Some of the speakers and participants said a conference called for by the Palestinian Authority to discuss how to have an effective public relations campaign was tens of years overdue.
Titled "Talking to the world", the invitation was issued by Information Minister Nabil Shaath and attended by the top public and private brass of the Palestinians, including President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian journalists and media activists.
Held in Ramallah, the two-day conference reviewed the political scene in America, Europe and Israel. Participants discussed the status of the Palestinian cause in French, Spanish, German, Italian and even Japanese-speaking countries. They focused on the local media scene, the attitude of international wire services, the Hebrew press, looking at print television and Internet media outlets.
The first major disagreement occurred in the opening session. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat stated that the world knows what is happening to Palestinians while member of the Palestinian Legislative Council Hanan Ashrawi insisted that the world doesn’t and surely doesn’t understand the Palestinian reality. Some commentators attempted to bridge the gap by saying that the bare facts of what is happening in the occupied territories are available for those interested in finding them, but that the overriding image of the Palestinians is negative.
By and large, the discussions, working groups, side debates and discussions during coffee breaks and meal outings focused on the English and Hebrew media. The only other issue of continued attention, other than that of the media in the US and Israel, was the international image of Palestinians, primarily on television.
While many diaspora Palestinians felt that support from communities in the West showing solidarity could result in change, the majority agreed that the key to change is in Palestine and in the hands of Palestinians at alllevels. They pointed to the need for a unified official position by the Palestinian Authority or the absence of coordination between the public and private sectors in Palestine and for a change in the Palestinians’ attitudes. Creating the office of a spokesperson, with professionals not politicians, and a daily paper of talking points could go far in reflecting the Palestinian public position.
Speaker after speaker criticised the mistaken attempt to present the Palestinian struggle as that of a Palestinian mother appearing to celebrate the death of her son and refusing to show her real feelings or a militant exhibiting a child carrying a weapon or a masked 16 years old parading with a Kalashnikov. The need to humanise the Palestinian image through encouraging human interest stories and documentaries was emphasised repeatedly, but the suggestion to break the camera’s attempt to film some of the negative images was rejected.
Improving the Palestinian image is not strictly a media issue. A number of astute speakers pointed out the absence of leading political groups and representatives of Palestinian factions who need to be involved in the job of educating the public about the need to stop idolising death and militarisation of the struggle.
Discussion of the image of Palestinians in the Israeli media received much attention. Leading Palestinian media activists who are citizens of Israel spoke about the absence of a serious attempt to reach the Israeli public at all levels. The fear that such effort could be considered normalisation, that some feel, was quickly rejected and the need to genuinely understand the holocaust was referred to as one of the first steps in trying to reachout to Israelis.
The participants were surprised by the strength of the statement made by Nabil Shaath on the issue of incitement in the Palestinian media. He told the conferees what happened when he found out what was an anti-Jewish Friday sermon given by a Gazan sheikh which was aired live on Palestine TV. After explaining some of what was said, Shaath sharply attacked the sheikh, announced in the presence of the director of Palestine TV that this particular clerk will never appear on Palestine TV and that he insisted on the following week to make sure that a sermon espousing the opposite points of view was delivered. Shaath also discussed how he plans to reorganise the
official media (making them genuinely a public service broadcasting), to cancel the need for licensing of newspapers and the way he hoped to regulate the private audiovisual media in a way that will make them more effective, with regulators’ only work to be focused on issues of public taste, as decided by representatives of the public.
The image of Palestinians in the world was summarised by one speaker as having one of the world’s most just causes represented by some of the worst defenders. An attempt to change that, even a small one as that initiated by the Palestinian Authority, can lead to significant results. The key will be in the implementation, follow up and the seriousness of the Palestinian leadership in pursuing such endeavour.