Turning a new page
Following the historic UAE-Israel peace deal, Gulf journalism must overcome deeply ingrained rules of news coverage regarding the State of Israel and its leaders
One does not know what impact the recent UAE-Israel peace deal will have on the Gulf region, one thing is sure the UAE newspapers, especially the English-language dailies, will undergo a major overhaul as there were very clear and strict dos and don'ts for the coverage of news regarding Israel.
When in 1990, I joined Khaleej Times as a sub-editor, I was briefed about what can appear and what cannot and if the news was very important, then how it had to be 'sanitised'.
Among the many 'unpardonable sins', the top four were: (1) Never say the Persian Gulf. The normal usage was Gulf or if you had to stress something then 'the Arabian Gulf'; (2) Any news emanating from Israel with Jerusalem dateline had to be prefixed with 'occupied'; (3) Israel was not a state and in agency copy, any reference to the State of Israel was changed to 'Zionist or Jewish entity'. Any slip regarding these 'unpardonable sins' could lead to a chain of sackings starting from the sub-editor to chief sub-editor or news editor and night editor whosoever has seen the page or passed it; (4) No picture of any Israeli leader will appear in the paper. Of course, the advent of Photoshop made it easy. But prior to this, the sub-editor had to crop out the picture of Israeli leader if he/she appears along with world leaders at an important event. Before sending the picture to the camera department, the sub had to indicate with a pen or pencil the cropping with clear instructions. My seniors and veterans of Gulf journalism had a simple rule — better safe than sorry. Therefore, the safest way was to just avoid that picture.
In this regard, there was only one exception. Pictures of Israeli soldiers firing bullets or tear gas shells on Palestinian protesters were allowed even on the front page, especially, if they were firing on women and children.
Then, like the COVID-19 these days, every agency copy was heavily 'sanitised'. Khaleej Times style was using a prefix Mr, Ms or Mrs before any name. But in the case of Israeli leaders, it was strictly prohibited. In fact, new nomenclatures were devised and used for Israeli leaders like the Israeli defence minister was called 'the war minister' and the late Ariel Sharon was always referred to as 'war criminal' or 'butcher of Sabra and Shatila'.
Palestinians were resisting or struggling against illegal occupation. So, they were resistance fighters or commandos. Any attack against Israeli soldiers or facility used to be changed from 'terrorist attack' to 'commando action'. Hamas and other groups were militant or resistance fighters and in the case of Hezbollah, words like Shia militant or terrorist group were deleted. Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers were 'martyrs'.
Only in one place 'occupied' Jerusalem was not supposed to be used, that is when it is referred to as the future capital of the independent
Palestinian state. But, these things have been drilled so much into the minds of subs and proofreaders that sometimes even in this case also they used to add 'occupied' before Jerusalem.
When the Gulf papers splashed the news about the peace deal on their front pages, many still avoided the picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The best was Sharjah-based English daily Gulf Today, which used the picture of a man waving the Palestinian flag with armed Israeli soldiers aiming their guns at him along with the peace deal story.
They say old habits die hard, one is sure that Gulf journalists will take a long time to 'unlearn' a lot of things which have become a part of their DNA.
The writer has worked on senior editorial positions on Khaleej Times, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and The Brunei Times.
At present, he is based in Jaipur and writes for The Diplomat, The Brussels Times, ASEAN Post and other international publications. Views expressed are personal