The messaging in a BBC World Service programme on Africans in Israel

Last month we noted the then imminent broadcast of an edition of the ‘Documentary’ programme titled “Africans in the Holy Land” on BBC World Service radio. Since that post was published, the grammatical error in the picture caption on the programme’s webpage has been corrected.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Paul Bakibinga’s fifty-three minute programme begins with a short introduction, after which he informs listeners:

“I start my journey in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. It’s home to most of the 56 thousand Africans who’ve arrived in Israel in the past six years or so. Most are from Eritrea and Sudan, seeking asylum from the human rights atrocities in Eritrea and war in the Darfur region of Sudan. But Israel has granted refugee status to only a handful and says the rest are illegal economic migrants.”

The next fifteen minutes or so of the programme are devoted to the stories of three migrants living in the Tel Aviv area – two from Eritrea and one, Oscar Oliver of the ARDC, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, listeners hear the words of two more migrants at the Holot detention centre.

Bakibinga makes no substantial attempt to find out whether or not the migrants are indeed refugees or economic migrants and fails to clarify to audiences that approximately 85% of those who have entered Israel since 2006 are males between the ages of 21 and 40. He dwells on the subject of “the language that the politicians are using”, but fails to clarify that his reference actually relates to a small number of Israeli politicians rather than all of them, as implied. Whilst blaming tensions between migrants and local residents in south Tel Aviv upon the language used by unnamed, unquantified politicians, neither Bakibinga nor his interviewees make any attempt to inform listeners of other very relevant issues such as the crime in those areas. Likewise Bakibinga makes no attempt to correct the inaccurate impression given by Oscar Oliver that all the migrants “are put in this same place, in this same neighbourhood”.

Some six minutes of the programme are then devoted to statements from the deputy spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry and Professor Amnon Rubinstein. Bakibinga fails to make any attempt to explore the subject of why only 1,800 of the migrants have actually applied for asylum.

Listeners are left with a clear take away message in Bakibinga’s conclusion to this part of the programme:

“All [the migrant interviewees] talk about how hard life is for them in Israel and how they feel stuck in a legal limbo amid growing hostility from politicians and local residents.”

MK Pnina Tamano-Shata

MK Pnina Tamano-Shata

After some four minutes of news and promotions, Bakibinga turns his attentions to the subject of Ethiopian Jews in Israel in a section lasting just over thirteen minutes.  His interviewees are Ester Rada (whom he describes as having grown up in “an Israeli settlement…in the occupied West Bank”) and Shira Shato, along with Shira’s husband Shlomi Assoulin. During the conversation with the latter – the son of immigrants from Morocco – listeners are told that Zionism is a European phenomenon and encouraged to view Israel as a society in which there is discrimination and prejudice against Ethiopians and “Jewish Arab people”.

The next ten minutes of Bakibinga’s programme are located in Jerusalem and are dedicated to Mahmoud Salamat and others “who are Palestinian, but have their roots in Africa”.  

Salamat says:

“I’m from the Old City of Jerusalem but originally from Chad. My father came pilgrimage here and he set up in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century.”

Bakibinga: “And you were born here?”

Salamat: “Yes I was born here during the war of 1948 and we were kicked out of the city from there to Jordan.”

Bakibinga makes no attempt to clarify why – or by whom – Salamat’s family were “kicked out” of an area conquered by Jordan and occupied for the next nineteen years. The conversation then continues to a decidedly curious portrayal of the Entebbe hijacking.

Salamat: “I belong at that time to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That time they hijacked the plane and they went to Uganda in 1972…”

Bakibinga: “1976. So that was when I think there was an Air France plane that was captured by the Popular Front and taken to Entebbe and there was an Israeli raid on Entebbe.”

Salamat: “Yes and they killed many people.”

Bakibinga: “And your friend was killed as well.”

Salamat: “Yes my friend at that time.”

Bakibinga goes on to ask:

“So your friend was with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which you were a member of. Did you meet any consequences as a result of being a member of that group?”

Salamat replies:

“Yes, I was in prison in 1968 and I was sentenced to 25 years. I was released later on prisoner exchange, exactly on twentieth of May 1985.”

Bakibinga makes no attempt to clarify whether Salamat’s 17 years in prison were actually “as a result of being a member” of the PFLP, or whether in fact they were the consequence of terrorist activity.

The final three minutes of Bakibinga’s programme are dedicated to a conclusion which promotes the message of discrimination against an Eritrean woman who gave birth in an Israeli hospital, a man from the DRC who is “still without refugee status” and Ethiopian Jews who do not “feel at home” and are not “part of this society”.

As has been the case in previous BBC coverage of the topic of African migrants, no attempt is made to place the stories promoted to listeners within the context of the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in other countries. Neither is any attempt is made to place the experiences of Ethiopian-born Israelis within the context of the experiences of other immigrants to Israel (or indeed to other countries) from non-African countries.

Instead, Bakibinga opts to focus on the emotional aspects of the stories he elects to tell and listeners are clearly intended to take away a message of across the board prejudicial and discriminatory treatment of people of African descent in Israel, regardless of how they happen to have arrived there. That message is particularly relevant in light of another BBC report which appeared just a few days after Bakibinga’s programme: more on that in an upcoming post.   

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One to listen out for on the BBC World Service

On Saturday April 19th the BBC World Service programme ‘The Documentary’ will broadcast an edition titled “Africans in the Holy Land” at 18:06 GMT. The programme’s synopsis reads as follows:Africans in the Holy Land WS

“Paul Bakibinga travels to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to explore the lives and experiences of people from three different African communities. 

Mahmoud Salamat takes Paul around the narrow alleyways of the old city of Jerusalem to the hidden African quarter and introduces a small but close-knit community, who are descendants of Muslim pilgrims or soldiers who came to the Holy Land during the time of the British Mandate. 

Paul also explores the experiences of different Ethiopian Jews who have returned to their ancient homeland, including rising star musician Ester Rada. 

And he spends time in South Tel Aviv, where the bulk of African asylum-seekers live – stuck in a legal limbo amid growing hostility from politicians and local residents. The state cannot deport them – but neither will it grant them refugee status.”

Mahmoud Salamat previously appeared in another BBC feature back in March 2010 – titled “In pictures: Jerusalem’s African quarter” by Heather Sharp.

BBC African quarter 2010

The ‘Magazine’ section of the BBC News website currently features a filmed report about Israeli singer Ester Rada which also appears on the website’s Middle East page.

Ester Rada

With Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt of course being part of Africa, it will be interesting to see whether Paul Bakibinga also addresses the subject of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who originate from those African countries and the reasons for their mass exodus from the countries of their birth.

The BBC World Service might care to correct the caption to the photograph illustrating this programme’s webpage which currently reads:

“Picture: A ‘Kessim’, a leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community”

The ending ‘im’ in Hebrew indicates the plural form of a masculine word: thus the two words “A Kessim” are incompatible. One religious leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community is a Kess – spelled קס or קייס in Hebrew and originating from Amharic – and the plural form of the word is Kessim קסים or קייסים.