Freedom of Expression in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Dec 4, 2023

A personal response to the war by PEN Sydney’s Mansour Razaghi

More than 16,000 people have been killed and housing and infrastructure has been destroyed on a massive scale. However, these are not the only devastating outcomes of the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestine. Truth and Freedom of Expression have been decimated as well. As a consequence, censorship of information is worse than ever.

Since the Vietnam War, the USA has employed strategic media management, recognising this as an important part of the battleground in any war. They have learned to shape the truth, by influencing reporting structures and the way information is fed to the public. For decades the USA has been engaged in a series of uninterrupted strategic wars, including the latest in Ukraine and Palestine, in which media management and shaping the truth has taken different forms, particularly with the rise of social media.  But all these methods share one objective: clamping down on freedom of expression and expanding censorship.

These methods are mimicked all around the world. For example, governments around the world have introduced legislation to legalise censorship. The most infamous one in Australia is the Anti-Terrorism law introduced in March 2002 by John Howard. It was rushed through parliament just before they went on a break and there was not enough time for consideration, for public debate and for submissions.

There’s a history to this conflict

Two long drawn-out conflicts have shadowed the politics and miseries of the Middle East for decades, namely: Palestine and Kurdish self-determination rights. As long as these nations’ rights are squashed and go unanswered, the region will not see peace. These conflicts are rooted in the colonialist political plan of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, where two junior officials from the UK and France redrew the borders without considering the numerous ethnic, religious, political and historic realities and complexities of the region. To understand the current Israel-Palestine bloodshed one needs to examine historical events and their impact, most notably in this case: the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

When the Hamas terrorist attack occurred on 7 October, it seems that the majority of media outlets and reporters believed the conflict started only on that same day.

A war of words

In reporting the war, on many news programs here and overseas, the journalist would begin by demanding that their guests condemn the attack first; however, I have never witnessed a similar reaction to the many brutal attacks by the Israelis against The Palestinians. This bias has become an industry norm amongst media outlets and journalists, which I believe is rooted in complex and ever-evolving political agendas being run by international powers. It has led to a massive restriction on freedom of expression and the obvious imposition of censorship.

I have also observed that the language used in reporting or addressing two sides of this conflict is unjustifiably unequal. Often the adjectives used to describe Hamas’ 7 October attack are emotive and harsh, which they deserve to be. Words like “brutal” and “murderous”. The justification for this type of reporting, of course, is the killing of 1400 Israeli citizens. However we should remember the claims and accusation of many brutal acts by Hamas’ fighters remain to be examined and proven independently. But the same adjectives and condemnation have not been used to describe the slaughter of 15,000 Palestinians, which includes more than 6000 children crushed under the bombing and on-ground military offensive conducted by the Israel Defence Forces.

In some reporting Hamas are described as militias who are actively killing Israeli’s, the meaning we read from this is that the Israelis are innocent children, women and the elderly. Yet when Israel’s army slaughters thousands of Palestinians they are simply described in a passive voice as “were dying” and not in the more active voice of “being killed”; the effect is to dehumanise Palestinian victims. And Israel’s armed forces, soldiers and armed colonialist settlers, are not named, instead it is “Israeli tanks” or “helicopters” or “drones.” The human agency is removed from the atrocities that are occurring.

These examples are not only from commercial media outlets, but increasingly they are also happening among publicly funded media, who are supposed to be more objective, balanced and unbiased. This behaviour reflects two fundamental disturbing factors. The first is the increasing influence of power structures in shaping and feeding a sanitised or distorted version of the truth to the public – a form of direct and indirect censorship. The other factor reflects the reporters’ tendencies toward either lazy journalism, self-censorship, and a lack of commitment to the ideals of true democracy and the right of the public to know.

In reporting the current bloodshed between Israel and Palestine the nouns that were used to describe the horror on the ground should be subjected to more academic rigour. As I mentioned media management is controlling what and how people are receiving the information. News and reporting is increasingly controlled by powerful governments and their agents.

From day one it was reported that this is a war between Hamas and Israel. Is it a war between Hamas and Israel? Is it a war when an unarmed, defenceless civilian population, who are already in an outdoor prison and under constant surveillance, are being slaughtered and carpet bombed by one of the most well-equipped armies in the world? Food and all supplies are being drip-fed into Gaza by the Israeli Government on their own whim. With the enormous numbers of deaths occurring is this not a genocide of an entire people? In my opinion the Israel attack on Gaza is an ironic and bitter reminder of the Nazi’s “Final Solution”. Why can’t reporters use terminologies that correctly describe the current status of this massacre? No reporter dares to use the word “barbaric” for the Israeli attacks on Gaza, despite the images to the contrary. Yet the Hamas attack on 7 October is labelled “barbaric” universally by reporters. Both actions are barbaric, but the Palestinian fatalities and injuries are anonymous and are on a massive scale. Victims are not dignified with their photos or their names as every Israeli is. These deaths are considered of no concern and justified by stating that Hamas is using the whole population, in every school, in every corner, in every building as a human shield. Some images that are managing to bypass this censorship, through TikTok and Instagram and even the reported fatality numbers, are beginning to put a dent in the narrative that some people are more equal than others.

