The thought police

In democracies like Israel’s, journalists are fulfilling their mission when questioning authority, second guessing our leaders and investigating when wrong appears to have taken place.

August 14, 2017 20:59
3 minute read.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a rally.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a rally.. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Beleaguered by multiplying police investigations, it is only natural for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike out at his accusers. But while it may be politics as usual for him to seek support among cabinet ministers, it was quite a departure for the prime minister to summon Likud loyalists last week to a mass demonstration of loyalty.

In seeking their support, Netanyahu crossed an ethical redline in his blatant attempt to shift the focus of blame from himself to the messengers of his ongoing trial in public opinion: the media.

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By accusing Israel’s journalists of being the “thought police,” Netanyahu both revealed the depth of his fears of possible indictment and his deliberate scoffing of the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.

It is a scary thing indeed for a prime minister of Israel to belittle the integral, vital role journalists have as the watchdogs of a functioning democracy. Such remarks may prove to have been somewhat justified if Netanyahu is ever tried and found innocent, but until that day dawns the Jewish state has an obligation to adhere to our heritage of pursuing justice – an imperative that was established millennia ago.

In democracies like Israel’s, journalists are fulfilling their mission when questioning authority, second guessing our leaders and investigating when wrong appears to have taken place.

There are countries where this doesn’t happen – oppressive dictatorships. The first Jewish state in 2,000 years should not aspire to be like them.

There are four basic rules to this role that licensed journalists – not bloggers – are sworn to uphold, in accordance with the ethical standards set down by the Society of Professional Journalists.

The mission statement of the SPJ includes the declaration that “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.

An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

Our political leaders should take heed of our basic principles before repeating the transparently false mantra that “there will be nothing because there is nothing.”

The fundamental guiding principle of Israeli journalism, unlike Israeli politics, is merely “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

This is accompanied by the caveat that journalists take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. They should be held to the highest standard and taken down when they fail. This was recently illustrated by the libel suit won by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, against journalist Igal Sarna, after he alleged in a Facebook post that Sara had stopped the prime minister’s convoy on a major highway and kicked her husband out at the side of the road.

In his ruling, Judge Azaria Alcalay said he agreed with the Netanyahus that “the publication was, at least partially, malicious and ugly, intended to humiliate and shame the plaintiffs.”

The second principle is “Minimize Harm.” Just as in the physician’s oath of Maimonides not to do harm, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

The third principle is perhaps the hardest to observe: “Act Independently.” This is a call to maintain an integrity that unfortunately seems to be lacking among our politicians: “The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.”

Last and equally significant, the SPJ code of ethics demands that journalists, unlike politicians, “Be Accountable and Transparent.” Journalists must defend themselves against scurrilous attempts by politicians to evade responsibility for their actions by the time-dishonored practice of spinning excuses.

Our duty is clear: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.”

Our prime minister, like all citizens of the country, deserves the same treatment by the media – no kid gloves and on the other hand, no vendettas.

Most of the members of the so-called “thought police” are aware of the risks involved in confronting power.

Israeli citizens should be wary when a politician attacks the media. Usually, it’s a sign of someone in distress looking to deflect attention from the true issue.

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