Daniel Pearl’s ‘Litmus Test’ seed of Israel-based institute

This article originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Adam Pearl, now ten-years old, never met his father, Daniel — a heroic journalist who family and friends say gave his life for truth. Pearl was serving as The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief in 2002 when he was abducted and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan; a video of the horrific beheading circulating world-wide. A decade later, flanked by his proud mother Marian who was pregnant at the time and grandparents Judea and Ruth Pearl, Adam stood before a crowded room filled with well-wishers on hand to dedicate the Daniel Pearl International Journalism Institute (DPIJI) that is being established at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC).

“For us, it’s the culmination of Danny’s legacy, life, mission and dream,” Prof. Judea Pearl told The Media Line. “The way the Middle East is covered is a paradox. The whole coverage is one big puzzle: on one hand, there is high-volume and at the same time, the level of coverage doesn’t pass Daniel Pearl’s ‘litmus test’ for journalism: ‘in every country, both sides should be treated with dignity.’”

Pearl, professor of computer science at UCLA, explained what he sees as the imbalance in reporting from the Middle East that fails his son’s test. “Take any television or print media outlet and count how many times it shows pictures of a child or grandparent or empathy from both sides.” Using as an example his perception of Al-Jazeera versus Israeli television, Pearl argued that on the Qatar-based network “you never see Israeli children just planting trees. But on the other hand, you see many stories on Israeli television showing the difficulties in hospitals in Gaza or merchants in Jenin.”

Prof. Pearl underscored an irony of his son’s murder when he told The Media Line how Daniel refused a Wall Street Journal assignment in Afghanistan before being posted in Pakistan because he wasn’t trained for wartime journalism. “Around the same time he became very upset with the Journal because he tried to communicate the whereabouts of his colleague and no one knew where he was.” As a result, Daniel convinced his editors to establish a policy that “someone must know where every journalist is at any given moment.” A further irony was that while Pearl also wrote a manual for journalists covering theaters of conflict, all of his suggestions were implemented “except for training for proper behavior under abduction.”

According to its founders, the goal of The Daniel Pearl International Journalism Institute is to advance the quality of journalism in the Middle East and to promote informed, balanced and insightful reporting from the region.

“The mission of the institute is to bring journalists from all over the world who are sent to cover the region, provide them with information, and be able to introduce them to a balanced view of what’s happening here,” explained Dr. Noam Lemelstrich Latar, Founding Dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communication at IDC and member of the new institute’s governing board.

Lemelstrich Latar told The Media Line that investigative journalism “is one of the most important guardians of human rights; free expression; and human dignity. We thought it would be a good opportunity for the school of communication to emphasize the role of communication as a guardian to democracy,” Lemelstrich Latar explained.

The core projects of the DPIJI include ten day immersion programs designed to enrich journalists’ understanding about the cultures of the region; a fellowship program in collaboration with Columbia University’s School of Journalism that intends to bring Palestinian and Israeli journalists to study for ten days at IDC in Israel followed by another ten days taking journalism courses and studying techniques at Columbia’s New York campus; and a series of journalism conferences. 

Columbia was represented at the inaugural ceremony by Prof. Josh Friedman, the journalism school’s Director of International Programs, and ironically, a former chairman of The Committee to Protect Journalists. Friedman explained that, “For the moment, DPIJI’s relationship is with the continuing education part of the journalism school, which will entail two-week long courses on things like investigative reporting or classes which focus on investigative journalism.”  As for fulfilling its mission, Friedman’s expert opinion is that those behind the institute “have to really — in their hearts — be totally committed to sharing what they’re teaching to other players in the Middle East, and that means Palestinians and people in other countries. If they don’t do that, the project cannot be realized; the project cannot work,” surmised Friedman.

Drawing on his experience in directing international programs, Friedman sees the problem as one of trust. “The problem at this point is that there is so much distrust,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t know if I could be optimistic that IDC would be   successful at getting the proper Palestinian partners to carry this off. It’s going to take a lot of work to overcome pessimism and distress,” Friedman warned.

Prof. Uriel Reichman, founder and president of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, emphasized the importance of trying to communicate with Arab journalists from Israel’s neighboring countries and locally, from Israel’s Arab sector. Reichman expressed his hope that the institute will influence journalists on both sides of the conflict to “report objectively as much as possible so that people from both sides will at least understand the story of the other side. Maybe then a compromise can be reached: a better understanding and eventually, cooperation.”

Reichman and Friedman’s concerns reflect the reality of the toxic environment that exists between many sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society such as the strength of the movement opposing “normalization” with the Jewish state.  Most of the institute’s putative local partners are members of the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate, which has threatened Palestinians to shy away from joint activities.

Nibal Thawabteh, a journalist by training and director of The Media Development Center at Birzeit University told The Media Line that she doubts Palestinian journalists would attend institute programs, citing issues of reciprocity. “We, as Palestinians, don’t have the ability to move or the right to cover Israel’s stories.”  To support her point, she used the recent example of Israeli journalists coming to Ramallah to cover the protests over the conditions of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. “Palestinians,” she said, “are not allowed to enter Israel to cover similar stories on the other side.”

Seven years ago, during the second Intifada, Thawabteh was one of eight Palestinian journalists who were denied permits to enter Israel in order to attend Ben Gurion University on scholarships they had won. “I was accepted to a Ph D. program which brought Palestinian journalists together with international professors. I hope to continue my doctoral work through Bard College [which runs programs in conjunction with Al-Quds University] this year.

Judea Pearl believes Israel is under a “communication siege,” but holds out hope that Arab journalists will eventually participate. He told The Media Line that, “The Egyptian Syndicate bans journalists from visiting Israel, but there are more Urdu speakers in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan than Arabic speakers who we can reach out to. And eventually, the Arabs will join because they won’t want to feel left out.”

Daniel Pearl was born on October 10, 1963, to an Israeli-born father and Iraqi-born mother, Ruth, who is CFO of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which was founded shortly after Daniel was killed while investigating links between shoe bomber Richard Reid and Al-Qa’ida.

Seed money to create the institute was provided equally by the Foundation and IDC, but fundraising efforts are now underway in earnest. The initial idea came from Jacob Dayan, a former Israeli Consul-General in Los Angeles, who told The Media Line it resulted from years of speaking to journalists as a diplomat and reading so many articles about the Middle East “that I concluded there was no lack of information, but rather a lack of understanding, of nuance and of historical perspective about the region.”

Five years ago, Dayan met with Pearl and the vision of an institute in Daniel’s memory came to life. Dayan’s wife, Galit, a teacher at IDC, brought the concept to Reichman in the form of a journalism think-tank that would be a platform for debates. Now, almost at fruition, Dayan said that the first “immersion program” is set for June in cooperation with the University of Miami School of Journalism

Reichman knows the task at hand is difficult.  “It’s not an Israeli Hasbara [ the Hebrew word for “to explain” that colloquially means nationalist public relations] center,” he insists. “It is and should be a place where objectivity should be served.” To that end, Reichman expressed the hope that, “I believe there will be some courageous Arabs [serving] on the board,” along with present advisory board members: Canada’s Tariq Khan, editor of Weekly Press Pakistan; Columbia University’s Prof. Josh Friedman; Rob Eshman, publisher of the Los Angeles-based Tribe Media Corp.; Richard Schneider, Israel bureau chief for ARD German Television; and French author and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Reichman realizes a lot of work remains to be done and some facts on the ground need to change. “Miracles will not be showing up immediately,” he said. “There will be a process. There is no other way but to cooperate.”