February 21, 2013

MEDIA COMMENT: Media darkness

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:16 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Media darkness
A debate on the use of gag orders or on the need for military censorship is always welcome.

Israel’s media devolved into a frenzy last week. Availing themselves of an Australian news program which reported on an apparent suicide in an Israeli  prison, the editors and correspondents and columnists of our printed press and  broadcast media erupted into what in retrospect proved to be the spreading of  much misinformation.

Leading the campaign of the “public’s right to know” were a few MKs who, with incomplete details, exploited their parliamentary  immunity and, on a live TV feed from the Knesset, asked the (wrong) justice  minister, who was responding to other questions, whether this or that part of  the story was factual, which it now appears they mostly were not.

Our  interest in this column is not the incident itself. It also isn’t whether the  government bodies who dealt with the case at the time, a few years ago, or  currently, acted properly or legally. We review the media, its standards, its  ethical and professional behavior, biases and foibles – purposeful or accidental – and, when they happen, its violations of law and codes of conduct.

The  principle of the “public’s right to know” has been traced back to something the  American president James Madison wrote in 1822: “A popular government without  popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or  a tragedy, or perhaps both…a people who mean to be their own  Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

And  as the author of much of that country’s Bill of Rights, he had inserted therein  that the “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of  the press….”

However, the American Supreme Court, as well as the  high courts of many other countries have curbed the freedom of the press. And  despite the howls of the media here, one could question whether what they were  seeking was to further good governance and inform the populace, or simply  sensationalism for the sake of selling newspapers or advertising  space.

The media pushed several basic themes. One was: Why did the news  have to come from abroad? As it turns out this is an easy question to answer.  Most of the information obtained by the Australian media outlet came from our  own media. In this context, Eitan Haber, formerly prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s  press adviser and longtime Yediot Aharonot writer, had a story to  tell.

In a column on Sunday, he reflected on Mordechai Vanunu, who had  attempted, fairly successfully, to reveal secrets related to Israel’s nuclear  capabilities. Haber asserts that in an effort to stem leaks from being published  in Israel, then, as today, the editors’ forum was convened by Shimon Peres to  provide background justifying the lack of information and asking them only to  quote from the British press. Immediately after the meeting ended, Gershon  Schocken, the editor/publisher of Haaretz, alerted his Londonbased  correspondent, who provided the British media with the information that he  himself needed to quote, thus assuring that the true story could appear in  Israel, with all the subsequent damage.

This past fortnight, Haaretz  twice attacked the gag order as an instrument of the state. First on February 5  when its editorial on the air strike in Syria criticized what it perceived to be  the prevention of “a public debate in Israel about the wisdom and responsibility  of Israel’s pushing itself into the boiling lava of the Syrian civil war…  turn[ing] Israeli media into a fighter in the ‘perceptionshaping’ army,” a task  the paper despises.

Then on February 14, it railed against Israel “disappearing” people. While the paper did grant that state secrets should indeed be kept, it  opposed what it termed “a grave infringement on the civil rights of people who  are confined in prison.”

Was there such an infringement? Was the media  championing democracy and a free press? AS OF this writing, it would appear that  for all the brouhaha, the press did a bad job of providing real  information.

Instead, using headlines, pictures, graphics and repetition,  it was engaged in sensationalism.

While not a crime, this is not only bad  journalism, it shows little consideration for state security and, perhaps, the  lives of agents in the field.

Moreover, although a feed from Australia’s  secret service or other sources cannot be discounted, indications are that the  Australian reporter, Trevor Bormann, was tipped off by a local Israeli media  person.

Another recurring theme was the violation of Israeli democracy by  making a person “disappear.” In fact, no one “vanished.” Mr. Zygier met his  family, his lawyers and others while in custody. A Meretz MK at the time was  involved, but chose not to follow it up further. His identity was kept secret at  his own request .

Second, the judicial process was not “secret.” The  case’s secrecy was warranted and authorized. It seems that there was adequate  judicial supervision, not to mention one public leak which, it is true, was  quashed. There was no disproportionate injustice or undue confidentiality, at  least in comparison to previous similar cases in Israel and abroad.

In  the final analysis, a free press is a necessary condition for guaranteeing civil  rights and liberties.

However, an elected government is also responsible  for the defense of the state and the security of the lives of its citizens. It  is true that too many of the state’s bodies and officials have not internalized  the enormous change in communication which comes as a result of the Internet,  social media and other technological developments. Instead of realizing that  there is a crisis and managing it, our officials only react to media pressure,  giving an impression that they are hiding something, which was not  appropriate.

Nevertheless, our media is not much better, and it, too,  does not generate much confidence.

Mr. Zygier’s case is a personal  tragedy for himself, his family and, too, for his handlers. Further  investigation must be expected, as in any case of someone who purportedly  commits suicide while in custody. A debate on the use of gag orders or on the  need for military censorship is always welcome.

At the same time the  story calls for deep introspection by our media. It should deal with news  collection and publication, as well as the inevitable confrontation with  governmental authorities over how the news is to be reported. However, running  abroad with a story is not only a symptom of weakness, it is also indicative of  a lack of patriotism.

It is high time that our media recognized the fact that  contrary to expectations, Israel remains a country considered illegitimate by  most of the world. Its very existence is under constant threat. Anyone who  deeply cares for our lives here must be at least circumspect and very careful  when it comes to military or defense secrets.

For good or otherwise, our  media should also hold a dialogue with the public it believes it represents.  Since the press claims to be taking positions in the name of the public interest  it should also concern itself with the question of whether our public is  interested in the media being so antagonistic to the defense  establishment.

This is more important than finding favor in foreign  lands.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: