International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC) | Palestine

George Rishmawi | Journalist and Activist | Co-Founder of IMEMC

“Pal Media Alert” was created in 2002 as a section on the website of the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People (PCR). The objective was to share news from the Palestinian perspective with a global audience. In 2003, this project was developed into a separate website called the International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC).

Before launching the IMEMC, PCR wanted to understand the gap in coverage created by the international media. To do this, they investigated how international media working in Palestine accessed their information and how they presented the news that they published in their respective outlets. The data collected by the PCR showed that most international media (newspapers, satellite channels, etc.) have reporters in Jerusalem only and most do not send journalists to Palestinian villages and towns that face daily attacks by settlers and the Israeli army.

According to PCR’s research, international media outlets relied on information from the Government Press Office (GPO), which is an Israeli government agency. GPO sends daily media advisories to journalists by email, who then edit them in a way that fits their editorial policy and publish it.

According to George, “there are hundreds of resources that provide information. The problem now is not the information itself, rather the problem is how the information is presented to the public and this is what makes the whole difference.”

Ultimately, PCR’s research showed how the Israeli narrative was being distributed to the world and this is what prompted IMEMC to launch.

The IMEMC was established as a media center built on a collaboration between Palestinian and international citizen journalists working together to produce independent media coverage of Palestine in English using print and audio formats. The IMEMC does not function as a news agency. Rather it is an online alternative media project that provides information and news reports from the ground in Palestine.

George describes the IMEMC as non-partisan but adds “It is important here to note that IMEMC does not claim to be objective. We cannot be objective about our issue. We cannot be objective about Palestine. We are part of this conflict and we report our narrative, we report our story. We have an advantage: we can get sources in Hebrew, English, and Arabic and we can verify the story because of the connections we have in different parts of the West Bank and also in the Gaza Strip. They can check the story and verify if it is true or not.” 

The IMEMC team also tries to follow high standards for reporting. This includes volunteers who are native English speakers helping in editing the news. The main language of reporting in the IMEMC is English in order to target the international community. For one year in 2008, they also published content in Spanish and they were planning to venture into other languages, but it was difficult because they were relying on volunteers.

The IMEMC is not an organization, but a project that is part of the PCR. It can be understood as the media branch of the PCR created to communicate with people around the world about Palestine. Besides, the PCR also provides alternative tourism as well as works with local communities to develop skills and different advocacy projects with young people.

At the start of the IMEMC in 2003, the team consisted of four people, and ever since the number keeps fluctuating. The founders were young men in their 20s. The founding team of IMEMC consisted of two Palestinian staff, including George, and two international journalists from the US and Sweden. The Palestinian team members were not trained journalists, but they were running the PCR and involved in ISM. The international journalists were also involved in ISM and that is how they came to launch the IMEMC project with the Palestinian team. However, the Israeli occupation prevented the international founders of the IMEMC from continuing to work from Palestine.

George recalls “The two journalists who worked with us went back home, but they could not return because Israel did not allow them to travel back to Palestine. So they started working remotely” 

Today, around 90 percent of the work at the IMEMC is done by volunteers. While the number of volunteers always varies, the IMEMC currently has two local volunteers, both men, and in the US, they have two volunteers, one man, and one woman. The IMEMC has one paid full-time staff member who is a man. At one point, the IMEMC had more paid staff, but they could not continue to pay salaries because of difficulties finding sustainable funding for the project. The IMEMC began with a one-time grant provided by the Mennonite Central Committee in Jerusalem. George explains that after this initial funding, “we could not find serious organizations to fund this project.

This is because many funding organizations who work in Palestine seek to target the local Palestinian society and the IMEMC’s audience is not the Palestinian community.”

Today, one of their staff members is paid by the organization If Americans Knew, that benefits from IMEMC’s news. 

In the beginning, a typical day at the IMEMC would start at 6 am in the office. They would scan news outlets (Israeli, Palestinian, and international) several times a day and collect stories. The team would decide together which stories should be covered based on verification of the stories through their networks of volunteers on the ground. They also had a volunteer editorial committee that decided on what news makes the cut to be published.

The IMEMC designed the project to rely on volunteers made up of Palestinians and internationals who come and go. The typical volunteer collaborates for a couple of weeks and some for up to three months. Mostly, volunteers work remotely from where they are in Palestine or abroad. The IMEMC also has long-term volunteers.

