Secretary-General Declares ‘We Must Pursue Every Avenue to Revitalize the Peace Process’ for Israel and Palestine, at Opening of International Media Seminar

(Reissued as received)

GENEVA, 3 November (United Nations Office at Geneva) — Journalists, media experts, policymakers and scholars gathered for the opening of the twenty‑ninth annual International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East today, held in Room XXVI at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Organized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications, the Seminar takes place over two days, with the 2022 panel discussions exploring the themes “Honouring the legacy of Shireen Abu Akleh: Protecting journalists covering the conflict”; “Forgotten stories in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: how political news eclipses coverage of economic challenges”; and “Young journalists: opportunities and challenges.”

Welcoming the Director General, Tatiana Valovaya, panellists and speakers and participants to Geneva, MELISSA FLEMING, Under‑Secretary‑General for Global Communications, opened the seminar by reading a message from, ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations: “For over three decades, this gathering has served as an important space for fostering dialogue and deepening understanding for peace.  Today, we face an extremely challenging environment of growing violence, escalating tensions, and numerous civilian deaths. Among those recently killed was veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh… I was appalled by her killing and reiterate my call for an independent and transparent investigation for effective accountability.

All attacks against journalists must end. Media workers must be able to carry out their vital work freely and without harassment….or the fear of being targeted…. we must pursue every avenue to revitalize the peace process. There is no credible alternative to a two-State solution with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security, based on the 1967 borders, and with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.  Your work is a critical pillar for peace and a reminder of the pivotal role of free and independent media.  Your actions and determination demonstrate the power of words over weapons and help keep hope alive...”

AMBASSADOR WOLFGANG AMADEUS BRÜLHART, Swiss Envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, said on political, social, digital and climate levels, the world was caught in a dynamic of instability which resulted in an emergence of new tensions and conflicts.  He outlined his own journey towards achieving peace, beginning in 1996 in Sarajevo.  Switzerland was convinced that only a two-state solution, negotiated by both sides, could lead to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  Switzerland was supporting and promoting dialogue platforms in the main regions, and was supporting the human-led peace process.  In a few weeks, Switzerland would be a member of the United Nations security council for the first time in its history.  Yesterday was the international day to end impunity for crimes against journalists.  Journalists needed to be protected in all circumstances.  Mr. BRÜLHART thanked the journalists present for all their efforts and commitments to peace.

CHEIKH NIANG, Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of

the Palestinian People, said in May this year, the world watched in shock as news networks showed footage from the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al-Jazeera's veteran correspondent; an outrageous act, and attack on media freedom.  Through outreach efforts with the Member States, the Committee advocated for the implementation of the international consensus based on two States, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security within the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.  The Committee faced many challenges, including that of countering misinformation on the question of Palestine.

Some of the outreach activities by the Committee included managing the United Nations Information System, which contained over 40,000 United Nations documents on the question of Palestine and the search for peace.  The Committee's social media included Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channels, where information was disseminated to reach global audiences.  High-profile virtual events held this year discussed critical issues, including the impact of Israeli settlements on Palestinian rights, with all activities live cast on UNTV and social media.  The Committee also cooperated with civil society and organised the annual observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Mr. Niang said modern technology meant that credible and innovative young journalists had the best tools available to analyze events and report on them to broad audiences.  Simultaneously, a ferocious battle was waged across social media platforms over "fake news" or "hate speech."  The provision of accurate information about a conflict was a priority, and maintaining a culture of professional journalism was crucial.  For this reason, in July 2022, the Committee organized a two-day Communication Strategy Workshop for media and public relations officials of the Government of the State of Palestine.  The Committee advocated for a resolution of the question of Palestine based on an end to the Israeli occupation and a two-State solution, and would remain a reliable partner of the media.

MELISSA FLEMING said that for the past thirty-one years, the seminar had helped foster medias’ contribution to the quest for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was an opportunity to analyze and learn from the most recent media events and trends.  Comprising of three panel discussions, the seminar would be a two-day marathon of exchanges, led by an esteemed pool of distinguished experts, and the audience, during interactive question and answer sessions.

The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East will reconvene at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, 4 November, to hold its second panel discussion.

Panel I: Honouring the legacy of Shireen Abu Akleh: Protecting journalists covering the conflict

The day began with the panel discussion “Honouring the legacy of Shireen Abu Akleh: Protecting journalists covering the conflict”.  Moderated by Melissa Fleming, the discussion featured presentations by Gideon Levy, Columnist and a member of the editorial board Haaretz; Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations and; Denis Masmejean, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, Switzerland.

