Shoot the messenger: Blaming Al Jazeera for the Palestine Papers

The so-called Palestine Papers, the first of which were released this week by Al Jazeera, have fallen into a trap seen all too frequently. Rather than dealing with the actual message and content, those affected by the leak instead have chosen to shoot the messenger

One Palestinian official directly targeted the country that hosts and funds the Arab television network. Speaking in Ramallah on Monday, Yasser Abed Rabbo called the incident a political campaign directed by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalida al-Thani. Another official – the main Palestinian negotiator – claims his life is now in danger. Saeb Erekat’s reported positions presented in the documents have led many to accuse him of “selling out” the Palestinians. It is perhaps natural for him to be angry with Al Jazeera.

To some extent, a similar thing happened when Wikileaks began its release of diplomatic cables. Rather than the US addressing flaws in its own foreign policy (or even gaps in its own digital security), the State Department launched a tirade against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and his associates. It was a classic move: diverting one story to another. In the US, Assange is now a household name while most Americans are now no more than before familiar with the fascinating contents of those cables. For officials in Washington, this was a tactical move. It worked. Perhaps Palestinian leaders are attempting to emulate it.

Aside from attacking Al Jazeera, the main response by the Palestinians has been that the information revealed by the documents was reported out of context. That may be true. Foreign policy involves bargaining and alliances, at the base of which lie a wide array of thoughts. Some are conservative and reflect expected official policy while others are more creative and make many uncomfortable. It is difficult to assess if the leak of some comments (or cables) accurately reflects the context in which they were presented. And it is indeed the right of officials in Ramallah to choose not to respond to specifics, just as it is the right of Israeli and US officials to do the same. (In democracies, there can be electoral consequences.) But to instead use this platform to turn-the-tables on the means by which the information has been released – as if the officials themselves do not use leaks when it is to their benefit – is unjustified and needs to be rejected.

It is worth remembering a few things about leaks:

First, not all leaks are true. Some leaks are construed with the sole purpose of gauging public reaction. To this effect, governments around the world frequently use the media. If the public reacts negatively, the leak is denied. But if they react positively, the leak is confirmed and the policy is implemented. The “Palestine Papers” could be an attempt by some officials to see how the Palestinian public reacts to some positions. To the surprise of many – including, I believe, Al Jazeera – dismay has not really spilled over into the streets.

Second, not all leaks are accidental. In fact, most leaks are intentional. To the person or body leaking the information, the agenda is clear, even if the same cannot be said about the leak’s recipient. A leak can be used to make something happen or to try to prevent it. A leak can be used to shame one individual or to promote another (perhaps simultaneously). A leak can be used to advance one agenda or to bring another to a complete halt. When there are a number of faces and a number of people trying to represent those voices – as is the case among Palestinians and those involved in their cause – it is not far-fetched to imagine that one group or individual may be trying to shutout another.

Third, with every leak that is pursued and subsequently promoted, there are winners and losers. The success or failure of a leak can directly reflect the success or failure of one party. Following that trail can often reveal the source of the leak, as well as the source’s intentions. As Al Jazeera releases more and more of these documents, I imagine that will become easier to do.

The lesson here is that leaks are tricky tools. They should be treated and received as such.

A few words about Al Jazeera. It is a massive network compromised of numerous channels including one dedicated to sports, one dedicated to children and one dedicated to documentaries. It is the West, it is known primarily for its Arabic-language news channel and more recently for its English-language sister channel. In the interest of full disclosure, I spent a number of years working for Al Jazeera International in various places around the world. I helped launched the English channel in 2006, I opened a foreign bureau for AJI in 2008, and I spent a great deal of time in the Doha headquarters, in the Washington broadcast center, and in the Jerusalem bureau working as a staff producer for Al Jazeera. I will spare you my personal experiences and save my sentiments – both positive and negative – for myself. However, I will defend the editorial integrity of my colleagues.

The accusations hoisted by Palestinian officials that Al Jazeera is attempting to destabilize the Palestinian Authority are meant to rile emotions in the Palestinian street and anti-Al Jazeera sentiment. But this is unlikely to happen. For one, Al Jazeera makes no effort to hide its goal of being a voice of the people, not a voice of the government – the contrary, it boasts its position. Officials in nearly every world capital loathe the channel (though obsessively monitor it). Yet most people who actually watch it seem to love the content. They see stories that they otherwise would not see and hear perspectives that they otherwise would not hear.

I did not and do not agree with every editorial decision the channel makes; that much should be expected. But I wholeheartedly support the channel’s efforts to keep world leaders in check; this, at a time when much of the global media have given them free reign. In doing so, Al Jazeera has become a force in and of itself and a party to the process.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Tom Friedman notes that in the 1980s a number of Lebanese groups were fighting for control of the heterogeneous country. (Lebanon again today appears headed in that direction.) The presence in Lebanon of Israel’s military, Friedman argued, simply added one more player to the game.

In Lebanon (where this week Al Jazeera’s vans were torched), in Tunisia, in Israel, in the Palestinian territories, and indeed in the world – Al Jazeera is not a monitor of the game. Al Jazeera is one more player. Al Jazeera is aware of that burden. Others should not be surprised by it or fault it as such.