The sharp political movement to the right in many parts of the world has caused members of the Fourth Estate to voice concerns over the future of democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of information.
Such fears also resonate in diplomatic circles, so Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser and Finnish Ambassador Anu Saarela last week co-hosted a discussion on the subject as it affects Israel.
Sweden and Finland pioneered freedom of the press legislation as far back as 1766, and the two ambassadors considered the 250th anniversary of this important law a good reason for launching a robust discussion.
Saarela told the gathering of some 50 academics, journalists, students and diplomats at the Swedish ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah, that freedom of expression is a core value in Finland.
There, she said, though there is lively debate on the limits of freedom, essentially freedom of the press means promoting transparency, and all public documents, except those which, for obvious reasons, must remain classified, are accessible to the public.
Freedom of the press prevents corruption, she said.
The conversation, moderated by Haaretz diplomatic reporter Barak Ravid, included journalists Ilana Dayan and Ben-Dror Yemini, along with Professor Itzhak Galnoor, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University.
Dayan, who hosts Uvda (Fact) on Channel 2 and also is a lawyer, was the first female correspondent on Army Radio, and she continues to broadcast from there, as well. After she ran a television report last month on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle, he accused her of being a leftist intent on bringing about his downfall.
Yemini moved to Yediot Aharonot in 2014 after many years as a writer and opinion-page editor with Maariv. He is a fact-conscious journalist who promised himself at the start of his career that he would not be a victim of self deception and would not allow himself to be used or misused.
He is a staunch defender of Israel’s legitimacy, but does not hesitate to write about its flaws. For the most part, he has refrained from attacks against Netanyahu, because he believes that an attack against the prime minister is, in a sense, an attack against the country.
Referring to a recent column by Yemini in which he wrote that Israel is not Turkey and Netanyahu is not Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ravid asked, whether he would write that again if Netanyahu, in his efforts to take over public broadcasting, received majority support.
Yemini, the author of the book The Industry of Lies, which addresses the lack of accountable reporting in contemporary media, did not reply outright.
Rather, he said he had read some of the media attacks against Netanyahu and implied that for the most part he had taken them with a grain of salt.
Then, however, he said he read that Netanyahu had called the editor of Israel Hayom and asked him to change the headline of a story. Yemini checked with the journalist concerned and learned that the report had been accurate. It was this, he said, that prompted him to write the article in question.
“Israel is a quite stable democracy,” he said. “We can write what we want.”
Ravid saw Netanyahu’s interference as reminiscent of the situation in the 1950s and 1960s when leading political figures checked certain news articles before they went to press.
Dayan said there is “a sense of desperation” born out of Netanyahu’s animosity toward the media, but that “we have a viable democracy. We’re not Turkey. Journalists don’t go to jail here.”
Dayan made it clear that she is not out to unseat Netanyahu, saying: “He is my prime minister, and it’s my job to cover him.”
In this respect, she is at odds with Netanyahu over the meaning of democracy.
“Freedom of speech is not counting heads,” she said. “Freedom of speech is not majority rule, it’s minority rule. It means limiting the majority from silencing the minority.”
The desperation starts, she said, when the prime minister uses social media as a political vehicle to attack the press.
Galnoor, however, said he was very worried about Israel’s democracy and freedom of speech. To illustrate that fear, he told a joke that made the rounds in Czechoslovakia under the communists. When asked about basic freedoms, the Czechs replied: “We have freedom of speech, but we don’t have freedom after speech.”
In Israel, said Galnoor, “We have freedom before speech. There is a lot of self censorship.”
Dayan concurred, attributing this caution to social media, saying journalists are deterred by talk back diatribe that can be very harsh and cruel. They also are afraid of losing their jobs.
She warned of the danger social media poses to mainstream media, saying it has no accountability, no concerns about privacy issues or aesthetics. “In a world where facts don’t count, mainstream media doesn’t count,” she said.
Yemini said the problem in Israel including among journalists, is that “we need self criticism.”
Aside from technological advancements, one of the reasons newspapers are declining in popularity, he said, is a feeling by many that if they don’t read, they’ll be uninformed, but if they do read, they’ll be misinformed. Competition is so heavy, he observed, that in the hurry to get the story out and be first with the news, there is insufficient fact checking.
There also is a feeling on the part of the majority, he continued, that “we care about Arabs and we care about refugees, but we don’t care about them [the majority]. We’ve lost the audience.
We are hated. We have to criticize ourselves and not just Netanyahu.”
The problem is not that the media is a party, said Galnoor, but rather that there is opposition to the fact that the media has become independent.
Most of the now-defunct newspapers in Israel, were party organs, he said, and attempts to intimidate the media are going back to the early state period.
Asked whether it was worse to be politically dominated or commercially dominated, Dayan said there is no difference between the two.
“Today, we’re experiencing a much more commercially dominated press,” she said, adding that it is in the interests of commercial owners not to irritate and cater to the common denominator/establishment. “And then you have [political and commercial] convergence.”
None of the panelists were in favor of Israel Hayom, the country’s most read daily newspaper, which is owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson and is big supporter of Netanyahu.
Yemini categorized the paper as “a real threat to democracy.”
The paper’s political viewpoint doesn’t bother him, but rather, he said, the prime minister’s intervention was “a threat to other newspapers.”
Because Israel Hayom is distributed free of charge, “[it is] destroying the economic structure of the media.”
It would be hard to close the book on a subject so controversial in one sitting and Nesser found the discussion so stimulating he wants to have a second round in the near future.
Though the discussion was held in his residence, Nesser missed the beginning because he was at Ben-Gurion Airport to greet Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, who came to meet leaders of the Palestinian Authority. She would have liked to meet with Israeli officials, as well, but was snubbed in response to her freedom of expression on Palestinian issues.
On January 1, Sweden will begin a two-year term on the UN Security Council and, in all likelihood, will serve as part of the rotating presidency. The Palestinians have announced their intention to come before the Security Council next month with a resolution condemning Israeli settlements.