MELISSA FLEMING said yesterday was the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, and began by reading a quote from the Secretary-General’s message on the day: “A free press is vital to a functioning democracy, exposing wrongdoing, navigating our complex world, and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals.  Yet, more than 70 journalists have been killed this year simply for fulfilling this role in society. Most of these crimes go unsolved. Meanwhile, a record number of journalists are incarcerated today, while threats of imprisonment, violence, and death keep growing.”

Ms. FLEMING said that Shireen Abu Akleh was one of the seventy journalists that the world lost this year and a reminder of the risks that many journalists faced doing their jobs.  The panel was dedicated to her legacy; she would be remembered as a trailblazer for Palestinian and Arab journalists, as well as women journalists.  The panel would also explore the necessary measures to create a safe environment for all media workers in that part of the world.

After introducing the panellists, Ms. Valovaya asked how the world could best commemorate the legacy of Shireen Abu Akleh?  What were the lessons learned from her life; and the lessons learned from her death?

Mr. LEVY said the best way to commemorate Shireen was to find Israel accountable for her murder.  Shireen was not the first Palestinian journalist who had been killed and she wouldn’t be the last.  It was expected the international community would commemorate her memory, but also ensure that Israel was held accountable for her death.  Because Shireen was an American, this presented a unique opportunity; there was interest from the United States, and protests around the world, however this was not enough.  Israel first denied the murder, then responded vaguely, and then admitted that Shireen had potentially been killed by Israeli soldiers, before downplaying the situation.  However, the solider who killed her knew he was killing a journalist, as she was wearing a Press vest.

The legacy of Shireen was to continue to cover the Palestinian fate.  The world was losing interest in the conflict; there were new issues to deal with.  Israel had labelled any criticism about the occupation as anti-sematic; a tactic which was working well.  This presented a major violation of free speech in the West.  In the framework of a murder of a journalist, the world needed to be informed about what was going on.  The occupation was there and was not a temporary phenomenon.  Israel was an apartheid state, and there was no intention to end to the occupation.  Shireen’s legacy was to continue to force people to understand what was going on.  The truth was in danger and the world must not keep silent.  Apathy and ignorance were the biggest enemies.

Mr. MANSOUR said Shireen Abu Akleh was the legacy of the Palestinian people, who gave her life for advancing justice for the Palestinian people.  The Security Council had been united in approving the statement condemning her killing, asking for an independent investigation and justice.  The Israeli occupiers killed her, and justice needed to be served.  The United Nations should not rest until those who had killed her were brought to justice.  More than 200 young Palestinian journalists had graduated through a United Nations programme, which was now to be named as the Shireen Abu Akleh programme.  People had forgotten about the Palestinians, but the question of Palestine would never be forgotten.  The Palestinians had been waiting for 55 years since the occupation; they would not break.  They had been continually tested and had become a responsible and qualified State, yet there were still those who were blocking their efforts to become a member within the United Nations Security Council.  The State of Palestine should be admitted to the Security Council, to protect the two State solution which was being destroyed by the Israeli occupation.  Many distinguished organisations believed that the occupation was apartheid, while many States still did not have the courage to use the word.

To have justice, peace and fairness, the Palestinian people needed to be allowed to visit institutions including the International Court of Justice.  Several questions needed to be addressed: What were the legal consequences for States and the United Nations under a long occupation?  What were the legal implications of those who denied the Palestinian people the rights to self-determination?  What were the legal consequences of a situation in which the Palestinian people were living under, namely discrimination?  If the international community did not treat Palestine fairly, they would be pushed to go the bigger house, and the international community would need to listen.  Mr. Mansour said there was hope for peace; Palestine needed a chance to live and to be free.

Mr. MASMEJEAN began by sending a message of sympathy to Shireen’s family.  He felt and shared the pain of those who worked with her, knew her, and loved her.  Yesterday was the national day for ending crimes of impunity against journalists.  The beginning of impunity meant that facts needed to be established independently.  Journalists who were covering armed conflict were protected by international humanitarian law as civilians, and as such, should not be targeted.

The international channel, particularly the International Criminal Court was now the last hope, and a complaint had been filed by Shireen’s family.  The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court had already been asked to investigate the bombing of Gaza in 2021, as well as the commission of war crimes by the Israeli army in 2018.  International justice offered the last hope for justice to be done.

In the second round of discussions, Ms. FLEMING asked panellists about the other obstacles faced by journalists in covering the conflict, beside physical dangers?