In the reporting on the exchange of prisoners, two types of terminologies are used: prisoners and hostages. Over years Palestinian children, women and men have been arrested and taken away in sudden raids by Israeli forces. This is the same action taken by Hamas. But when it is reported, one is labelled a prisoner while the other is called a hostage. The two words used here have two different psychological and legal outcomes. The difference is found in where you are located, what your nationality is and whether you are powerful or powerless.

The powerful can create different images for the same action. In my personal experience I have always struggled with the notion of being a refugee. The term, to me, has a passive or negative implication. It suggests a self-inflicted cause or a choice to become a refugee, regardless of the reason. Consider the difference between the use of the word refugee and the description of being an exiled person.  Refugee suggests it was of your own design, exiled implies it was forced upon you.

Censorship at work

I know from colleagues working in academia, the media and government that there is a wariness about expressing their views of sympathy with Palestinians, for fear of workplace retribution. This occurred to the Deputy Mayor of Waverley Council who showed sympathy for civilians and families of both Israelis and Palestinians. After he was sacked from his position, for his views, the President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties Lydia Shelly said that shutting down dissenting views is an undemocratic abuse of power. She stated that “this motion signifies a very concerning slide towards silencing those whose views may not conform with those who wield political power.” What does this suggest if not censorship and retribution, which goes against the values of democracy and the belief that all people are equal?

The examples of people being silenced for expressing solidarity with The Palestinian people are mounting in Australia; a man was asked to remove a Tshirt when he tried to board a plane, teachers in classrooms are being told not to teach the history of the conflict and actors at The Sydney Theatre Company who appeared onstage wearing keffiyeh headscarves have been criticised.

Zionist lobby groups are actively monitoring every media outlet, small or large, they threaten to pursue these organisations with legal action and have people in fear of being labelled an antisemite, which is ironic as the Palestinian people are also Semites. Legal action means a large financial outlay for the organisation or individuals. With larger financial resources The Zionist groups can bring these smaller organisations to their knees. Some of my friends are now afraid of speaking out or participating in rallies, due to the threat of a retaliatory backlash. This is surely an erosion of our democratic freedoms.

For PEN, who support freedom of expression as a cornerstone of democracy, we see this as an attack on freedom of expression and an imposition of censorship. The Zionist lobby groups have demonstrated their influence again by persuading six former Australian prime ministers to declare their support for Israel.

On 24 November prominent Australian journalists published a statement, supported by their union the MEAA, in which they said they stand with their American colleagues in asking for greater transparency in reporting both sides of the conflict, without any influence and bias. Many journalists have avoided signing the letter for fear of retribution or losing their jobs.

Freedom of expression is under attack in many different arenas as well. On 17th October Reuters reported, “Hundreds of international writers have condemned a literary association and the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest forum for books and literature, after an event to give an award to a Palestinian writer was postponed and a public discussion with her was cancelled.”

On 23 November AP reported, “Oscar-winning actor Susan Sarandon and “Scream” star Melissa Barrera were each dropped by Hollywood companies after making comments on the Israel-Hamas war that some deemed antisemitic.”

The attack on freedom of expression has extended to the world of sport as well. It’s been reported that Karim Benzema, Youcef Atal and Anwar El Ghazi are among some of the footballers facing a backlash over their support for Palestine, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

On the other side of the conflict, there are no consequences for supporting Israel.

PEN Centres respond to the conflict

The reaction to the impact of this recent Israel-Palestine conflict by PEN International and other PEN Centres has been somewhat disappointing in the defence of freedom of expression and against censorship. I also noted that among PEN Centres some, who are receiving government funds, have been silent or inactive on this extremely urgent situation, which may explode into a regional war. Wouldn’t one expect such an honorary organisation such as PEN to make some statements at this time?  Significantly PEN Germany sided with PEN Israel, stating that it is the only democracy in The Middle East and is entitled to defend itself.  Kurdish writer Sara Ehsan, a member of PEN Germany, resigned in protest over their bias.

On Tuesday 24 October United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the 15-member U.N. Security Council “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation”.

