mention they are a well-established media company with a particular point of view. As the organization that both financed and implemented the platform it is fair to raise the question of objectivity. Although this project would likely have never emerged otherwise, objectivity (of the platform and the technology) remains an important factor to take into consideration for future implementations.
It is fair to say that this is both a unique and important project that really breaks new ground in documenting and reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is this kind of thinking and approach that helps to engage a Palestinian voice that otherwise goes unheard.
Despite the fact that Al Jazeera, a media company with a clearly stated media policy, hosted the War on Gaza platform, this was a unique effort to empower local citizens in the reporting process. This project is a strong example of how these conflicts can be documented and monitored in the future. As the deployment process improves, and as more citizens become aware of such services, it will become harder for governments, their military forces and traditional media to ignore what is happening on the ground. The liberalization of content and the ability for individual citizens to make their voices heard introduces a new system of checks and balances. Let us hope that this emerging opportunity serves to protect the lives and property of innocent civilians and affords otherwise neglected voices a place on the global stage.
In this way new media tools liberalize the number of voices that can participate in the effort to document a conflict. The implications are considerable. As more people obtain access to these tools it will become harder for governments and traditional media to control the message. In the case of the War on Gaza, local citizens are able to show the world what is happening on the ground and regardless of any policy that blocks foreign journalist from entering the area. These tools work to circumnavigate traditional systems and in a way that pushes forward the free access of information.
At the same time, the rise of mobile telephony is quickly capturing the attention of governments around the world. They are actively creating new strategies that serve to hinder this process. A good example is when the Government in Kenya closed the cellular networks during the 2008 crisis that emerged in response to national elections. The government quickly understood the use of mobile on collecting and distributing information and moved to proactively block users from sending messages. As governments devise new strategies it is important that citizen media do the same.
Joris Luyendijk’s ‘media war’ has found new ground. It is in the power of citizen media, the ability for individual people to tell and share their own story, that new boundaries can be defined and individual freedoms preserved. In the process we enter a new era where control and freedom confront each other again in a struggle to direct the flow of information. This is a new area that deserves considerable attention and should attract the interest of media researchers everywhere.
Michel Foucault, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault
Edward Said. ‘From Orientalism’ in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader.
Wikipedia, Israel-Gaza Conflict, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008–2009_Israel–Gaza_conflict
BBC: Counting Casualities of Gaza’s War, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7855070.stm
Media Monitors: Gaza: The Media Coverage, Coverh by Yvonne Ridley, (Sunday, January 11, 2009). http://world.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/58436/ / Gaza: The media coverage
Joris Luyendijk: Het Zijn Net Mensen, pg. 118
PBS.org: How Social Media War Was Waged on Gaza http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2009/02/how-social-media-war-was-waged-in-gaza-israel-conflict044.html
PBS.org: How Social Media War Was Waged on Gaza http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2009/02/how-social-media-war-was-waged-in-gaza-israel-conflict044.html
Wired: Israels Info War, http://blog.wired.com/defense/2008/12/israels-info-wa.html
Mobile Active: Souketel Making SMS Connections in Palestine, http://mobileactive.org/souktel-making-sms-connections-palestine
Jeff Halper, ‘The Key to Peace: Dismanteling the Matrix of Control’ in The other Israel.