The voice of Israel

The Government Press Office’s director, Oren Helman, muses on his new job – and the foreign media.

By
April 18, 2011 16:08
Oren Helman: My door is always open.

Oren Helman Habara_311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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On January 11, at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s annual new year press conference with the foreign media in Jerusalem, Oren Helman was introduced to the foreign press corps as the Government Press Office’s new head, taking over from Danny Seaman, who had a rather torrid 10-year relationship with the foreign press.

In what seemed an effort to turn over a whole new leaf with the reporters, Helman told the journalists gathered that the GPO was there to serve them. The journalists, he said, were the GPO’s clients.

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Just before he took the podium, however, Israeli- Arab Al-Jazeera reporter Najwan Simri Diab refused to take off her bra for a security search in an incident since dubbed “bra-gate,” and angrily walked away from the event.

Welcome to your new job, Oren! Al-Jazeera quickly filed a complaint with the GPO and the Foreign Press Association (FPA) following the incident, and a day latter Helman sent a letter saying, “First of all, I would like to express my regret that journalists left the GPO Annual Cocktail Reception feeling that they were treated in an unbecoming manner by security. Obviously, we do not invite journalists to an event in order to offend them.”

“You are not only our clients, but you are our preferred clients,” he said. “We will be receptive to your professional needs, and we will try to assist you as much as possible. My door is always open to you.”

For some, the tone of this letter signified that, indeed, a new era in the GPO had begun. Whereas Seaman was often criticized for being overly confrontational with, and cynical of, the foreign press, Helman’s tone suggested a much different approach.

Sitting last week in the GPO offices at Beit Agron, offices that will be moving out of the building later this year to the Malha Technology Park where may of the foreign press’ offices are situated, Helman set the tone for the entire interview saying that while he and Seaman may not “always agree on everything, we respect each other, and I have a lot to learn from him.”

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Seaman has since moved over to become deputy director general of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the ministry which now is in charge of the GPO, instead of the Prime Minister’s Office, which was the case until now.

“My predecessor was an excellent professional, a true Zionist,” Helman said. “Everything he did was for the good of Israel and Israeli hasbara. And even if

THE TONE Helman set with these remarks was diplomatic. New at the job, he took over in November after working previously as a lobbyist and before that as a political adviser for Binyamin Netanyahu when he was finance minister and later Opposition head, Helman – unlike his outspoken predecessor – was careful not to ruffle feathers or pounce on toes.

For instance, Seaman – in an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s editor David Horovitz last November – said of the foreign press that “you have journalists coming in here not having the faintest idea of what is going on. They live off what they get from their colleagues; they meet certain people who come from the same social-economic background; they live off of one newspaper, Ha’aretz. They don’t make an effort. When you have a conversation with them, you find that they have a complete lack of knowledge of the elementary issues.”

Helman’s take – at least at this early stage of his tenure – is markedly different. He said his operating assumption was that the foreign journalists coming here to cover the story are basically fair. Although saying there were exceptions, “I think that in the final analysis the foreign correspondents in Israel are fair and professional. And a professional, responsible person won’t lie to himself.”

The glaring exception, he said, was Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera, Helman charged, dropping the diplomatic demeanor for a moment, “is not a balanced, fair network, or one that brings out Israel’s reality as it is. It is slanted – that needs to be our assumption, and we have to do our best given those conditions.”

Helman said his job is not that of a censor.

“I can’t come to them and say, ‘since you didn’t report in a proper way, I will take away your press cards.’ This is not my way. My way is to try, through smarter means, to get Israel’s message across more objectively – to bring someone to the studio to say what Israel has to say, in Arabic, preferably, without the need for someone to translate.”

Asked why the government can’t sanction media outlets that intentionally distort news from Israel, Helman said the reason is simple: democracy.

“In a democracy you can’t shut mouths, even of those who criticize and work against the state from inside the state, like Al Jazeera,” he said. “We are a democracy. We have to remember that. We are not Libya or the Palestinian Authority, and we cannot allow ourselves to close their offices and expel them – We would lose all our legitimacy in the world if we would act in an undemocratic manner.”

But still, he is asked, does Israel have to go to the other extreme, and give foreign journalists tax breaks to live here. Helman recently lobbied to retain a clause giving members of the foreign press corps here for under three years a 25% discount in their income tax payments.

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“Yes,” he said, “because Israel has a big interest in foreign journalists living here, in Israel, and getting to know Israeli society, democracy, the Israeli experience, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and that we are good people who want peace. We want to attract them to live here.”

He said that if the tax breaks were rescinded – as was proposed but not adopted a few weeks ago – ”and they go live in Ramallah, which is now a prosperous city, their attitudes toward Israel would not improve.”

What the tax breaks do, he said, “is show that the country is democratic, enlightened, open, exposed, and not opposed to media criticism. We not only host them, but give benefits if they live here.”

Helman, who comes across both as personable and energetic, said that his overall aim was to turn the GPO into the government’s public relations office to the foreign press. He refuted the idea that with the foreign ministry, the public diplomacy ministry, and a number of new private initiatives – including The Israel Project, Media Central, and Israel21c– all aiming efforts at the foreign press there were too many cooks spoiling the broth and there were bound to be bureaucratic battles over turf.

