geneva anti racism .
(photo credit: AP)
It's no secret that stories critical of government polices that appear in the Israeli media become fodder for those abroad with an anti-Israel agenda. Indeed, foreign critics can honestly claim that they are "echoing" what media outlets or prominent journalists here are asserting.
But while there are often disturbing aspects to the populist and ideological bent of much of the media - which sometimes lapses into dangerous irresponsibility - our robust press is integral to civil liberties.
"Hasbara" - Israel's public diplomacy - is self-evidently problematic because the country does not speak with one voice. Israeli officials may be vexed by what they read in the morning papers or watch on the evening news. But they rightly have no control over news and opinion.
A free press is a "handicap" this and any democracy willingly embraces.
NOT SO in much of the Muslim and Arab world. Recently, Arab extremists learned that the Israel Foreign Ministry had been translating and posting articles on its website from the Arab media. This material highlighted the ideological divide between writers associated with the rejectionist camp (Syria, for example) and relative moderates (Egypt and Saudi Arabia). As reported by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a number of media outlets aligned with the rejectionists then published a blacklist of "moderate" writers who, they claimed were paid Zionist agents since their criticism of Arab affairs was picked up by Israel.
To which one blacklisted "moderate" retorted: "Israel is winning the wars because it has mechanisms for [self-] criticism [even] in times of warâ€¦ The resistance and jihad movements must be divested of their aura of sanctity and subjected to a cost-benefit assessment."
Of course, the main reason differing views among the Arabs are aired at all is that opposing voices toe the line of the respective regimes under which they live; or because they work and publish in the West.
THE ISSUE of press freedom is very much on the agenda at the Durban II conference in Geneva even though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pathetic Monday performance hogged the media spotlight.
At stake is the question of whether Muslim and Arab delegates will succeed in imposing their free press "standards" on other civilizations. The conference will be voting on whether to include in its closing policy statement an innocuous-sounding clause prohibiting "incitement."
As anyone who has strolled down the streets of, say, Cairo, or picked up an Arabic newspaper knows, incitement to Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism is perfectly acceptable.
But the Muslim delegations would use the incitement clause of the final Durban II statement to ban all criticism of Islam, Shari'a law, the prophet Muhammad and controversial tenets of Islam.
Muslims point to the controversial 2005 cartoon depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban which was published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten as precisely the kind of "incitement" their Durban II efforts are intended to head off. That cartoon, and 11 others simultaneously published by that newspaper, sparked Muslim riots worldwide.
Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned and published the cartoons, said he did so because he had noticed a disturbing trend of self-censorship. Writers, artists, museum curators and translators had all been intimidated into avoiding involvement with projects critical of Muslim extremism.
Rose, currently in Israel to deliver a series of lectures under the auspices of Hebrew University's Shasha Center for Strategic Studies run by Efraim Halevy, says he ran the cartoons to draw a line against this encroaching self-censorship, and to hammer home the idea that criticism of Islam - actually of those who hijack it for extremist purposes - is not synonymous with insulting the religion.
If Durban II supports the anti-incitement clause, the Muslim and Arab world will have succeeded in insinuating its illiberal attitude toward the press on the international community.
And if the West compromises on press freedom to placate Muslims, the capitulation will be seen, correctly, as a sign not of respect, but of submission.