In which BBC World Service listeners hear that barbecue is ‘Palestinian food’

The March 1st edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Fifth Floor’ included an item described as follows in its synopsis:

“Tala Halawa of BBC Monitoring takes us on a tour of her hometown, the Palestinian city of Ramallah.”

Presenter David Amanor introduced the item (from 40:53 here) thus:

Amanor: “Now, ‘My Home Town’: the series where we ask a Fifth Floor journalist to tell us about the things they find unique or special about their home towns. Tala Halawa works with BBC Monitoring. She takes us to the West Bank city of Ramallah.”

While most of Tala Halawa’s monologue is unremarkable, listeners may have noticed two spurious claims. [emphasis added]

Halawa: “Ramallah is so special because it has every available place to worship. Like, Christians have their churches, Muslims have their mosques and it’s open for all cultures and religions.”

Beyond the fact that there is nothing particularly “special” about a town with both churches and mosques, Ramallah – like the rest of the territory  under the control of the Palestinian Authority – is clearly not “open for all cultures and religions” when the sale of land to Jews is a criminal offence.

Halawa: “Food is like the main thing that you can do in Ramallah. It’s the main activity. Palestinian food like falafel, hummus, barbecue.”

Some consider falafel to have been invented by Egyptian Copts and hummus to also have originated in Egypt. Regardless of their actual origins, to describe those foods as “Palestinian” is inaccurate. While we have seen similar efforts to promote a politicised narrative using claims of “Palestinian food” before, the notion of the barbecue as “Palestinian” is certainly a new one.

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BBC WS airbrushes terror out of a story about Palestinian prisoners

The September 7th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Fifth Floor’ included an item described in its synopsis as follows:

“Radio messages for prisoners
Around 6,000 Palestinians are currently detained in Israeli jails, and one of the ways they get news from home is through Palestinian radio. Tala Halawa of BBC Monitoring is based in Ramallah and has been listening in.”

The introduction by presenter David Amanor (from 17:31 here) likewise did not bother to inform listeners why those people are serving time in prison or that over 2,000 of them are directly responsible for the murders of Israelis. 

Amanor: “Tala Halawa of BBC Monitoring tells me, by the way, the number of Palestinian radio stations in the West Bank has been steadily increasing over the years and so has the variety of programmes aimed at prisoners – yes, prisoners. Around six thousand are currently detained in Israeli jails and for many, radio is a vital contact with the outside world. Tala is based in the city of Ramallah.”

Having told listeners of her penchant for changing radio stations while driving, Tala Halawa went on: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Halawa: “I have been fascinated with the content of the radio programmes aimed at prisoners and their families. So this is Marasil [phonetic] which means messages in Arabic; a broadcast on Palestinian radio station Ajyal FM. The presenter Jenin Zaal is giving out the phone number for families to call with messages for prisoners. Her show lasts for 90 minutes and goes out every Friday. I met her in the radio station in Ramallah city centre.

Jenin told me that those 90 minutes are among the most important in her life but she says the programme is very draining. She says she could never give it up; it’s one way she feels she can contribute to the Palestinian cause and do something for her homeland. The promo for Marasil [phonetic] says the programme breaks down prison bars. You can hear that messages like this one from a wife to her imprisoned husband.”

After listeners heard a voice-over of the message, Halawa went on to give her own interpretations:

Halawa: “This is a kind of a typical news a wife would share with her imprisoned husband knowing that thousands are listening to her call. She wants to tell him how much she misses him but in a relatively conservative society she keeps the conversation limited to their kids’ news. To excel in school is a very important matter in the Palestinian context so it’s always the main topic to discuss on air. Spending too much time on social media platforms and computer games concerns all parents.

I also talked to a former prisoner Rula Abu Daho. She’s now a lecturer in Birzeit University and she’s one of the leading figures in women and gender studies in the Palestinian context. Rula said that getting a message from your family through the radio was almost like a visit. Of course it’s a one-way communication but it still feels like a visit. This is Jenin Zaal taking a call from a girl whose mother is in prison.”

After listeners heard another voice-over Halawa went on:

Halawa: “Another former prisoner Esmat Mansour who spent 20 years in prison. During that time he learned Hebrew and now he established a career in journalism. Esmat told me that he found out from the radio that his 20 year imprisonment was about to end. He said that the prison administration just would not say when his release date was. But then some fellow prisoners in the yard started calling him and telling him to listen to Ajyal FM. When he turned on the radio he heard his own family saying how they were preparing celebrations to welcome him back the next day. So, at least, the waiting was over.

I met Mansour for the first time in 2014. He never mentioned that he knew about his release from the radio programme. That was a surprise for me and this made me realise that those programmes are not simply two hours of broadcast: they carry a heavy load of human stories that deserve to be heard.”

Obviously Tala Halawa’s interest in “human stories that deserve to be heard” does not extend beyond the people she presents as ‘prisoners’ without the provision of any context whatsoever. BBC World Service listeners were not told that the quoted university lecturer Rula Abu Daho was imprisoned for her part in the murder of Yigal Shahaf in 1987.

“Dusk was settling over the Old City, reaching into its labyrinthine alleys and shrouding its holy sites as Yigal and Ronit Shahaf made their way slowly toward the Damascus Gate. The young couple, chatting in Hebrew with two friends, paid little heed to the dwindling crowds or the shopkeepers closing for the day.

Nearby, four young Palestinians, three men and a woman, waited. When the Israelis paused in front of a jewelry shop near the Via Dolorosa, one of the men ran toward them, aimed a pistol at the back of Yigal Shahaf’s head and fired one shot.

As chaos broke out, the gunman fled, handing his weapon to one of his comrades, who gave it to the woman, a college student who had just joined the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The woman, Rula abu Duhou, 19, paid with nine years in prison for her participation in the slaying of an innocent Israeli civilian. And still today, freed by a controversial amnesty, she is unrepentant.

“I’m not sorry for it,” Abu Duhou said recently, her dark eyes direct, as relatives and friends streamed into her family’s comfortable West Bank home to celebrate her release. “On the contrary, I’m proud. And I wish I could do more for my country.””

Neither were BBC World Service listeners informed that the ‘journalist’ Esmat Mansour “spent 20 years in prison” because he took part in the murder of Chaim Mizrahi in 1993 or that since his release in 2013 he has received financial benefits for his part in that act of terror.

“In a typical homecoming package, the Palestinian self-rule government gave him $50,000, the rank of colonel and a monthly stipend of 6,000 shekels ($1,725), a higher-than-average income.”

A month before this item was aired on BBC World Service radio the partially licence fee funded BBC department BBC Monitoring – which purports to “to provide news, information and insight to BBC journalists, UK government customers and commercial subscribers, allowing users to make well-informed decisions” – found it appropriate to publish similar ‘analysis’ by Ramallah based Tala Halawa under the title “The ‘private space’ radio offers to Palestinian prisoners“.

There too Halawa showcased contributions from Rula Abu Daho and Esmat Mansour – but with no mention whatsoever of their involvement in acts of terror. She did however tell subscribers that:

“It is estimated that around 6,000 Palestinians are currently being held in Israeli jails as a result of the ongoing conflict between the two sides. Palestinians see them as prisoners of war or political prisoners under international law, while Israel disputes this, saying they are terrorists or active in illegal terrorist organisations.”

As has been noted here on previous occasions, the idea that people who have been convicted of perpetrating acts of terrorism are ‘political prisoners’ is rejected in Europe and we certainly do not see the BBC promoting the notion that people imprisoned in the UK for terror related offences may legitimately be defined in such terms.

These two reports further indicate that the BBC has not adequately addressed the issue of politicisation of Middle East related content produced by local staff and the serious question marks that raises regarding the impartiality of BBC content. 

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BBC WS radio promotes a problematic report yet again

Readers may recall that at the beginning of June the BBC World service aired a politicised report ostensibly about young Palestinians and culture in a series titled ‘A Young World’ that was aired on a programme called ‘The Compass’. As was noted here at the time:

“Clearly Nida Ibrahim went far beyond her remit of providing BBC World Service audiences with an insight into how young Palestinians “express themselves culturally” and instead exploited the platform to promote copious amounts of politicised messaging and delegitimisation of Israel without any right of reply being given.

The BBC cannot possibly claim that this report meets its supposed standards of accurate and impartial journalism.” 

The creator of that report – BBC Arabic’s Nida Ibrahim – was interviewed on the July 7th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Fifth Floor’ (available from 15:27 here) with the item described as follows in the synopsis:

“Nida Ibrahim, who reports for BBC Arabic from Ramallah, has been talking to young Palestinians for a documentary series about the lives of young people around the world. The Palestinian Territories has the youngest population in the Middle East, but politics and administration are dominated by older generations. Nida says young people are finding different ways of expressing themselves.”

The secondary purpose of the item was obviously to further promote that previous problematic report.

Presenter David Amanor introduced the item thus:

Amanor: “To Ramallah now in the West Bank: a small city with a young population. Average age is under 21 and it’s a similar story throughout the Palestinian territories which has the youngest population in the Middle East. So when the BBC decided to do a series about the lives of young people, BBC Arabic’s Nida Ibrahim waved a flag: they’re over here! Nida is based in Ramallah…”

While this particular item avoided the politicised messaging and delegitimisation of Israel heard in Ibrahim’s original report, at its close, Amanor directed listeners to the original problematic programme.

“Nida Ibrahim in Ramallah. Her documentary is on the BBC website. Just search for ‘A Young World’.

 Obviously it is disturbing to see the BBC engaging in further promotion of such a biased and politicised report.

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BBC WS tells a context-free tale of Egypt’s Six Day War ‘naksa’

The June 3rd edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Fifth Floor’ included an item (from 27:13 here) billed as follows in the synopsis:

“Egypt’s Naksa Day 
Next Monday is the 50th anniversary of Naksa day, or Day of the Setback. The “setback” for Egypt was their crushing defeat by Israel in the Six Day War. BBC Arabic reporter in Cairo, Sally Nabil, tells us how the day is viewed there now.”

At the start of the programme presenter David Amanor described the upcoming item as follows:

“…and a six-day war with consequences much greater. We’re finding out what young Egyptians today know about the events of June 1967.”

He introduced the segment itself thus:

Amanor: “Now most countries don’t relish their defeats and I guess Egypt is no different. Next week sees the 50th anniversary of what’s generally called the Six Day War in June 1967 but its impact remains much bigger than its short time span might suggest. It was a humiliating defeat for Egypt and its Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israel took forces…took possession of the entire Sinai peninsula, leaving Egyptian forces to make a chaotic retreat. In Egypt the war is called the ‘naksa’. Sally Nabil of BBC Arabic tells me the story behind that name.”

What is most noticeable about this item is its complete abdication of responsibility to supply background information and context concerning a fifty year-old event that many listeners will not remember first hand and in particular, the failure to provide audiences worldwide with the facts concerning the Egyptian actions that led up to the war.  

Nabil: “It’s, you can say, an understatement of the word defeat. It’s like literally a setback so it seems that the Egyptian regime at that time did not want to recognise that the army has been defeated. So they used the word ‘naksa’ – or setback – instead of defeat to try to sugar-coat a bit or to convince the people that this is not the end of it; we lost a battle but we did not lose the war.”

Answering Amanor’s question as to whether that is the history taught in Egyptian schools, Nabil told listeners that:

Nabil: “Yeah, absolutely. I remember when I was at school we used to know it as the 1967 ‘naksa’ and they didn’t elaborate much on it, as much as they did on the 1973 war because the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people as well they glorify the 1973 when Egypt managed to take part of Sinai back from Israel and then they made a political settlement and took all of Sinai back.”

The “part of Sinai” gained by Egypt in the Yom Kippur war was of course two small areas to the east of the Suez Canal which were later joined under the terms of a cease-fire agreement that also saw Israel withdraw from areas captured west of the canal. 

Later on Amanor gave Nabil the cue for her next topic:

Amanor: “This is seen as one of the shortest yet most decisive wars in the modern era but it wasn’t just six days for a lot of the soldiers, was it? And there were a lot of casualties.”

Nabil went on to tell an unverifiable story about an unidentified former soldier.

Nabil: “I mean I met a veteran soldier who was caught by Israel. He remained in Israeli detention for about a year and he was sentenced to death but he managed to escape and he said that this year he was detained by the Israeli soldiers has haunted him for years and years to come so for him the 1967 war it’s a lifetime memory.”

According to the Israeli MFA, all prisoner exchanges with Egypt were completed by 23 January 1968 and so Nabil’s claim that the man was “in Israeli detention for about a year” is highly dubious, as are her unsupported claims that he “managed to escape” and that he “was sentenced to death”.

Nabil’s item continued with a description of the man’s dire financial situation and criticism of “the fact that the government turned a blind eye to people like him”. She then digressed to a topic outside the item’s declared subject matter, comparing the current Egyptian government to the Nasser regime, before closing by telling listeners that BBC Arabic will be “marking this anniversary with a number of postcards [reports] from the different countries that were occupied during the 1967 war”.

In conclusion, in this item BBC World Service audiences heard over seven minutes of entirely context-free reporting that included unverifiable and highly dubious hearsay. How the programme’s producers can claim that is accurate and impartial reporting which enhances audience understanding of the topic of the Six Day War is anyone’s guess.  

