02 Jan 2024 What price compassionate communication?
There is no escaping the bitter irony of celebrating a child born in Bethlehem – north-east of the Gaza Strip – and the sickening deaths of more than 6,600 children in Gaza alone since 7 October 2023. Thousands more are missing under the rubble.
The UN Secretary-General’s “list of shame” names governments and nongovernmental armed groups responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict, including killing, maiming, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access. So far, as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, it omits Israel. Why?
Indiscriminate bombardment in Gaza has obliterated lives and livelihoods, hospitals and schools, as well as hundreds of Palestinian graves that have vanished beneath the bulldozers of the IDF. Alongside the horrendous deaths of ordinary men, women, and children, the world has also witnessed racist propaganda, fake news, and disinformation – much of it on digital platforms.
Journalists are a prime target. According to Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “As information becomes an ever more valuable currency, efforts to control it have taken on new and alarming forms. The systematic extinction of free speech now depends upon an arsenal of weapons aimed at the many rather than the few; a global tidal wave of legal threats against journalists, designed to stifle unwanted narratives and public debate.”1
The Israel/Hamas conflict has exposed covert agreements with social media companies to remove posts and block news pages, content, and accounts relating to Palestine; direct attacks on journalists and media outlets inside the occupied Palestinian Territory (West Bank and East Jerusalem/ Gaza Strip); the forcible shutdown of TV and radio stations; and the destruction of expensive broadcast equipment and other devices without compensation.
Similar practices have been seen in many other countries where the first casualties of war are also civilians, professional journalists, and communication infrastructure. According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index – which monitors the journalism scene in 180 countries and territories – the situation was “very serious” in 31 countries, “difficult” in 42, “problematic” in 55, and “good” or “satisfactory” in only 52 countries.
Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is an environment. Known as positive peace, in the words of Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, it is built on long-term investment in social and economic security as well as on political and social attitudes that enrich communal living.
In Gaza, that environment has been wiped out. Censorship, self-censorship, misinformation and disinformation have stifled critics and activists who depend on media freedom to tell it how it is, and to voice their fears. In Gaza, a fragmented information ecosystem has led to the silencing of local voices that might provide life-saving information – crucially for new-born children and their mothers.
With no end in sight to a horrific war that has broken international humanitarian laws, work has to begin on rebuilding Palestinian lives through communication that enables a torn people not just to be seen and heard – both inside and outside the country – but actually listened to. The task will not be easy.
In a recent book dedicated to “all the children on this planet”, communications expert Cees Hamelink calls for compassionate communication – communication that respects the agency of the other; recognises the equality of communication partners to initiate communication; and accepts the mutual benefits of communicative freedom. In short, communicative justice.2
Yet, in a land where the lives of children go for nothing, compassionate communication seems to be stillborn.
- From the Foreword to Weaponising the Law: Attacks on Media Freedom. Report by Joel Simon, Carlos Lauría, and Ona Flores. Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism (April 2023).
- Hamelink, Cees J. (2023). Communication and Human Rights: Towards Communicative Justice. Polity Press.
Photo: A boy with a toy gun in the Al-Shalti refugee camp in Gaza. (c) Paul Jeffrey / Life on Earth