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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
This is more important than finding favor in foreign
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of
Israel’s Media Watch www.imw.org.il