BBC Monitoring coverage of Ramadan soaps – the sequel

As was noted here last week, BBC Monitoring recently produced a written report for the BBC News website about the popular soap operas and dramas shown on television in the Middle East during Ramadan. That article refrained from informing audiences of the antisemitic and anti-Israeli content traditionally seen in many of those programmes.

On June 26th the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Fifth Floor’ also devoted part of its content to the same topic.fifth floor

“It is the holy month of Ramadan – a month of prayer and fasting and for some also accompanied by a lot of television. TV soaps and dramas are commissioned for the season and often bring in the highest ratings. BBC journalist Doaa Soliman is something of a connoisseur of Ramadan TV. Not only has she watched a lot for pleasure, but in her current role with BBC Monitoring, she is also tasked with keeping a professional eye on the current selection. This is Doaa’s guide to what to watch this Ramadan.”

A clip of that segment of the programme can be found here and once again it is notable that the long tradition of antisemitic content in Ramadan entertainment is concealed from BBC audiences. 

BBC WS ‘The Fifth Floor’ highlights cartoonist known for antisemitic imagery

The day after the French president described the terror attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris in which four people were murdered as “an appalling antisemitic act”, the BBC World Service’s ‘Fifth Floor’ decided it would be  good idea to highlight the work of a Jordanian cartoonist known for his antisemitic imagery.5th floor

Presenter David Amanour’s introduction to the item broadcast on January 10th (available here from 01:00) was as follows:

“We start this week with the world of satire and the drawings that can provoke both roaring laughter and fury. The events in France this week highlighted the dangers facing political cartoonists around the world. Today we’re focusing our attentions on the Middle East and the challenges cartoonists face there. With me here in the studio is Abdirahim Saeed of BBC Arabic and Turkish journalist with the BBC, Seref Isler.”

Readers can judge for themselves whether or not the item fulfilled its stated goal but they will no doubt notice that a character created by the first cartoonist highlighted in the programme – the long since deceased “famous Palestinian cartoonist” Naji al Ali – is used to amplify a context-free narrative.

Abdirahim Saeed: “He’s got a stock of iconic characters that still live on and are still relevant in today’s world; in today’s politics in the Middle East.”

David Amanor: “Characters like?”

AS: “Characters like Handala. It’s like Ali always mentioned that it’s based on him. Handala is supposedly a ten year-old kid, barefooted, downtrodden but still hopeful of one day returning to his homeland where he was – according to the Palestinian narrative – they were obviously put into exile and expelled from their land. […] So it’s not just commentary – a running commentary on Palestinian affairs but it’s actually a running commentary on what’s happening in the Arab world…”

There is of course a significant difference between cartoons as “running commentary” or satire and the use of images to create or reinforce an inaccurate politically motivated narrative.

The second cartoonist highlighted by Saeed is introduced as follows:

DA: “Let’s talk about sensitivities then. A Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj – has he been upsetting people? I mean how would you describe his cartoons?”

SA: “I mean a bit like Ali Naja again. I mean he’s a brilliant commentary for what’s happening in Jordan in his own country but also across the Middle East…”

Here are two examples of that “brilliant commentary” from Emad (also Imad) Hajjaj from the time of Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.

Hajjaj cartoon 1

Hajjaj cartoon 2

As anyone who knows even a little about cartoons in the Middle East will be aware, the use of antisemitic themes and imagery is very common and long-established. That fact, however, was not communicated to BBC audiences in the Fifth Floor’s discussion of Middle East cartoonists. 

Keeping the (context free) Gaza fires burning on BBC World Service radio

The October 24th and 25th editions of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Fifth Floor’ (which describes itself as providing “a fresh look at the stories of the week with journalists from our 27 language sections”) ran under the heading “After the Ceasefire: the Cost of Reporting Gaza”. The item referred to in that title can be heard from around 1:02 here and its synopsis reads as follows:5th Floor prog

“For years he has been BBC Arabic’s man in Gaza, reporting and living through conflict and peace time. We last spoke to Shahdi Alkashif during the recent offensive, when rockets and mortars were raining down between Gaza and parts of Israel. More than 2,000 people died during that particular conflict. Shahdi told us that he had spent 27 nights sleeping on the floor of the BBC office, battling with a lack of electricity and food and water, and trying to make sure that his family were safe. The ceasefire has now been in place for two months and Shahdi talks about how his family and others in Gaza are living today and some of the difficulties of living in and reporting conflict.”

Where exactly is the mysterious place “between Gaza and parts of Israel” in which “rockets and mortars were raining down” is unclear, but presenter David Amanor uses the same peculiar phrase in his introduction.