Mr. LEVY said in 1993 a mission was organised to Sarajevo which was under siege, and he had faced substantial dangers there as a journalist.  Generally in Israel, journalists did not face physical threats or pressure from the government or the secret services.  What was faced was the betrayal of colleagues in the mission.  The Israeli media was the biggest collaborator with the Israeli occupation, not because of ideologies or pressures, but due to interests and because the readers did not want to know.  This enabled the unbelievable situation in which many Israelis took pride in the morality of Israel, while close to their homes, crimes against humanity were taking place daily.

It was difficult to break this coalition of silence.  The outcome was clear; the Israeli society was living in denial.  Israelis were not accountable for anything.  If anyone tried to break the wall of denial, they were considered a traitor and a liar.  This was the framework faced by Israeli journalists who wanted to cover the occupation in a professional, rather than a political, way.  The biggest corruption of Israel was denial and the media was the main one responsible for this.  Never in the history of the occupation was Israel blamed for any acts directly in the media.  Alternatively, if a Palestinian shot someone, it would be labelled as murder, even if it was done so in self-defence.  The language used was twisted, and it was very hard to follow the mainstream Israeli media.  Mr Levy said with conviction, that there was nothing cheaper in Israeli media than the life of a Palestinian.  The Israelis accepted this, which was the main obstacle in Israel.

Ms. FLEMING asked about the reaction to Mr. LEVY’s column about the Israeli occupation from the Israeli public?

Mr. LEVY said the reaction differed.  In times of war, such as in Gaza in 2014, he had required bodyguards after writing about the crimes of Israeli pilots in Gaza.  However, in most cases, apathy was his biggest enemy.  If people were furious, he had touched on a sensitive issue, but in times of apathy, he had all the freedom he wanted, which should not be taken for granted.

Mr. MANSOUR said over the years, 55 Palestinian journalists had been murdered by the Israeli occupation.  There were difficult conditions for Palestinian journalists to cover attacks by Israeli authorities.  Responding to Mr. LEVY, Mr. MANSOUR advised him to shadow journalists to see what was happening at the hands of the Israeli occupation, which would allow him to perform his duty, while also providing them with protection.  The issue of protection was immense; in the West Bank alone, this year had seen 7000 people injured, and the largest number killed so far. Israelis should be creative in terms of visa situations; Palestine could help them to report their reality and their lives under occupation.

Everyone had to do something; the Palestinian people should not be left to survive under the ruthless occupation.  There were many Israeli media conniving with the occupation to tell the wrong story.  How many more thousands of Palestinians needed to be killed or imprisoned?  No one person would be able to correct the policy of apartheid.  Apartheid was defeated in two States in history; in South Africa and in the United States.  This meant it would also not succeed in the third case where it was trying to manifest itself, which was in Israel.  If Israel and Palestine descended further into the one State reality, the international community would not be able to carry the load.

Mr. MASMEJEAN said journalists faced more difficulties in Israel, which was linked to the tensions of the conflict.  There was military censorship in Israel when security was at stake.  The Gaza strip was dangerous for journalists and for press freedom.

The floor then opened for discussions from the audience.  Taking the floor, participants, among other things condemned the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh especially as she was wearing a press vest clearly identifying herself as the media.  It was recommended that her case be brought before the International Criminal Court.  The legacy of Shireen needed to continue, and attention given to the Palestinian cause.  The protection of all reporters was paramount.  86 percent of crimes against journalists had been left without prosecutors.   Without conveying reality, all democracies and all just causes would be at risk.

Speakers also said there were many great journalists in the Middle East who were not celebrated enough.  It was important to honour journalists and call for their protection.  A participant asked if protection occurred pre, during or post abuse?  Palestinian journalists needed to define what protection was.  Speakers addressed Mr. Levy, asking if he felt that Israelis believed in peace with Palestinians and interacting together?

Responding to questions, Mr. LEVY said the answer was not simple, and stemmed from lessons taught at a young age.  Israelis had lost faith in peace and what it meant.  Peace by itself could not be the target; there would never be peace without justice.  For many years, it had been felt that the national sentiments of the average Palestinians were for everyone to live together in dignity.  This was no longer the national sentiment in Israel; they wanted separation.

Responding to questions, Mr. MANSOUR said it was not a reality to expect Palestinians to approach Israelis for peace.  The international community should convene and force them to negotiate, as had occurred in the past.  There was no plan B for the two State solution.  If Israel continued to dominate Palestinian rights, this was not considered being together as equal entities.  Everyone had  a responsibility to push Israel and Palestine towards peace and towards living together as two independent States.