Of course, Israel immediately condemned such a remark and suggested Guterres should resign. But Guterres highlighted an important fact: Hamas is part of the Palestine conflict. This war, if we could call it a war, is fully and truly a war between Israel and Palestine. The media organisations and journalists who repeat the headline “Hamas-Israel War,” in fact, are serving the Zionists’ propaganda to deny the question of the plight of Palestinians. They immediately reduce the self-determination rights of Palestinians to a war between two extreme religious groups, political Islam in the shape of a terrorist group like Hamas on one side supported and linked with oppressive terrorist States like Qatar, Turkey, Iran and the Zionist State of Israel on the other side, that is also a terrorist state.

The place of Hamas in the conflict

The organisation Hamas is the outcome of certain domestic, regional and international circumstances which started after the collapse of The Soviet Union. Hamas is empowered by the Israeli government when every month millions of US dollars touch down at Tel Aviv airport from Qatar to be delivered safely to Hamas. Israel’s objective was outlined by Jonathan Freedland on 21st October 2023 in a report for The Guardian, “Prime minister for most of the last 15 years, Netanyahu has been an enabler of Hamas, building up the organisation, letting it rule Gaza unhindered – save for brief, periodic military operations against it – and allowing funds from its Gulf patrons to keep it flush. Netanyahu liked the idea of the Palestinians as a house divided – Fatah in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza – because it allowed him to insist that there was no Palestinian partner he could do business with. That meant no peace process, no prospect of a Palestinian state, and no demand for Israeli territorial concessions. None of this was a secret. In March 2019, Netanyahu told his colleagues:Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas…This is part of our strategy to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from Palestinians in the West Bank.

The impact across the region

In 1980 when the Iran-Iraq war started the newly-come-to-power Ayatollah Khomeini declared the war as a gift from God. Indeed, it was a gift for his theocratic dictatorship terrorist State, under which his state machine has massacred tens of thousands of dissidents and is still fully operational after four decades. In the same way the Hamas attack on 7  October was indeed a gift from heaven for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he had been facing 300,000 dissidents on the streets of Israel every day, for the past several months.

 And indeed, it was also a gift from heaven for President Erdogan in Turkey, allowing him to organise his hypocritical Islamic-populist campaign in the defence of Palestinian people but continuing all his economic ties with Israel.  While at the same time, under a silenced media coverage, Turkey has run a full military attack on the North of Syria, where the Kurds defeated ISIS.

The Hamas attack on 7 October was also a gift for the Islamic regime in Iran, under which they have strengthened their influence in the region and have continued to arrest, torture and execute dissidents. Hamas’ action was a gift for Qatar, for Russia and the USA as well. The war machine, in the shape of American arms manufacturers, have seen their share prices increase by up to 10%.

While these states are benefiting from the Hamas attack, the rhetoric is high. The Israel government likened 7th October to 9/11. Back in 2001 George Bush declared that they would wipe out Al Qaeda and The Taliban. He promised he’d provide and maintain women’s rights in Afghanistan. 20 years later America sat with the Taliban in Qatar and handed power back to them and left Afghanistan and Afghan women in abject misery, worse off than before. For sure Israel needs Hamas, or a similar organisation, to do the dirty deals and deny the Palestinians’ rights to self-determination. They have brought the truth and freedom narrative to the slaughterhouse. In Antony Lowenstein’s award-winning book “The Palestine Laboratory” we learn how Israel has perfected its surveillance systems so highly by experimenting on the Palestinians who are compared to being like lab rats in an experiment. Israel is selling their surveillance systems far and wide. This includes the USA, India and even to Australia. Lowenstein states that Services NSW has the ability through this technology to record people through an app, looking, for example, for single mothers who may actually be in a relationship and are getting a welfare payment for their children.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was a high-profile diplomat and National Security advisor in the USA during several presidencies. After the collapse of The Soviet Union in the early 90s, under his doctrine, combating “terrorism” and “rouge states” became the centre point of USA foreign policy – the USA needed an “enemy.”  A decade later, George Bush junior, in his speech after the 9/11 attack, warned the world either you are with us or against us! Netanyahu seems to have the same message. Attacks on humanity’s freedom of expression since 9/11 have increased exponentially all around the world. Terrorism is being used as a pretext to deny people’s right to know. While there is no difference between a terrorist organisation and a terrorist State, the main objectives for both are; creating tyranny, clamping down on freedom of expression and imposing censorship. But the unity of freedom-loving people, progressive organisations and conscious individuals can defeat these evil acts.

The letters from the American and Australian journalists are promising but are not enough. We have to push back those who seed division and hopelessness. People’s power is invincible.

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