DA: “Shahdi is BBC Arabic’s reporter in Gaza. He was there during the recent conflict when mortars and rockets were raining down between Gaza and Israel. He tells me about the impact on his own family. You might find some of his descriptions later on disturbing.”

Shahdi Alkashif: “In 2012 in the second war, Aya my daughter she asked me to promise her that this war will be the last war. And I did that actually. I did not expect that after two wars that there’s another war will happen. But I think that’s happen again in this war. She said you promise me that this will be the last war. And I…I did not, you know, I did not know what I should say. I mean you know that this is not easy. But at least we deal with it. I mean sometimes she need me to promise her that nothing will happen to her and I have to promise…”

DA: “You have to as a father…”

SA: “As a father. But you and me know this is difficult. And I moved my family three times from the area in the west of Gaza to the area in the south and to the north because all the areas was under bombing.”

DA: “You mean during this recent…during the recent conflict?”

SA: “Yes, yes.”

DA: “You moved three times?”

SA: “I moved from my house – a lot of tank shells fall around my house and I take them to my father house and the building beside him is bombed also so I take them after that to my brother house. So you’re moving your family all the time.”

DA: “What kind of effect has that – you know – those bombings, the mortars and the terror of it? Has it had an impact on people you know? Your family, of course, your daughter and…”

SA: “I mean Aya my daughter she’s…she’s sleeping under the stairs. The war is finished and she’s still sleeping under the stairs because she thought that this is the safer place in the world. I’m just talking about Aya but the others also they, you know, they feel that all of Gaza is not safe. I mean it’s not easy to ask them to go out to play now because they are all the time, you know, looking to the sky…”5th Floor tweet

DA: “Mmm…”

SA: “….which is not normal, I mean.”

DA: “And they know – I mean – there’s…there’s a mind on some of those instances like the children who were playing on the beach for example.”

SA: “And nobody can forget this, I mean…”

DA: “Right…”

SA: “The people still talking about the kids who’s killed near the beach.”

DA: “Was that one of the – coming back to you as a reporter, as a journalist – was that one of the most poignant, most significant moments in your reportage? The kids on the beach – or were there others?”

SA: “The kids on the beach and when the first time I…I entered to the El Shuja’iya neighbourhood in east of Gaza. It’s….the Israeli army bombed this area for more than three weeks and we get a chance to visit the area for just a couple of hours through the ceasefire and when I reach to the El Shuja’iya neighbourhood I discovered that I did not recognize it. It’s completely different. Dozens of houses is destroyed and when I go to the area inside – it’s called Amalsour [phonetic] – inside the Shuja’iya, I discovered that there is a lot of bodies that not, you know, evacuated yet and I step over the bodies of kids and I think nobody can, you know, deal with that picture. I mean, to see the bodies of kids without heads, without arms….and this is was I think the difficult moment that I saw within this war.”

DA: “These are the kind of things you have to see as a reporter…”

SA: “Yeah because you need to check the area. You need to see what exactly happened there. You hear sometimes about areas but you need to go there to see exactly and to ask what exactly happened. You are the witness because you are in that place and under this bad circumstances.”

DA: “Seeing these things; you have to witness them but what kind of witness does it…what kind of witness do you become? Do you just remain – try and remain – dispassionate? Do you become angry – an angry witness, a cold witness, a partial witness and a subjective witness? What effect does it have on you?”

SA: “Our challenge is to keep covering under our rules and I think this is why BBC – the people’s listening to the BBC – because the people trying to listen to the informations without emotions.”

The conversation between Amanor and Alkashif continues in much the same vein until the end of the item and – notably – the word Hamas still does not appear once.

Alkashif’s decidedly debatable claim that the BBC provides information “without emotions” is of course all the more jarring due to its appearance in an item which is all about manipulating the emotions of its listeners.

The entire item presents audiences with a subjective and inaccurate picture of a war waged by Israel on the civilian population of Gaza with the accent on children: Alkashif’s own children, the children on the beach, the dead children he saw in Shuja’iya. No attempt is made whatsoever to place Alkashif’s experiences in context: there are no terrorists in his war, the population of the Gaza Strip is entirely passive, Shuja’iya is just a residential neighbourhood rather than the site of Hamas assets and installations, buildings are just “bombed” for no apparent reason.

Two months after the ceasefire which brought the war to an end, it is blatantly obvious that the manipulation of public opinion by means of selective presentation of the conflict remains a priority for the BBC.