“I think it is good there are many different elements dealing with hasbara,” said Helman, whose office employs 30 people, including the official government photographers, and has a budget of “between NIS 5 to 10 million a year.”

He said he works in close coordination with the other governmental agencies dealing with public diplomacy, and pointed to the way the government handled Richard Goldstone’s recent article in The Washington Post that corrected the impression left by the Goldstone Commission as a case in point.

He said that after the article was written, a conference call was held among a number of different governmental agencies, and a plan was set out that included Netanyahu giving an on camera statement in response to the Goldstone article, and a conference call for foreign journalists the next day with Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Ultimately, however, numerous other actors chimed in, with Interior Minister Eli Yishai even calling Goldstone and then, according to Goldstone, misrepresenting what was said in the conversation.

Asked if this wasn’t an example of Israeli overkill – of taking something and just piling on until it is smothered – Helman, again diplomatically, said, “We are a democratic society. I am the last one to criticize decision makers.”

The “overkill” criticism was also heard following the interdiction of the Victoria ship in March carrying Iranian arms. A day alter the ship was hauled into Ashdod’s port, what seemed like the country’s entire top brass appeared there – including Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz, OC Navy Adm. Eliezer Marom and Public Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, to show the world the arms that were captured. Because Netanyahu was there, security measures were extremely strict, and after waiting 90 minutes in the sun a number of foreign journalists just picked up and left, without filming the event or the contraband weaponry.

Asked if this wasn’t indeed a bad case of overstatement, and whether Israeli couldn’t have presented the story to the world without what looked like such a staged event, Helman said his impression was that the foreign press would not have gone to Ashdod unless Netanyahu was there.

“Our goal was to get maximum exposure,” Helman said, adding that Netanyahu enabled that.

Regarding the security precautions, an issue that also touches on “bra-gate,” Helman said that one of his priorities was to deal with the “relationship between the security services and the foreign press. I think the foreign press should get different treatment from what they are getting now.”

He said that he has already been in contact with the security authorities at the airport to see if it is possible to ease checks on journalists coming in and leaving the country, if the authorities are told in advances.

“There is a team working on this in the Public Diplomacy Ministry,” he said.

HELMAN SAID that security procedures provide him with a constant annoyance. “I am here to give them service,” he said of the foreign press. “When your clients are not pleased, then it gives you a headache.”

Does it affect their coverage, he is asked.

“Yes, first because they are mad, bitter and humiliated, and that impacts on a personal level. And then there is the technical level – if they can’t get in to cover the ship [the Victoria] , that says everything.”

While Helman said he does not see his job as a censor, and he does believe the coverage coming out of Israel is basically fair and professional, when the coverage obviously doesn’t meet those standards he says he will flag it down.

“When there are extreme cases of reports that in my eye are not professional, I will respond,” he said. He did so after the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar last month, writing a letter to CNN and taking issue with a story on their website that put “terror attack” in quotations in the headline of the story of the murders.

Responding to the story headlined “Israeli Family of 5 Killed in ‘Terror Attack,’ Military Says,” Helman wrote CNN that he was “dumbfounded and astonished” to read that the slaughter of the Fogel family is “what the Israeli army calls a ‘terrorist attack.’”

“Your remarks sound as if we are talking about an IDF ‘claim’ that this was ‘a terrorist attack’ and that this is not necessarily the case,” he wrote. “If this is not a terrorist attack, then what is?” He called for an apology. The news organization did issue a statement saying, however, that it was “standard journalistic practice for news organizations to put quotation marks around remarks attributed to third parties.”

“I thought that went beyond the rules of the game, and so responded like I did,” Helman explained. He said that while CNN’s response did not satisfy him, he did not continue “to fight with them. I said what I wanted to say, and to argue with them beyond that point would be to turn it into something personal.”

Helman said his approach was not to chastise or yell at the press. Rather, he said, he wanted to create a dialogue with the reporter, “take them to see things, give them briefings, give them more information.”

Helman, like so many other hasbara operatives, talks about the need to show Israel beyond the conflict – he gives it the acronym TIMTI, there is more to Israel” – and hopes through briefings and various tours to expose journalists to the country’s dynamic economy and technological innovations.

But he doesn’t only want to take them to an Intel plant or get them briefed by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, he also is planning a trip for foreign journalists to Hebron, to show them an aspect of the city that doesn’t come out in reports abroad: a robust, bustling city with three malls and a new $10 million sports center.

“You have to bring them there to see what is being talked about,” he said. “It is not how they say, a city under the oppressive occupation of the Israelis. People are not suffering that greatly there. It is something that you have to bring to their attention, take them there. In the end they will write what they want, but they should see.”

Helman likened the briefings and trips and the conference calls for the journalists to filling a sponge with water.

“When you put a sponge in water, you won’t see the difference in the shape. But when you lift it out you will feel the difference. The same is with journalists.

Give them the information. They are smart, professional, and experienced. They will know what to do with it when the time comes. But invest in them.”

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