Opinions far more controversial appeared regularly on this major news website. But when a pro-Palestinian piece was published, it was deemed necessary for a lengthy and furious response from the Israeli ambassador to be inserted.
In 2013, while working at a major news outlet, I commissioned an online article from a member of Kia Ora Gaza, an NGO that supports people living under the blockade in Gaza. The blockade was imposed in 2005 and restricts the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza strip. I asked the writer to describe his time in Gaza and what he saw there.
It was my first paid job as an online editor, for a niche, “green” publication that explored “business, planet and wellbeing”, which was published by one of New Zealand’s biggest newspaper companies. Previously I had held such esteemed titles as music co-editor of the university magazine Salient with my friend Tom, written pieces as a fledgling freelancer, and received the creative writing cup in year six at Remuera Primary School.
I was 25 and ready to fight for truth and justice with my trusty pen as my sword! And here was my chance: a small online newsletter with about 2,000 subscribers, and an even smaller Facebook group, where I could stimulate debate, showcase unique, sustainable ways to exist and, basically, change the world. It was also my opportunity to convince my editor to publish my stories in the magazine that slipped monthly into the fold of one of the country’s biggest newspapers – the holy grail of journalism.
It was fairly common for me to commission articles for the magazine, which also went on the newspaper’s website, particularly when a big event had taken place and I was working towards my newsletter deadline. And when Nelson Mandela passed away in December 2013, I thought it could be a good chance to commission a piece on another “apartheid”. Roger Fowler, Kia Ora Gaza’s coordinator, had witnessed economic and religious segregation during his three trips to Palestine. I figured asking him to write about those trips would stimulate some interest in the treatment of Palestinians, which was pretty invisible in the media landscape.
I’ve grown up around some fairly intense political conversations. During the holidays my grandparents each read their different newspapers and then we discussed the state of affairs at breakfast over porridge, which was pretty interesting for an eight-year-old. I’m not afraid of talking about political hot-potatoes. I think conversation can open our minds to different ways to think about the world, especially if we are open to listening and are gentle and tolerant towards each other.
So I commissioned (and clearly labelled) Roger’s opinion piece. “Opinion: Apartheid still reigns in Palestine” was the headline. A strong stance to take but one he argued well. In some ways, it was a test. Would this retelling of his own experience in Gaza slip into public circulation unchallenged?
I had a great relationship with the editor of the publication I worked for. I knew I’d done everything he would be happy with – especially seeing as I clearly labelled it “opinion” (no defamation or unwanted legal action coming our way, thanks). So, I uploaded the article to the website, put the link in my newsletter to the faithful 2,000 and hit “send”.
And then those sweet, sweet endorphins came flooding through my body. I had broken the silence on Palestine! I had published this article on a media giant’s website! In my mind, the next steps were logical – public opinion would immediately change, everyone would see that we all deserve to live in peace and harmony and there would be an instantaneous two-state solution – all thanks to this op-ed, commissioned by yours truly.
I shut down my computer and went home feeling proud of our plucky little publication. But the saga was only just beginning.
The next day, I got a phone call from my boss. He had got a phone call from his boss, who had gotten a phone call from the big-boss-that-dwells-in-the-shadows. This shady figure had passed their message down the communication channels. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were out of line. There would be severe consequences if we couldn’t stay in our lane. I wondered if I’d lose my job.
The most shocking and strangest part about the whole ordeal was the immediate insertion of a “right of reply” from the Israeli ambassador. A brief “response” or “comment” will occasionally appear at the bottom of an opinion piece, but an extended right of reply published within the same post is very unusual. The reply from the Israeli ambassador was five paragraphs, and was printed in full.
The right of reply was ferociously worded. It started with “Distortion, hatred is thy name” and included describing the original article, in which Roger recounted his escape from Gaza during a bombing by Israeli forces, as “flow[ing] from a fountain of poison and deceit”.
Let me reiterate this. An article about Palestine, clearly labelled as opinion, had a “right of reply” from an Israeli government representative tacked on underneath. This is not normal.
In fact, even the most controversial of opinion pieces (and ones not even labelled as opinion) do not allow for rights of reply. For example, a 2012 piece by Paul Holmes that called Waitangi Day a “bullshit day, Waitangi. It’s a day of lies. It is loony Māori fringe self-denial day”; or most non-labelled opinion pieces by climate change denier and academic Chris De Frietas. You don’t see the minister for Māori development or Te Puni Kōkiri being allowed to add their two cents at the end (though numerous complaints to the Press Council at the time were upheld); Or someone from Te Herenga Waka’s Climate Change Research Institute getting the chance to ask De Frietas to please stop muddying the waters on the science of climate change.
After that, we had to tone down everything. It felt like we were being watched. The article got some positive feedback, but after the right of reply it just felt like I had done something bad. Was I a big old antisemite hiding in sheep’s clothing? I had felt like a warrior of peace, lifting the lid on a major human rights issue – but maybe I was just “sow[ing] hatred and deepen[ing] the schism that still separates us?” Had I failed?
The whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth, and I have been too scared to write, or commission, anything about Palestine, until these last few weeks. In effect, that experience silenced me. It silenced Palestine.
And if I’m totally honest, this was one of the reasons I eventually chucked in my job at Auckland’s biggest newspaper. The sad realisation that actually, some topics were off-limits, no matter how important. That at some levels, the truth is blockaded. For a young journalist with a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility and lofty ideals, that was absolutely gutting.
How does this type of suppression affect the conversations we have around the table? Our level of understanding and empathy during conflict? Our ability to support a terrified population, pounded by unrelenting bombs despite international calls for a ceasefire?
It’s been a really tough few weeks. One of those periods where the sadness of the world weighs heavily on my heart and I find myself tearing up for no reason. Like many, I’ve been utterly horrified by images of destroyed buildings and vulnerable patients in Gaza’s hospitals where communications are down and ambulances can’t move patients to “safety” because they have run out of fuel and there’s nowhere to go.
The simple truth is that a population of refugees, in a territory illegally occupied for over 65 years, is being bombed to shreds as payment for a despicable act from a terrorist group. How can anyone justify this? I know that people who have family and friends in Israel are also suffering, are feeling anger and fear and disgust. Of course my heart breaks for them too.
But we need to move beyond retribution and revenge. Peace and a ceasefire is what is needed, now, and if we can’t openly discuss that in the media, then how are we ever going to stimulate conversation to lead to public debate and action?