Richard C. Schneider is the head of the Tel Aviv studio for the main German national news (ARD). In my opinion he manages to cover the region with a pretty balanced view of both sides and he has a very realistic view of the situation. The following is a translation of a text about Gaza, the war and honest journalism that he wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on August 3rd, 2014.
The sun is shining, children are crying: How to tell the truth about the war in Gaza, even though the truth is hidden behind propaganda and disinformation. A field report.
How do you cover a conflict, that in the meantime has become a war, when you have to report on both sides? "Neutrality" and "objectivity" are expected from us journalists, but in the daily routine of news producing this goal proves nearly unreachable. Not because we side with one of the parties – although some colleagues do that sometimes – but because we are faced with three obstacles: the power of images, the propaganda from both sides, the many "truths" that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comprises, and not least the expectations of the listeners at home, in safe Germany.
The ARD studio in Tel Aviv with its branches in Gaza and Hebron is a biotop. Jews, Muslims and Christians work together, Germans, Jewish Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. We speak Hebrew, Arabic, German and English in the studio. We are a team, some have been friends for years or decades, we know that we can rely on one another. Only this way we can be sure that we do good journalistic work.
An example: The ARD has instructed its correspondents not to go into Gaza at the moment, for security reasons. But we have a Palestinian team there. We are in constant contact by phone, we ask for stories, images, information, that we put together in the studio. We know that our team does not manipulate images, does not forge information. We can trust only the images they send us, only for these images we know that they show what we see.
But even with our images questions remain
Experience from the past wars in Gaza has shown that material from the media agencies that comes out of Gaza has often been censored by Hamas. Images that Hamas does not like are not approved (and images that people post with their phones on Twitter, Facebook or Youtube is anyway never verifiable). When Israel claimed in 2008 that Hamas fighters wear civil clothing and thus the number of civilian victims is manipulated, because they are not all civilians but also Hamas fighters, this was only verifiable for us as we got secretly filmed footage from our camera man that showed actual Hamas fighters in normal clothes who hid their kalashnikovs under the jacket.
And even with our images questions remain: We see a destroyed mosque, a tumbled minaret – and of course the horror that a house of God was bombed is the nearly automatic response, also for us. But then we have to ask: Were weapons stashed in this mosque? We know that there have been weapons’ stores in mosques, this has been proven. In these days we experience Israeli strikes (who sometimes say it was rockets by Hamas – and then it is one word against the other) on UNRWA schools with appalling, horrible pictures: Blood, badly injured babies, crying children in front of the dead bodies of their parents.
We journalists, too, first feel anger, despair, horror and grief. But we also know that Hamas rockets have been found in two schools, the UNRWA itself has confirmed this. So how do we assess this attack? Does the fact that deadly weapons meant to kill Isralis have possibly been hidden in this place justify civilian casualties? Do the rules and laws of conventional warfare apply in an assymmetric war?
Even the weather becomes a problem
In this example the dilemma we are facing becomes clear. We have to put back our own feelings. That is more difficult with the increasing duration of the war and the ever more horrifying images that we see daily, unfiltered, uncut. We have to try and weigh the deliberately-spread misinformation and the unreliable information. At the same time we have to include again and again the motivations of both sides, explain, mediate. This is much more problematic for us in TV than for the colleagues of print media. Because we know: Our texts are virtually powerless against the images.
The audience sees the crying child in front of his father’s dead body – and stops listening. Conversely he sees frightened Israelis, who are well-off in comparison with Gaza and thinks: Why are they so upset, nearly nothing is happening to them. And he forgets that there are reasons for this: the rocket defense system that the Israeli gouvernment has developed, shelters in every house, et cetera. Whereas the Hamas is using and abusing their population as human shieds. But the image, the immediate image that the viewer sees, does not convey the fear of the Israelis.
Even the weather becomes a problem, especially for the Israeli side: The sun is shining, the trees are green, the houses are more or less undamaged – where is the problem? The pictures do not show what it means to live for years with the code red alarm, especially in the border region, and to have only 15 to 40 seconds to get to a shelter.
Everybody thinks he can join in and judge
In the small city of Sderot alone about 1000 times a year. To convey this, it also does not help to film the rockets that have landed in Sderot the past years and are collected in the police station – these are abstract images, they can do little to counter the desperate, horrified face of the Palestinian child.
So how should we write? How to write against the power of images, and also against the judgements and prejudices of the viewers in Germany? Against the Islamophobes and the Islamophiles, the antisemites and philosemites, against all those who have never been to the Middle East, but think they can join the conversation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to an extent that does not exist for any other conflict in this world? Let’s not pretend: A conflict that involves Jews is perceived differently in Germany than a war between Muslims or between Christians.
And of course we know how the viewers will react: Many only see and hear what they want to see and hear. The most typical cases are those where the same news item is perceived as pro-Zionist respectively pro-Palestinian, the most exasperating are insults for things that we have not even said – but that were "heard" by the listener. In these cases we can do nothing, except to try and be as precise as possible in our language.
For the last six weeks we have worked around the clock
That we do not always succeed is obvious given our workload. In the weeks where ARD does the "Morgenmagazin" (morning news show), our day often starts at five AM, otherwise at 6 or 7 AM, often it takes until after midnight. Every hour we produce news items, for "Morgenmagazin" (morning), "Mittagsmagazin" (midday), "Tagesschauen" (8 PM and more), "Tagesthemen" (10/11 PM), "Nachtmagazin" (night). On some days during the war I have up to 30 live video links, because besides ARD we also serve Tagesschau24, Phoenix and the regional programs. Additionally we tweet, produce video blogs, do special broadcasts. For the last six weeks we have essentially worked 24/7, since the three Israeli youths have been abducted in the Westbank.
This "story" already seems so far away, because since then events have come so thick and fast, we have rushed from one story to the other, from one horrible occurrence to the other, from one failed ceasefire to the next, that we have lost all sense of time. We nearly don’t see our families anymore, four or five hours of sleep are the maximum, the team has become our family, we are all in the same boat and have to produce non-stop.
And sometimes we are even in danger. The team in Gaza certainly is. As head of the studio the responsibility for the welfare of the staff is mine. But what sort of "welfare" is there in Gaza? Between bombs and without shelters or safe rooms? I leave it to my Palestinian colleagues and friends to decide when and where they want to shoot – or not. Because they say it is too dangerous or because they want to be at home at night, with their wives and children, in the last resort to die together. And so we are happy every morning to hear their voices on the phone.
And we, on the Israeli side? The rockets reach Tel Aviv now, the sirens sound regularly, and we hear and see the explosions. But sometimes, like it happened a few days ago, the sirens do not sound. Then we are startled to hear an unexpected explosion. The rockets that are often trivialized as "self-made" in Germany, have long become dangerous weapons that would kill and cause massive damages if the defense system Iron Dome didn’t exist.
And: When we are standing directly at the border to Gaza and the alarm sounds, we have just about 15 seconds to run for cover. In an open field that is a problem. We throw ourselves to the ground, try to hide behind some rocks, wait for the impact and then a bit longer to avoid the danger of being hit by shrapnel. Then we get up again and continue our work, and see in the distance of not even a kilometer from us smoke, explosions, air raids.
It seems like a movie, but we know: People die, and we cannot do anything. Except to report, always go on reporting. And do the best we can.