'Israeli media need new framework'

MK Shai says coverage of Mubarak's health shows problems with media.

July 30, 2010 06:05
3 minute read.
Nachman Shai.

nachman shai 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

A new system must be found to enable the Israeli press to maintain vital national interests in a world of open-source Internet media outlets, MK Nahman Shai (Kadima) said Wednesday – days after he wrote a letter to Press Council President Dalia Dorner about Israeli media coverage of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s medical condition.

Shai, who served both as IDF spokesman and in key positions in the Israel Broadcasting Authority, wrote the letter to Dorner after he heard through both direct and indirect channels that Egypt had requested that Israel tone down its coverage of the president’s illness.

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“The news coverage of Mubarak has declined in recent days, but it will return to the news cycle because he is sick and that is common knowledge, and the issue will become relevant again,” Shai said Wednesday.

“The issue of Mubarak’s health is intriguing to Israeli journalists because it is both an issue of diplomatic policy and, on the other hand, it straddles the fine gap between the public and private sphere, and the Israeli press doesn’t respect individuals’ privacy, but willingly enters that private sphere.”

But Egyptian sources, Shai said, have complained that Israel’s coverage of their leader’s reported illness is harmful to domestic stability.

“The Egyptians say both quietly and publicly that we shouldn’t deal so obviously with Mubarak’s conditions – it weakens him beyond the disease, increases positioning among potential successors and prevents him from passing on rule smoothly.”

Shai said he had not yet received Dorner’s response, but that he had told her that “this is a topic that the Press Council should address, because it is a question of press ethics. There is no body that has the authority of placing a veto on the press, or that can prevent things from being published. The time for such things has passed, and I think we should entirely eliminate the censor.”

Instead, he suggested that Dorner speak with the major media outlets about the implications of their coverage of the issue.

“If the question standing here is the question of our relations and peace with Egypt, perhaps the most important diplomatic achievement in the Middle East in the history of Israel, then maybe the press can hold back on this matter,” Shai suggested.

Egyptians, he said, have emphasized that “there are two cultures at play here – ours and theirs. In theirs, they don’t deal publicly with leaders’ medical conditions, while we overdo it. In the West, the leader goes to the hospital and the public gets a full report. In contrast, when the late King Hussein of Jordan was sick, nobody heard about it from the local press.”

Dorner’s office said in response that on July 22, Arik Bachar, the director-general of the press council, had responded to Shai’s letter in Dorner’s name.

“It is true that we are talking about a sensitive issue, but the coverage of it [in Israel] does not exceed the constraints of the field of play on which a free media like Israel’s operates,” Bachar wrote. “Proof of this is the fact that the media in a number of other countries published news reports on the matter. The press council does not have the authority to demand of the media to limit itself in its reporting beyond the requirements of the council’s ethical regulations.”

Shai said that his missive to Dorner was merely a stopgap measure. In the meantime, he said, he was still searching for the proper legal framework to encompass Israel’s media dilemmas in the 21st century.

The current legal basis for media censorship, he complained, was the 1945 emergency measures put into place during the tumultuous final years of the British Mandate in Palestine. These laws, he said, have been outdated for years, but nobody has come up with a more viable alternative.

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