Update: Live from Bethlehem will air on LinkTV several times in January of 2013, and is watchable on their website, where a broadcast schedule is also available.
Live: From Bethlehem, a documentary about an independent Palestinian news agency, starts with a feeling every journalist knows well, as a small staff rushes to get breaking news on the air. Reporters, trying to get into the field, contend with bad traffic and police checkpoints. Ma'an News Agency, the only official independent news agency in Palestine, is clearly feeling the stress.
The news story that Ma'an is rushing to cover, a bit of good news in a land that has little of it, is of the Israeli government releasing a series of Palestining prisoners. Already this account of journalism has a wider political and social cotext: Ma'an has to rely on information from the Israeli government and cooperation from Israeli police to bring out the news about these Palestinians, a sign of the necessary working relationships amid the slow-motion conflict with West Jerusalem's official.
In these opening seconds of the film, we already see some of Ma'an's possibilities, and limitations, as it operates in the cracks of a struggling Palestinian Authority and an occupying Israel. Moments later, filmmakers Matt Sienkiewicz and Joseph C. Sousa feature Amira Hanania, one of the relatively few female journalists in Palestine, as she describes Ma'an's challenge: they are the only major news source that is not affiliated with Hamas or Fatah, the dominant political parties in Palestine:
"I don't want Fatah to tell me what to say, and I don't want Hamas to tell me what to say. I don't want even the President to tell me what to say. I want to say whatever I want to say, because I am part of this people and I have my views and I have my opinions."
The Middle East and Iran have long been presented by state-run organisations, from the Islamic Republic's IRNA to Syria's SANA to Egypt's MENA. In Israel, there is a wider range of public and private outlets, but critics claim that the coverage of Palestine is slanted towards the narrative presented by the Israeli Government.
Nowhere is the struggle to find objective voices in the media more palpable than in Palestine. Hamas, in its television and print offices, puts out the message that Israel is an occupier to be defeated, by any means necessary. The documentary highlights this by focusing on a children's programme that uses "Farfour" a Mickey Mouse character, to preach the importance of killing Israelis to liberate Palestine. The inference made by filmmakers Sienkiewicz and Sousa is that if this is children's programming, one can only imagine the programmes created for adults.
Ma'an is a stark contrast. The Palestinian organization produces its own version of Sesame Street, in Arabic, complete with lessons about numbers, sharing, and the alphabet. It is as engaging and educational as its American counterpart, and it is a symbol of the mission that the network tries to accomplish when presenting the news through communication, open-mindedness, and compassion. Instead of spreading an ideological line, Ma'an focuses on speaking to key players, obtaining pictures and video of important areas, and representing not just the various Palestinian viewpoints but also those of Israeli neighborhoods.
The documentary shows this through Nasser Laham's Hebrew Press Tour, which translates Hebrew news into Arabic in real time, without commentary. As many Palestinians do not understand Hebrew, this may be their only way to hear a presentation of the perceptions of Israeli citizens and the Government.
Fittingly, the documentary notes, even this act was born out of conflict. Nasser, a Palestinian, learned Hebrew inside an Israeli prison.
The consumers of Ma'an's programming recognised both the mission and the context. Many Palestinians, as Live from Bethlehhem makes clear, understand the reality that the party politics and old divisions have created a gridlock that is even worse than the Palestinian traffic. Ma'an offers a way to break that stalemate --- its lack of allegiance to any party, platform, or point of view makes it a vehicle to explore middle ground and compromise, or at the very least a better understanding of "the other".
Ma'an asserts its independence in other ways. Journalist Amira Hanania is one of the strongest female voices in Palestine. In one scene, she takes a shiekh to task over women's rights, specifically the issue of how young it is appropriate for a girl to be married. While she is forced to cover her shoulders just to meet with him, an action that she appears to resent, Amira asserts a female's presence in an Islamic society while challenging tradition.
This independence comes with a cost. Ma'an has received death threats from Hamas, threats of isolation from Israel, and a cut of funding from frustrated Western donors.
It is that struggle for funding which is the central conflict in Live from Bethlehem, particularly once some high-profile Israelis and Americans became enraged over Ma'an's use of a single word --- "shaheed", a person killed while committing a suicide bombing against an enemy, in this case Israel. It has a connotation as a kind of holy warrior, a martyr for the Palestinian cause. Many Israelis, Jewish Americans, and Ma'an donors believed that when the network used the word, it was supporting the killing of Israeli citizens and security forces.
Ma'an responded that the majority of the uses of "shaheed" were not its position but that of the people it was covering. Other Ma'an staff noted that "shaheed" is a colloquialism like "martyr", a word that no longer carries a moral weight.
The epsiode demonstrates the fragility of an entity like Ma'an. "They could do a million things right, but that could all be cancelled by one thing," Sienkiewicz explained. "Were they using the word inappropriately? Most of the uses of the word were quotes. Were the editors scrutinizing the use of every word in every story? No. But a lot of people were looking for an excuse not to fund Ma'an."
Ma'an is not the only Palestinian media organisation under attack. Recently, the Palestinian Authority blocked eight news websites. Al Wattan TV, an independent satellite station, was raided by AAlIsraeli security forces, allegedly because its unauthorized signal created interferemce for Israeli networks, a claim that Al Wattan disputes.
Sienkiewicz paints a political landscape where people on all sides of the crisis, from Israel to Hamas, are ro0ting against Ma'an. Too many people benefit from the instability, he argues, and they would prefer to "leave things as bad as possible, to leave the whole place rotten, by shutting down moderating, middle voices".
The conclusion is that it is easier for Palestinians to view the Israelis as their bitter enemies, imperial occupiers bent on keeping Palestinians and Arabs in their place, rather than pursuing a resolution. It is easier for Israelis to view Palestinians as existential threats, seeking only the destruction of Israel and the full occupation of Jerusalem. It is easier to fight an the idea of a demon than the reality of another person.
Sienkiewicz also has a suggestion on how to better moderate Ma'an's voice - instead of defunding it, fund 100 Ma'an-like networks. "Cutting funding is absolutely NOT in Israel's best interest," Sienkiewicz argues, as it is a moderating voice in a sea of Hamas-like shouting. If Ma'an is failing in some way, then the best solution is a market solution, to give the readers more choice, not less, so that Hamas is not left with a monopoly over the Palestinian voice.
Ma'an's struggle for existence mirrors the greater struggle in the region. Moderate voices are attacked for not meeting the party line, for not calling the Israelis heartless occupiers, or for not framing the narrative of Palestine as one hell-bent on destruction of the Jewish state. While the average Palestinian and the average Israeli are increasingly weary of the radicalism and rhetoric that have strangled progress, those who fight against the status quo are branded as part of the problem, not the solution.
Ma'an also represents a change in direction for Middle Eastern media. While the Arab Uprisings of 2011 highlighted the successes of the regional media, and the birth of citizen journalism networks, they also represent the failures and uncertainties of the regional media forces, both old and new.
Live: From Bethlehem is as compelling as it is important, both to the Palestinian conflict and the media quandaries of the larger region.
A free, low-quality streaming video of the documentary, created in partnership with the Media Education Foundation, is on-line. For individuals who wish to purchase the documentary, Matt Sienkiewicz can be reached on Twitter. Readers can also get more information from EA --- our newest intern, Josh Moss, was one of the cameramen for the documentary.