The way international media shapes regional and global politics has always been perplexing for many in academia. But as I followed the coverage of the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla incident, the media's role in mobilising international opinion and also in shaping changes to foreign policy was made all the more clear. If the Freedom Flotilla campaign was meant to be an international eye-opening media stunt, then by all accounts, it was a success. It is a tragedy that nine people had to die to focus international opinion.
Even before the aid ships headed for Gaza, they had received extensive international media coverage. There were more than 67 journalists from 30 nations on board to ensure that the flow of news and images about a humanitarian mission in action. Some satellite television channels even had live broadcasts from the vessels to keep viewers abreast of how activists were preparing for a potential showdown with the Israeli navy.
Israel made many miscalculations, but not in their estimate of the media's importance in the aftermath of the event. When the vessels were stormed by Israeli commandos in international waters, they introduced a total blackout on information from the flotilla. This heightened the sense of anxiety that continued until surviving passengers were accounted for and released, but it also gave the Israelis more control over the story, at least initially.
With most video and photographic equipment confiscated, the battle that began on the high seas soon turned into a battle of perception and semantics, as the personal accounts of activists competed with a carefully edited Israeli video clip for control of the narrative. Israeli officials referred to the activists as pro-Palestinian terrorists and Hamas supporters while they identified themselves as humanitarian activists and civilian Palestinian sympathisers. Israelis referred to their interception of the flotilla as an act of self-defence while activists described it as an act of piracy in international waters.
I was shocked last week to find a video clip carried by one Israeli television channel in which actors mocked flotilla activists and Gaza residents. In fact, the video clip seemed to demonise Palestinians and those aboard the Freedom Flotilla as evil creatures who were hatching subversive plots against Israel under the pretext of helping the Gazan people "who had no humanitarian problem at all". Yet, realities on the ground in Gaza tell a far different story and, after the flotilla incident, the international media was paying more attention to this than ever.
Reports periodically released by the United Nations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent show that hundreds of Palestinian children perishing because of malnutrition and lack of access to medical services. Thousands of families continue to live in tents since Israel's attack on the Strip last January destroyed their homes, while the flow of food and medical supplies remains restricted. While the Israeli government has said that it will ease the restrictions on what can enter Gaza, this too may be an effort that has the media in mind more than the Palestinians.
It is interesting that Israel's announcement that it would adjust the list of prohibited items under the blockade was only presented to the international media and diplomatic community in English. It did not appear in the government's official remarks in Hebrew. The details of how Israel will loosen the blockade also remain sketchy. But whether or not this is a legitimate policy change or a media ploy, Israel has felt the need to respond to the extensive media coverage that has rightly framed the struggles of Gazans as a moral and humanitarian issue.
One important lesson that the Freedom Flotilla tradgey should also teach is the way in which the multinational composition of the passengers helped to promote an international consensus on the need to address a humanitarian crisis. With people of so many nationalities aboard the boats, moral outrage at what was happening in Gaza was manifested on the streets of capitals all over the world. The murder of the nine passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara occurred in Mediterranean waters, but an enduring transformation of Gaza's plight spread to distant shores.
And, perhaps most importantly, the way the tragedy in Gaza was brought into a sharper humanitarian focus is instructive. The response to the event showed how regional issues can be explained from a local perspective, and how important this can be in winning the battle for hearts and minds around the world. Muhammad Ayish is a UAE-based media researcher and adviser