Mr. MASMEJEAN said protection of journalists applied before, after or during anything.  The most important thing was to fight impunity.  The beginning of impunity was to establish the facts, which was not easy.  If facts were not established, justice could not be done.

A speaker noted that the Secretary General reported on the Palestinian occupied territories and there was no standard language on violations against journalists; why didn’t the Secretary General take initiatives and establish a new mechanism which focused on the safety of journalists in conflicts?

Ms. FLEMING said she would take this question to the Secretary General, who had spoken passionately about the safety of journalists, as well as justice and an end to impunity.  He would like to strengthen these efforts.  Other parts of the United Nations system were active in establishing principles, speaking out and following up.

Panel II: Forgotten stories in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: how political news eclipses coverage of economic challenges

The second panel of the day focused on the topic ”Forgotten stories in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: how political news eclipses coverage of economic challenges.”  The panel was moderated by Nanette Braun, Chief, Communication Campaigns Service, Campaigns and Country Operations Division, United Nations Department of Global Communications, with discussions from panellists including Professor Edmund Gharib, Professor, American University; Dalia Hatuqa, Multimedia journalist specializing in Israeli/Palestinian affairs, and; David Rosenburg, Business Editor Haaretz.

Ms. BRAUN said the majority of media coverage in conflict zones tended to focus on political developments and trends, ignoring the economic conditions that affected people’s lives.  There were journalists who devoted their reporting to the economy, but in crisis and conflict situations they were a minority, and their reporting rarely dominated the headlines.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the war on Ukraine had an unprecedented impact on global and national economies and had severely disrupted trade, and caused severe crisis in food, and energy supplies.

These crises strongly affected the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel as well, yet hardly dominated the media narrative.  Poverty continued to deepen in the Occupied Palestinian Territory; more than one third of the population now lived below the poverty line.  Food insecurity had increased from 9% to 23% in the West Bank, and from 50% to 53% in Gaza.  There was evidently a story that needed urgent attention, yet was underreported.  How to address this would be discussed with the panel of experts.

After introducing the panellists, Ms. BRAUN asked if the COVID-19, inflation, food, and energy crises did not boost economic journalism, what would?   How could the case be made for increased economic reporting in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  What needed to happen and who were the key players?  Why was it important to follow on the economic situation in this context?

Mr. GHARIB said issues like COVID-19 had undoubtedly impacted the lives of people and the economy, as had the war in Ukraine.  According to UNCTAD, the cumulative cost of restrictions imposed in the West Bank bank was estimated at 57.7 billions dollars.  Israel’s control of the occupied territory had led to shrinkage of the Palestinian economy and the encirclement of Palestinian villages with Israeli settlements.  Israel often defended its position in the name of security, and blamed the Palestinians for their own deprivations.  Even sympathetic news focused on the loss of life, rather than the damage to the economy.  Israel had no incentive to devote resources to alleviate the situation in West Bank, and instead pressured its government for further land confiscations and greater resources, which was rarely covered by the media.  This issue did not have a world audience, unlike the bombing of Gaza.

Significantly, attempts to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians were negatively viewed as a substitute for overcoming the occupation.  Improving economic circumstances of the Palestinians could be seen as a diversion, which hindered political progress.   Issues of violence were seen as “sexy” and were more likely to draw a larger audience.  Poverty statistics did not grab the headlines.  The decline in foreign correspondence was also an issue.  American publications did not require specialised journalists, unlike those in Europe.  This all had an impact on the coverage being reported.

Ms. HATUQA said the economic situation in Palestine and the occupied territories was reflective of the political landscape.  Politics and economics went hand in hand.  Palestinians did not want to focus on the economy as much, as there had been attempts by political parties to focus on economic peace, which was a way to bypass the political situation.  Economic peace had been going on for a long time.  There was a belief among donors that once the economy was fixed, things would be better politically; however, this was not the case.

Ms. HATUQA believed that trying to bypass the political situation by focusing on the economy, took away the understanding that the peace process had done nothing but churn the same ideas continually, without tangible results.  While the economy was still very important, the root of all of this was the political stagnation.  Although aid was an important tool, this came with restrictions or with an idea from the party providing the aid.  For this reason, some organisations purposefully refused aid and only accepted different kinds of help.

