Last week, the US mainstream media demonstrated once again that it has a Palestine problem. CNN suspended the contract of commentator and Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill, after he gave a speech at the United Nations in which he criticised the Israeli occupation and the abuse of Palestinian rights.
Hill based his speech very much on facts. He cited Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinians; the use of arbitrary violence by the Israeli security apparatus; the use of torture against Palestinian detainees; the denial of due process to Palestinians by Israeli courts; the restriction on movement in the occupied territories, etc – all violations that have been well-documented and condemned by the UN and a myriad of human rights organisations.
Yet CNN, which last year adopted a new slogan – “Facts first” – did not seem to agree with these facts. After pro-Israel organisations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemned the speech, the TV station was quick to sever its ties with Hill.
While CNN did not announce why it chose to do so, it is clear to many of us it caved in to pressure from pro-Israel groups. Hill was accused of being anti-Semitic for using the phrase “free Palestine from the river to the sea”, which supposedly is a “Hamas slogan” and a call for the destruction of Israel. Well, it is neither.
Throwing accusations of anti-Semitism at people criticising Israel and supporting the Palestinian right to self-determination is a convenient tool of the Zionist lobby. But calling for the freedom of Palestinians and for the recognition of their rights is not anti-Semitic; it is pro-Palestinian.
Conflating anti-Semitism with pro-Palestinian positions and criticism of Israel is not only ill-intentioned but also dangerous, as it does a disservice to Jews who have faced hate speech and hate attacks.
In Palestine, the Israeli authorities have brought this tactic to the extreme and have already passed a number of laws curbing freedom of speech. This means that those of us who dare criticise Israeli policy or call for resistance to Israeli occupation, even if in the form of a poem, face the risk of imprisonment.
In the United States, those who do so clearly face the risk of being fired, as in the case of Professor Hill and as in the case of many others before him– and probably many others after. The way CNN (mis)handled this situation offers us an opportunity to discuss how media organisations succumbing to Israel’s campaign of silencing critics is particularly problematic.
For a long time, mainstream media organisations in the West, like the CNN, have been hiding behind the veneer of objectivity when it comes to issues such as the Palestinian struggle.
These outlets claim to be covering these issues objectively – applying certain procedures and high standards of verification that supposedly guarantee full and balanced reporting. With that grand declaration of objectivity, they then claim to present the true picture of what is going on. But they often don’t.
The language employed by many mainstream media networks in the West when reporting on Palestine is often imprecise and misrepresents certain objective realities. CNN and its peers often talk of a “conflict” between Palestinians and Israelis, skipping the fact that the latter are – legally and objectively speaking – occupiers. They talk of “contested lands” – as if there is no illegal settler-colonialism going on in Palestine, pushing Palestinians out of their land. They would often call the Israeli army’s violence against peaceful protesters “clashes” (as if the two sides are equal) and conveniently use the passive voice in titles reporting killings of Palestinians (as if Israeli soldiers were not the ones who shoot Palestinians dead).
Claiming objectivity but then, clearly using obfuscating language and intentionally skipping certain facts is not only damaging to the media profession but also spreads disinformation. The firing of Professor Hill has exposed once again this disingenuity, the apparent political bias, and perhaps even the fear of the Israeli lobby within Western mainstream media.
It also shows that even media institutions that claim to be fighting for freedom of speech, to be delivering “facts first”, to be “speaking truth to power” can also partake in the silencing of critical voices. What is particularly disconcerting, in this case, is that CNN is not only succumbing to political pressure and Israel’s speech policing policies but also perpetuating them – even if indirectly.
CNN is clearly not ready to take on the “controversial” topic of the Palestinian question and pursue “facts first”. Instead, it has chosen to stay on the political “safe side”: report only on certain events with bias, obscuring the real dynamic of relations between oppressor and oppressed and using a certain preset discourse.
Unfortunately, this “safe side” logic has also been adopted not only by media outlets but also by Western institutions – both academic and political ones – and even by governments. Just recall all those fake condemnations by political leaders in the West during Gaza’s Great March of Return, when in one day Israeli snipers shot dead more than 50 unarmed, peaceful Palestinian protesters and wounded hundreds of others, with local hospitals unable to cope. They all called on Israel to exercise “restraint” and threw in there for “balance” and “objectivity” a reference to Hamas, which killed no Israelis that day – or any other day of the march for that matter.
Those who do not stand on the “safe side” of things – people like Marc Lamont Hill – have been taking clear positions on Palestine, based on facts and critical thinking. They – like others throughout history who stood up for oppressed peoples’ rights – are vilified and viciously attacked, but they will persevere and continue to speak truth to power, objectively and factually.
Meanwhile, Western institutions (academic, media and others) will eventually have to engage in self-scrutiny because they are not only regularly succumbing to political pressures and adopting misrepresentations, but are also complicit in reproducing Israel’s policing and silencing strategies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.