SBS And The Eurovision Song Contest: Sugar Coated Indifference To Human Rights


The nation’s multicultural broadcaster could choose to show leadership on a human rights issue that concerns many of its viewers. So far, it’s chosen another course, writes Professor Stuart Rees.

The brutal occupation of Palestinian lands has been under way for 70 years. The siege of Gaza is into its 13th year. Over five million Palestinian refugees live wretched lives in refugee camps. In the last eight months, 300 hundred Gazans, mostly youth, have been killed by Israeli sniper fire at the Gaza border fence and an estimated 20,000 have been maimed, many for life.


Sugar Coated Appeals

In apparent ignorance, or indifference to the rights of Palestinians, within Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza and in numerous refugee camps, SBS Television has been sugar coating appeals to the Australian public to support the Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Tel Aviv in May. Each appeal has been delivered with dollops of treacle, as sickening as if the same ingredient had been poured by an ill discerning chef on any dish.

Accompanied by pictures of a goofy, smiling couple in shiny suits, invitations to vote on a likely Australian singer included the instruction, ‘Australia It’s In Your Hands’ and then the crescendo like statement, ‘Australia Decides’.

The sugar coating had not quite ended. Thick icing was on hand. The choice of an Australian singer to go to Israel represented, ‘Australia’s bid for global glory.’ Who wrote that? Have they no shame? A parochial nationalism has gone mad.

The same use of treacle as concealment takes place outside the Arts Centre in Tel Aviv where flags advertising the Eurovision Song Contest say, ‘Dare To Dream’. Dream of what? Of the same rights and freedoms for Palestinians and Israelis? Dream of an end to Israeli governments’ overwhelming use of a brutal force in their response to Palestinians’ demand for their rights to self-determination?

The popular Australian actor Colin Friels has linked the Eurovision Song Contest and Israeli cruelty. “Given the siege of Gaza and the slaughter of Palestinians,” he says, “the televising of the Eurovision Song Contest must not be allowed to artwash Israeli brutalities. I strongly support the boycott of this event and urge others to do the same.”

In similar vein, in the UK, 50 artists have written to the BBC saying that Eurovision might be light entertainment, but it is not exempt from consideration of human rights. They have called for artists and broadcasters not to go to Tel Aviv and have asked that the contest to be relocated to another country. Signatories to the petition included Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel, Julie Christie, Miriam Margolies, Mike Leigh and the fashion designed Dame Vivienne Westwood.


Being Better Informed

Artists and broadcasters seem pleased to ignore atrocities, or they might plead that they don’t know. A modest list of killings might contribute to their understanding.

The 2008/9 Israeli Operation Cast Lead in Gaza resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians including 345 children. Thirteen Israelis were killed, at least four by friendly fire. The 2014 Israeli Operation Protective Edge resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians including 495 children. Sixty- six Israeli soldiers lost their lives.

Palestinians search through the rubble of their destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip, during the 2014 assault. (IMAGE: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan, Flickr)

In addition to the loss of life, the destruction of homes, medical facilities, mosques, water pumping stains, electricity and sewage plants in Gaza was on massive scale. In response to the killings and destruction, the world’s media was fed the Orwellian claim that Israel’s was the most humane army in the world.

On June 7, 2018 near Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, easily visible in her white nurse’s uniform, 21-year-old Razan al-Najarr was tending wounded participants in the protest called the March of Return. She was shot in the back by Israeli snipers. Do the broadcasters know? In the protests at the Gazan border, one Israeli soldier has been killed.

On Sunday, October 28, an Israeli air raid over Gaza killed three Palestinian boys, Khaled Abu Saeed 14, Abdul Aba Zaher 13, and Mohammed al-Sutari 13. These killings took place not far from where the singers will be performing, where they will be asked by their Israeli hosts to ‘dare to dream.’ Do broadcasters and singers know about the deaths of the boys?

Protestors gather during the great Return March. Hundreds of unarmed protestors were killed by Israeli snipers.

If cruelty involving murder is too unpalatable to contemplate, consider another abuse which might seem less confronting. The distinguished Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has written of the Israeli settler sadists who cut down 25 decades-old olive trees belonging to a Palestinian farmer, Abed al Hai Na’asan. It was, said Levy, an outrage on the soil, the earth, the trees and the farmer but “the scum fled like cowards knowing that no-one could bring them to justice.” Was this event broadcast? Was there anything to sing about? The song contest will take place just beyond this violent lawless, settler country.


Ponder the SBS Charter

The SBS Charter indicates why the treacly enthusiasm for the Eurovision Song Contest is misplaced. The Charter speaks of responsibility to inform, educate and entertain all Australians, but in the current controversy, the informing and educating is pitched against the entertainment goal.

The SBS Charter also speaks of increasing awareness of the contribution of a diversity of cultures to the continuing development of Australian society. Commitment to universal human rights allied to opposition to the oppression of another people would be one way to contribute to that development.

The alternative is to pretend that human rights have nothing to do with broadcasting, that commerce matters, that the candy floss of a song contest is far more important than any compliance with a Charter which has the admirable aim to be free to draw on the best of all cultures. That freedom was not achieved by ignoring violence, or by colluding with theft, murder and collective punishment of another people, acts carried out with impunity.

All the broadcasters who plan to cover this song contest are pawns in a normality play. The Eurovision Song Contest is one arm of the massive resources put into a campaign to say that life in Israel is normal, that nothing untoward is happening.


Alternatives for SBS Management

How might SBS management respond to the dismay felt by many Australians over the human rights-blind support for this year’s Euro Vision Song Contest?

They should consider whether they want to facilitate Israel’s objective: to divert attention from the murder of people and the stealing of lands and so claim the staging of Eurovision as a diplomatic victory.

They could pretend that everything is normal, that the critics are just a temporary nuisance. They could ensure that staff and performers are better informed about the oppression suffered by Palestinians, including the 20% disenfranchised Palestinian citizens of Israel.

As a compromise, they could imitate the decision of the Irish Broadcasting Commission and tell staff that if they refuse to work on broadcasting the song contest in Israel, they will not be penalised for doing so.

Consistent with its Charter, there is an opportunity for SBS to announce that social conscience is not outmoded, therefore they have decided that the broadcast can only take place if this song contest is moved to another country.

In making that announcement they’ll need no sugar or any other hyperbole. Just an uncluttered statement about human rights will do.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.