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'Partisan or simplistic': South Africa's media coverage of Israeli occupation 'lacks nuance'

With a long, shared history of settler colonialism and apartheid, South Africa's past has affected the way its media covers Israel's occupation
A South African Student Congress (SASCO) member protests outside Israel's embassy in Pretoria
A South African Student Congress (SASCO) member protests outside Israel's embassy in Pretoria on 20 May (AFP/File photo)
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Cape Town

Nearly 4,000 miles separate South Africa's capital city, Pretoria, from Gaza in Palestine, but when Israel launched its latest offensive on the besieged Strip, it inevitably reverberated on South Africa's streets.

Israel's 11-day bombing of Gaza, and the forced expulsions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, broke through local issues and made it into the "most read" sections of South Africa's news websites.

In opinion pieces for the country's largest news website, News24, a South African Zionist reflected on his personal politics; the vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies called on South Africa to help end the conflict and President Cyril Ramaphosa penned a piece calling for an end to hostilities.

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The relationships between perhaps Africa's most celebrated democracy, Palestine and Israel run deep – and are inevitably extremely complex.

Nelson Mandela, the country's first democratically elected president, enjoyed a warm relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Yasser Arafat, and the governing African National Congress (ANC) has repeatedly stated and displayed its support for Palestine.

But experts say recent South African media coverage has largely lacked complexity, and has either been blatantly partisan or overly simplistic.

Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Pretoria, told Middle East Eye that South African journalists' reporting on the latest conflict, and their engagement with issues surrounding it on social media platforms was "generally very poor".

"The shortcoming around how South African media covers the [Israel-Palestine] conflict is that there's no contemporary context," she said.

"There's the story of 'this is a long, old battle, involving different religions - and it's complicated', but the dynamics, for example, around setting up a government in Israel in the past year, and [former Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu himself - those are missing.

"There's also little analysis of the political dynamics between far-right Israelis and more progressive, left-wing people, or the role of Palestinian citizens of Israel [in the Knesset, Israel's parliament]," Mbete added.

'Quite ignorant about the story'

In recent months, East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood has seen a series of sit-ins by Palestinians protesting against Israeli orders for them to vacate their homes.

Attempts to have the Palestinians expelled have raged since the 1970s, with Jewish settler organisations being mostly funded by donors from the United States.

The Palestinians have described Israel's actions as a continuation of the ethnic cleansing that began with the Nakba in 1948.

The threat to the families in Sheikh Jarrah sparked international outcry last month and led to mass protests across Israel and the occupied territories, which triggered Israel's 11-day offensive on Gaza that left hundreds dead.

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Protests have continued following the declaration of a ceasefire, while legal proceedings continue.

"All of these issues, how they factor into the conversation, are lost in the way in which South African media tell a very two-dimensional story," Mbete said.

Historically, Israel and apartheid South Africa were closely aligned - if at times quietly, given South Africa's global pariah status.

Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, reportedly credited South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts as an anonymous but powerful supporter of the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain pledged its support to a Jewish homeland being established in Palestine.

But during Israel's latest offensive, many South African journalists seemed to have little handle on the conflict's geography. Some reporting confused Gaza and the West Bank; other South African journalists suggested that Sheikh Jarrah - a flashpoint for violence in Jerusalem during the May conflict - was in Gaza.

Still, Mbete notes the bulk of coverage in mainstream South African media was critical of Israel's occupation.

"There is no pretence about any balance and that's partly because South Africans are generally quite ignorant about the story and the nuance. Many people I spoke to, who are informed but not necessarily very political, were surprised when I said May's events were the fifth of these campaigns in recent years and that they were happening in a particular political context. The portrayal of what was happening last month in the South African media was as if this had just come out of nowhere."

'We don't know enough'

Paula Slier, a South African journalist and RT's Middle East bureau chief agreed, saying there was a dearth of context and complexity in reporting on Palestine and Israel.

"It's a shortcoming of journalism in general: we don't know enough about conflicts that aren't in our backyard," Slier told MEE.

She argued that media organisations had a duty of care when choosing to prioritise or give greater prominence to an international story, especially when relying on wire or agency copy rather than their own reporters.

"If this is what you've chosen to be your front-page story, it requires more effort. The shortcoming of South African journalism - though actually, it's most journalists around the world - is that they're not showing both sides of the story and they're not verifying facts. As journalists, of course we can't always be in all the places, all the time. There are people on the ground - like agency reporters and citizens with mobile phones - so [international journalists'] role becomes to verify information and facts. For instance, if people are sending you pictures, you need to verify what they claim to show; you need to fact check."

'Much of the media reporting on the conflicts that arise in these situations have followed the 'stenography' approach'

- Herman Wasserman, University of Cape Town

Slier said the conflict was "hitting South Africa" and affecting relations between specifically the country's Jewish and Muslim communities. This made it even more important to ensure balanced, fair coverage, she said.

"South Africa's Jewish community does feel that some coverage has veered into anti-Semitic [areas], and that breaks down the relationship between communities."

Herman Wasserman, a professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town, says if journalists want to improve conflict zones they should continue to report on issues in the affected areas even after fighting has subsided.

"Much of the media reporting on the conflicts that arise in these situations have followed the 'stenography' approach - highlighting clashes, violence, vandalism etc when it occurs - often from the perspective from an elite, and then ignoring the ongoing struggles of those communities once the immediate spikes of conflict have subsided," he said.

"I argue for an ethics of listening, rather than an ethics of distance and objectivity, which entails not an easy papering over the cracks by quoting both sides in a he-said-she-said fashion, nor the type of spectator approach where conflicts are viewed from the side line, but a process of active listening and incorporation of lesser-heard voices and perspectives with the goal of contributing to the de-escalation of conflict and the harnessing of agonistic engagements in the interest of democratic participation and social justice."