Al-jazeera and accountability

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Recent weeks have witnessed two major leaks of documents that dominated the international media. The first was Wikileaks, which included State Department documents covering a variety of issues, including Israel/Palestine. The other was a stash of documents presented by al-Jazeera television that seem to have been taken in some way from the Palestinian negotiations support unit.

The main difference in the way Wikileaks and al-Jazeera dealt with these documents is that Wikileaks only posted these documents on a website available for all to see, while al-Jazeera both presented these documents in a website and devoted four days of extensive television coverage presenting and explaining and analyzing these documents.

While Wikileaks were not terribly controversial because there seems to be a world-wide consensus that media has the right to publish information that the public might be interested in, the Jazeera leaks were controversial because of the way that al-Jazeera dealt with these documents in these extensive television programs.

As far as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is concerned (and particularly for the Palestinian side), the Wikileaks documents did not generate a great deal of problems or much embarrassment. In fact, those Wikileaks documents that received the widest coverage showed that the Palestinian leadership and Egyptian leadership turned down an Israeli request that they take over the Gaza Strip after an Israeli military operation against Hamas.

The al-Jazeera leaks, however, did a lot of damage to the public position of the Palestinian leadership, in particular the negotiators. A closer look shows how this damage varied depending on the audience. While these leaks, which presented a fluid Palestinian negotiations performance, were taken at face value by the average Arab and Palestinian audience outside the Palestinian territories, their negative impact backfired as far as the Palestinian public in the occupied Palestinian territories was concerned.

In the occupied territories, the public differentiated between two aspects of the leaks: first, the documents that were leaked and their context, and second, the way the documents were presented and used by al-Jazeera. While there was a generally positive reception to the idea of publishing the documents, members of the public were able to point out differences between their content and the way they were presented on al-Jazeera television.

The feeling of the majority of the Palestinian public, as shown in a public opinion poll conducted on this issue a few days later, was that al-Jazeera was taking positions out of context and sometimes stretching certain language in order to incite the public against its leadership. This created feelings of animosity towards al-Jazeera which appeared similar to old-fashioned state and partisan media that use television programs for political propaganda and the purpose of political campaigning.

In conclusion, these leaks by al-Jazeera, which were perceived by most of the Palestinian public as part of a political campaign of discrediting their government, did not have much of a negative effect on that government’s public stand in the occupied Palestinian territories. They did do some damage to the Palestinian leadership’s standing among the Palestinian diaspora and the Arab people. This can be explained by the phenomenon that is seen repeatedly: Palestinians in the occupied territories are more realistic because they are closer to the reality of the Israeli occupation.

There is some accountability expected by the Palestinian public–whether over the government’s failure to protect these documents from being leaked or some problematic performances in negotiations. Such accountability measures will definitely remedy at least some of the negative effects of this leak.

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