Mr. ROSENBURG said the economic issue was very important to the situation in Palestine and to the prospect of any kind of peace.  On the ground, economic distress was a big factor in Palestinian life, which impacted ordinary Palestinians daily.  This was viewed as less dramatic by the media, except in situations of conflict, which elicited more interest.  One of the key issues was the state of the Palestinian authority, which was unsustainable, and could have significant reverberations throughout the Palestinian economy and huge political implications.  It was remarkable that the media did not report on these issues at all.

Economics was a big part of the occupation.  A key issue was the extent that economic distress contributed to tensions and violence.  The media took its cues from political leadership.  In Israel, the Prime Minister was able to decide through influence, the major issues impacting the country.  A document released by Donald Trump’s Whitehouse said that the problem could be solved by economic issues; if prosperity could be brought to Palestine, peace would follow.  This was negatively received by Palestinians.  Generally, there was little interest around the world in economic news, except as it directly pertained to the readers.  Lebanon was a rare case where economics was dramatic, and had resulted in extensive media coverage.  Important as they were, economic issues often were short changed.

Ms. BRAUN said asked about the changing media landscape and how this polarisation was making balanced economic news reporting more difficult?

Mr. ROSENBURG said in general economic stories were getting more difficult to cover.  There was less coverage on economic issues, and the Foreign Press Corp was less established than it had been previously.  News was much more driven by audience demand and interest; economics was a difficult sell.  Now it was easy to know immense detail about what people were reading and watching and how much time they spent consuming the particular story.  When considering the economic situation in a far-off place such as Palestine, that had no impact on the rest of the world, interest vanished quickly.  The war in Ukraine was an exception, due to the country’s high level of wheat exports.  Mr. ROSENBURG was sceptical of the ability of journalists to raise the profile of the economic situation in Israel and Palestine.

Ms. HATUQA said there was a reporting fatigue which contributed to poor media coverage.  There were multiple crisis in the Middle East which were “bloodier” which took oxygen away from the issue.  It was also dependent on the economic challenge at hand.  Ms. HATUQA referred to Bethlehem in the context of Christmas time particularly, saying it was difficult to keep relaying the same messages to people and for them to care.  There were still topics to be explored, but there were not room for the majority of economic stories, which made it difficult for journalists covering these stories to explain these situations properly.

Mr. GHARIB said there had been many revolutionary changes.  The number of newspapers, particularly in Western societies, had declined.  The monopolisation of the media was also important; more and more outlets were buying each other which was transforming the way the media did its work.  Another change taking place was that journalists were becoming closer to decision makers.  They were influencing and being influenced by governments, and were being used to send messages to the public.  There had also been a decline in investigative journalism, which had undermined the credibility of the media.  It was also important to note the “McDonald-isation” of news; the increased focus on entertainment, which undermined the way the media covered certain issues.

Ms. BRAUN said that economic journalism was not always easy to digest.  It was considered dry and hard to understand and explain to audiences.  How could journalists and media organizations overcome this challenge?

Ms. HATUQA said she often had to couple economic news with other kinds of stories, or put it in the context of the political situation.  People needed to be provided with the kind of information that they were ready and capable of consuming.  A way to do this was through topics that people were interested in, such as start-ups, or community philanthropy, which had a human element.

Mr. ROSENBURG said this was not an easy task.  One way to do this was to tie economics to political issues, which would attract people’s interest.  Ordinary readers were not interested in numbers.  Another issue was terminology; many people did not understand phrases used or why they were important.  Most economic issues were moving slowly and therefore it was hard to find dramatic content to report on.  It was hard to report on economic stories as a standalone and explain why the reader should care.

Mr. GHARIB said over the past decade, the image of Arabs in the media had declined.  Israelis were seen as the good guys within the media and Palestinians were seen as the bad ones; Israel was seen as an extension of the West.  A significant development was Jewish correspondents being critical of the Israeli occupation.  More recently there had been a change; more people were willing to risk punishment for supporting Palestinians.

Ms. BRAUN then opened the floor to the audience.  Speakers said among other things, that while economic reporting would not always be the lead story, the internet meant that the content could be relevant for time to come.

Responding to comments, Ms. HATUQA said she had previously written stories which shed light on the economic situation in Jerusalem by adding a human element, taking it back to the grassroots.

Mr. GHARIB said there were more than 60 laws which discriminated against Palestinians, including citizenship.  There did not seem to be many Israeli politicians who wanted to see change.

Mr. ROSENBURG said the case of Palestine would not be solved by public opinion.  Instead, the issue would be whether policy makers made the decision.  Policy makers did not need to be reached through the mass media, but rather other more niche media outlets, such as the Economist.

For information media. Not an official record.