Here and There: News in English: Vital for ‘hasbara’

We are living in a time when the media – especially visually – plays a vital role in how a country is perceived.

June 19, 2014 14:56
The Jerusalem Post News

The Jerusalem Post News 370. (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)


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I am deeply concerned at the possibility of the elimination of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English news programs, both on TV and radio. Even though this has not been explicitly stated, the fact is that with the announcement of the IBA’s intended closure, there has been no commitment to ensuring that the news in English will remain part of a new structure.

One could argue that while the IBA’s current news programs in English are a weak apology for what is required in this day and age, they are certainly better than nothing. However, we are living in a time when the media – especially visually – plays a vital role in how a country is perceived.

There can be little doubt that Israel’s image throughout the world appears – increasingly – to be a negative one. When I made aliya some 16 years ago, it came as a shock to learn from my new friends that Israelis do not appear to care much about how we are perceived by the “other.” The usual quote is, “It’s what we do that counts, not what we say.”

While the Arab countries have invested millions in public relations ventures and boast an Al Jazeera international TV English channel running 24/7, we rely on a daily eight-minute news program on Channel 1 and a 25-minute news program on Channel 33, at 4:50 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively, plus a twice-daily 15-minute radio bulletin.

In 2007, the IBA decided not to cancel its English-language radio news broadcasts, despite earlier threats to do so due to cost-saving measures.

That decision was based on the perception that these programs were a cornerstone of the IBA’s broadcasts.

English news editor Steve Liebowitz pointed out that these news bulletins were the only English-language voice presenting the Israel perspective.

Fast-forward to 2014, and we find that the IBA is facing closure. The Landes Committee, charged with investigating the future of broadcasting in Israel, recommended the cancellation of the license fee that every television-owner pays – no doubt good news for all TV-owners – in concert with the elimination of the IBA in its present form. The committee’s findings were presented at a recent press conference hosted by Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. These included recommendations to lay off some 1,600 employees, with the possibility of rehiring only a few hundred.

The committee also recommended that the new company cut its political connections and be replaced with a seven-member board appointed by an independent search committee headed by a retired judge – thus removing any governmental influence.

On May 26, the proposed bill to close down the IBA by March 2015 passed its first Knesset reading. The proposal was put forward by MKs and ministers from the Likud. Included in the shutdown will be Reshet Aleph, Reshet Bet, Reshet Gimmel, Reka Radio, the Arabic radio station and Channels 2, 23 and 33. These announcements had resulted in IBA employees imposing sanctions on broadcasts, preventing telephone interviews or reports and stopping the broadcasting of the news in English.

Tragically, the crisis caused by the kidnapping of three yeshiva students has resulted in a suspension of all IBA labor actions – for the time being.

The proposed closure of Channel 33 – the channel with the only 25-minute presentation of the English news – could mean the end of the news in English on TV. The same could apply to the daily radio news bulletins in English.

Back in 2010, I wrote an op-ed for The Jerusalem Post entitled “Whither Israel’s Al Jazeera,” pointing out the value of having an English-language channel devoted entirely to projecting the reality of Israel, rather than the distortions (at best) and lies (at worst) conveyed too frequently by the international media. At the time I received exceedingly positive feedback, including interest from a group of individuals who were hoping to set up an “Israel World TV” along the lines of the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera. I met with the leadership of this group and was most impressed by its professionalism and business plan. Sadly, sufficient financial backing could not be found.

Many would argue that the media has become the battleground of the 21st century. Today’s vitally important battle – which Israel is losing – is playing out in the media. As with other major areas of hasbara, we find ourselves in a reactive rather than proactive situation. Too frequently, even when we do react to a distortion of the facts, it is too late.

An example of this was in April 2002, when the world was told that the Israel Defense Forces were massacring hundreds of men, women and children in Jenin. This proved to be an out-and-out lie. Yes, some 50 Palestinians were killed (the greater number of them armed gunmen), together with 30 members of the IDF. These soldiers were killed as they went from house to house to arrest terrorists – risking their lives to save the lives of the enemy. By the time the truth became known, the damage had already been done.

How well I remember this particular distortion of the truth. This event took place during the horrific intifada that Israel’s citizens endured between September 2000 and February 2005, when 1,137 of our people were murdered, primarily through suicide bomb attacks, and 8,241 were wounded – the majority of them civilians.

The so-called “Jenin Massacre” made a sufficient impact on a good Zionist friend of mine living in France that she phoned me and asked, “What are you doing massacring innocent men, women and children in Jenin?” When I first picked up the telephone, I imagined she was going to ask how we were coping with the almost-daily terrorist attacks. What came instead was a shock to the system.

With all that I have read about the dismantling of the current IBA and the emergence of a new authority, I have not heard one mention of the vital need to retain and increase news broadcasts in English.

We are in the 21st century – news is instant, and we must ensure that what is projected to the outside world (including Jewish communities) is our version of the news and not the too-frequently-distorted version put out by the likes of the BBC. There are 82 embassies representing 82 countries here in Israel. Their ambassadors and diplomats rely heavily on news presented in English.

We are the country of research and development, the “Silicon Valley” of the Middle East, yet what is being presented as the English news from Israel is little short of archaic.

Is it necessary, in the short time available, to have world news as part of this condensed news bulletin? Why waste precious information time on something available elsewhere? There is no doubt that in an ideal world, Israel would benefit enormously from having its own “Al Jazeera” – a 24/7 opportunity to show the world a different Israel than the one it has come to know.

Is there someone out there willing to take on the challenge? If not, can we hope that when the newly constructed Israel TV and Broadcasting Authority arrives by March 2015, it will place a high priority on increasing and improving our English-language news reports? This is what being proactive is about. ■ The writer is chairwoman of ESRA, Israel’s largest English-speaking volunteer organization.

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