U.S. soldiers gunned down Palestinian Mazen Dana – a cameraman for Reuters – on August 19, 2003 outside the Abu Ghraib prison, mistaking his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Caught in the fog of war, the award-winning journalist was endangered by the army of the same people who rely on Dana for news thousands of miles away from home.
Dana’s story, one of many invisible to the public eye, highlights the increasing importance of Palestinian journalists who work behind the scenes, cameras, and bylines to help produce U.S. news from Jerusalem to Nablus, according to assistant professor of anthropology at Tufts University, Amahl Bishara.
How does news from the streets of Gaza by its very people make it to U.S. papers? Could the presence of many international cameras on the West Bank make Palestinians and Israelis mere performers on a world stage?
Author of “Backstories: U.S. News Production in Palestinian Politics,” Bishara explored the role of Palestinian journalists – also known as fixers – in U.S. news-making at a talk by the Palestine Center Monday, April 15, 2013. Setting aside concerns of news laced by U.S. bias and news filtering, Bishara focused on news-making from the ground up based on interviews with forty journalists, shadowing journalism sites, fieldwork for over four years, and interviews with Palestinians about U.S. news texts.
Many Israeli soldiers inhibit Palestinian journalists in two ways: by rescinding press cards, restricting movement, limited news production, and maligning claims to professionalism and objectivity or by shooting journalists to limit news production claims to professional and objectivity and create climate of fear, Bishara said. But even within the Palestinian border, public backlash against reporters remains high due to fear and uncertainty, she said, showing footage of Palestinian civilians shoving Dana off the streets at a protest.
Despite this violence and the lack of ability to directly influence news coverage, many Palestinians are valuable assets to foreign correspondence, providing skills of proximity like language, knowledge of multiple customs and ways of life while still being able to stay safe, understand language and custom, and use piles of dirt – once yesterday’s rubble – as today’s tripod stand.
Palestinian footage, information, and news interviews, however, do not have a clear effect on international coverage. Despite this lack of control over coverage, on-the-ground journalists use their role to challenge the occupation with their bodies, their words, and establish meaning by interviewing a network of Palestinians and Israelis.
The burden or proof lies on readers to read between the lines of international coverage, Bishara said, citing that a simple statement from a grieving father she once tracked, Abu Karam, “My son’s blood lay in a pool on the street like the blood of a slaughtered sheep.” A producer based in Jerusalem said the statement revealed how Palestinians felt Israeli forces treated them like animals, while another fixer based in Nablus said the statement was not a political critique, rather an observation using images the man had known.
“There are multiple relationships between fact and narrative,” Bishara said. “This poses a challenge for us: How do we recognize these multiple perspectives?”
Objectivity may not be the solution to understanding the duplicity of multiple perspectives, she said, saying that this universal news value operates differently in different contexts.
For example, including quotes from both Israeli and Palestinian sources could create the illusion that the conflict is balanced and the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is a clear back and forth, thereby heightening the role of American journalists as perceived peace negotiators and reproducing U.S. power, Bishara said.
“Foreign correspondents are not a disinterested party. In the second intifada, they were living right in the middle of it,” Bishara said, revealing that journalists may be emotionally invested in their relay of news such as in the case of Mohammad Al-Aza.
When a handful of Israeli soldiers entered a Palestinian refugee camp on Monday evening, the photojournalist and Palestinian refugee began shooting pictures with his camera. Angered by Al-Azza’s refusal to put down his camera, an Israeli soldier returned the shots with a rubber bullet, shattering the 23-year-old’s right cheekbone.
Bishara has also produced the documentary “Across Oceans, Among Colleagues,” an ethnography about the work the Committee to Protect Journalists. The assistant professor is currently researching the relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, projects which were inspired by her stumbling out of bed every morning to read the paper, her life line to the world.
In the words of slain journalist Dana before an awards acceptance speech before the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Words and images are a public trust.”