This includes Saed Bannoura, who is the Chief Editor of IMEMC. He was shot during the first Intifada and as a result, is wheelchair-bound. Without his input in the project, the IMEMC would shut down. He is the only full-time staff, but he works double the time needed. He has a passion for the IMEMC that makes him persistent to keep the project up and running despite all circumstances. His wife Jenka Soderberg is an IMEMC volunteer taking care of IT issues of the website and sometimes helps Saed with the news. Two other long-time volunteers are Ghassan Bannoura (Beit Sahour) and Rami Al-Meghari (Gaza Strip). Rami from Gaza has worked with the IMEMC for more than seventeen years. He does so from his home in the blockaded Gaza Strip and has never met in person the IMEMC team in the West Bank.

Several volunteers have remained with the IMEMC over the years. George says “One of our staff who was actually a graduate of a hotel management school in Beit Lahem University, was interested in media a little bit and he started working with us as a bookkeeper. But he slowly got involved in producing audio at the IMEMC and today he is working professionally in media,” while still volunteering at the IMEMC.

George observes that the commitment of long term volunteers at the IMEMC shows that, “People feel loyalty to this idea.” 

Because most of the core team have been active as long term volunteers, George believes this has enabled the IMEMC to survive this long without sustainable funding.

The founding team of IMEMC included citizen journalists who needed training. After the official launch in 2003 when the IMEMC received funding and had a paid staff, they started taking courses on how to write news reports, and how to take photos while respecting other people’s privacy.

In 2009, the IMEMC organized several media trainings for non-violent resistance groups in different parts of the West Bank. They provide activists with media skills on how to take videos and write stories to send them back to the IMEMC for publishing. The IMEMC facilitated these trainings to spread media literacy among people who can help report the news from areas that are not always accessible to the IMEMC team.

Today, the core team at the IMEMC also takes every opportunity to enhance their media skills, including participating in workshops on everything from media economics to reporting. 

For the IMEMC, George says the presentation of news needs “to be as simple as possible.” For example, they did not focus on video production because it is expensive and requires more sophisticated equipment. They started with text and images, then moved to produce audio in a makeshift studio at the office. 

For more than a decade the IMEMC produced a daily audio report that was called “Palestine Today.” The report provided a five-minute summary of the day’s news. Another example of this audio service was “This Week In Palestine” which included an overview of the week’s news and was divided into three sections: incidents reports, political analysis, and non-violent resistance. In 2017, the IMEMC stopped producing the audio reports due to a lack of resources and volunteers. (link to archived audio reports)

Another practice used by the IMEMC was coordinating with other media organizations worldwide. For example, the IMEMC would produce and upload to their website audio reports. Radio stations across the world could then download these reports and broadcast them on the FM dial. To facilitate sharing, the IMEMC made their content available free of charge and for anyone to re-broadcast or share without the need to ask for permission. For example, they worked for several years with Free Speech Radio, a syndicated news program based in the US until 2017, which used to air IMEMC’s audio reports. The IMEMC also worked with a global network of Independent Media Centers to publish IMEMC content on their websites. 

The IMEMC website has around 2500 unique visitors per day. Through media sharing their content, the IMEMC relies on other established media to grow the audience for their news. This audience is expanded when the IMEMC is quoted in mainstream newspapers and TV broadcasts. He also said that international journalists in Jerusalem and other news websites use the IMEMC as a resource for news.

George recalls, “We knew that as a small young project, people would not trust to use this source of information, but if other media used our website and aired to their audience, the audience would be more receptive to it than if IMEMC published it alone.” 

Over time, the IMEMC has also developed a vocabulary for reporting on the news in Palestine. The language used in reporting is what makes IMEMC’s practices unique. George describes the purposefulness of language and presentation of news for the IMEMC as follows:

“The terminology is very important. Choosing the phrases, how the information is arranged, how do you start, and the title, all of this makes a difference to what people see and read.” 

They also collect information from different sources that are available online and on the ground, then they rewrite the news in a way that tells the story differently. 

The IMEMC also features a human interest section to foreground personal stories left out of most news about the military occupation in Palestine. The goal is names and stories, not numbers and sound bites. “The human interest section is not news,” George says, “but rather focuses on sharing stories that are missing in the international media.” 

The IMEMC does not sell its content. Obtaining financial resources was always one of their biggest challenges. In the beginning, they got some funding from the Mennonite Central Committee and individual donors. They depend heavily on volunteers and they had to shut down some sections, like the audio reports, because of lack of funding. However, George noted that the IMEMC is still running thanks to volunteers.

George observes“One of the good sides of not having funding, is that your donor or funder cannot force you to do something. Having no funding is one of the difficulties, but it has its positive sides as you are free, you are fully independent.”

Another constraint is restricted mobility for their volunteer reporters. Because of the military occupation in Palestine, travel to different parts of Palestine (such as Gaza or Jerusalem) is restricted, or even internal movement can be blocked (such as within the West Bank). Furthermore, the IMEMC has experienced difficulty in recruiting international volunteers due to the Israeli regime’s restrictions on entry. George reports that some international volunteers traveled with the intent to return and continue working at the IMEMC, but Israel blocked IMEMC volunteers on several occasions from re-entering the West Bank.  

Also in their beginnings, when they wanted to register IMEMC as a media organization and at that time, the Palestinian Authority did not have laws or regulations in place for registering online media. Since IMEMC was not a printed newspaper, but only a website they could not obtain a license or become part of the journalist union.

“This did not stop us,” George says, adding, “but it would have been better if our team had press cards.”  

In 2003, not long after the Israeli military murdered ISM activist Rachel Corrie in Palestine, the Israeli army invaded the IMEMC offices and confiscated all their equipment. George believes the raid was due to the IMEMC’s association with the ISM. Luckily, the IMEMC managed afterwards to get donations for new equipment and restart. 

Since the IMEMC became more recognized and used online, its website has been constantly under cyber attacks and it has been hacked several times. The non-stop cyberattacks and the 2003 Israeli army raid that confiscated their server prompted the IMEMC to make sure they archive their data on several online servers and they still do regular backups on a local server. They also improved their website from static HTML to a CMS operated one and increased their website security. 

More recently, the IMEMC has also been threatened with suspension from Facebook. The IMEMC’s page on Facebook is currently flagged and they are trying to get this flag removed, but the authorities at Facebook have not indicated why their page is flagged despite multiple attempts by IMEMC volunteers to get more information. 

Because of the distance between IMEMC volunteers imposed by the Israeli occupation, the IMEMC developed a Journalist Handbook to guide all the volunteers to work under the same rules.

The handbook is necessary because the wording of news is key for IMEMC writers. George says, “The handbook provides a list of terminology that we try to use instead of the mainstream terminology. For example, we do not say in IMEMC the ‘Israeli Defence Forces.’ We do not use the term IDF at all.” 

Instead, the handbook advises IMEMC journalists that, “The term IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) has been coined by the Israeli government, and is commonly used in the international press. IMEMC considers this term to be biased, as the descriptor utilized could be argued by opposing sides as either ‘defense’ or ‘offense’. Some of the online press has begun using ‘IOF’ (Israeli Occupation Forces) instead. The IMEMC uses neither IDF nor IOF, but Israeli military or army.”

George began working formally in the media in 2002. Before this, he started engaging in media activism as a citizen journalist in September 2000 during the second Intifada through reporting about daily attacks by the Israeli military and settlers on Palestinian civilians. George took up citizen journalism after Israeli soldiers in a helicopter murdered two Palestinian residents of Beit Sahour, his home town near Bethlehem in the West Bank. He wanted to inform the world of what was really happening in Palestine. George describes his motivations to become a citizen journalist like this: “It’s a mission from inside you, not an assignment.”

George’s initial interest in media activism was also based on his travels outside of Palestine.“I traveled many times and I can see there is a misconception about what’s happening in Palestine. There is a lack of information and, if the information is there, it is tweaked in a very smart way that would make people more sympathetic towards Israel … This was my main motivation, to contribute to informing the world about the truth in Palestine.” 

Along with other citizen journalists, George would take pictures of newsworthy events happening in Palestine and publish them on the websites of different organizations to reach people outside of Palestine. The reason for the rise in citizen journalism at this time was because international media was not paying enough attention to news on the ground in Palestine. George and other citizen journalists were motivated to become media activists because they felt that a counter-narrative was needed.

He says, “The way stories are presented does not usually tell you the truth, or the whole truth. Some people choose certain words to mention, choose certain facts to present, and hide some details that for them might be trivial but it makes a huge difference in the meaning. Sometimes a story is told in a way that will make you feel something, but actually, the truth makes you feel something different.”

During the Second Intifada, the tools George and other citizen journalists used were simple handheld cameras.  This was years before the boom of smartphone usage in Palestine (where, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, today 96% of homes have one or more smartphones). In the early 2000s, citizen journalists like George were using whatever technology they could access, including the Internet, to get news from Palestine out into the world. 

In August 2001, George co-founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led direct action initiative that collaborates with activists from around the world to promote and support non-violent resistance in Palestine. George co-founded ISM with the goal of having international activists working in different parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

George and other ISM activists produced citizen journalism by reporting the news of attacks against Palestinian civilians that were not published in the international media. To coordinate this work, ISM provided activists with cameras and mobile phones so they could report more easily and faster about the incidents happening every day on the ground. 

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