Behind the Lines: Putting 'moral clarity' in context

There is simply not enough space in the newspaper to add the moral angle to every news item.

sharansky 88 (photo credit: )
sharansky 88
(photo credit: )
After decades of human-rights activism around the world, which has seen a rise in the number of organizations committed to the cause, anyone embarking on a new initiative to promote democracy and freedom - highlighting the plight of dissidents and prisoners of conscience in dictatorships - should be asked what is lacking in the existing bodies. Natan Sharansky, who, together with former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, this week launched a new framework for supporting those fighting for democracy, had a clear answer in speaking to journalists at the start of the Democracy and Security Conference held in Prague - a joint venture of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the Prague Security Studies Institute and the Spanish FAES Foundation. "There is a lack of moral clarity," he said of the existing human-rights establishment. "They seem to have adopted a post-modern attitude, according to which, after World War II, there is no longer such a thing as bad regimes and cultures; it's only a matter of what has been done to an individual. But how can you set human rights as an ideal if there's no right or wrong?" His main contention with these movements - especially the flagbearer, Amnesty International - is that they are not prepared to express any view on the character of the governments they are monitoring. "It's not just the fact that they [Amnesty] have 20 pages on human rights infringements by Israel and only half a page on Syria," Sharansky said. "I don't want them to stop monitoring Israel. But why can't they just note the fact that one country is a democracy and the other a dictatorship? Why don't they put them in separate categories in their annual report?" THERE WILL be those who accuse the human rights community of more sinister forms of bias and prejudice, and others who portray Sharansky's prioritization of democracy as na ve or politically motivated. But his concept of "moral clarity" has wider philosophical implications, not only for reports by human rights groups, but also for journalists. What duty do we reporters and commentators have to put our writing and broadcasting into a moral context. This is a wide ethical and professional issue, extending to every type of journalism and field of coverage. It certainly warrants a much more serious treatment than this column can deliver, but the lack of moral clarity in much of journalism is also a technical issue. There is simply not enough space in the newspaper to add the moral angle to every news item. Of course, there is also the classic cop-out here - that we are just reporting events objectively, and that it's not our job to apply any moral judgment. I've written before in this column that journalistic objectivity is a myth, and even those who profess to this will be forced to admit that the very choice of what issue to invest time and space on is essentially a moral one. But even those who profess objectivity don't limit themselves to a bare report of the details. No one would buy newspapers if that were all they contained. Instead, we spice things up and treat journalism as a grand game, in which the scoop for the reporter and the witty put-down for the commentator are the ultimate goals. This attitude applies to the reporting of politics, war and social affairs in much the same way as the media treats sports - where exclusive stories of transfers, colorful descriptions of play and the action photograph capturing every droplet of sweat on the striker's face as he lunges at the ball are all that matter. There is already a steady creeping of the sports culture into general Israeli journalism. The ideological side of the Labor primaries has been almost totally disregarded in the coverage. The candidates are being measured solely by their media capabilities and political canniness. Does anybody know where Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon differ on any of the major policy issues? I have a suspicion that they don't, since neither has any specific policies. But, shouldn't the press be exposing this? If the media had any interest in what the potential prime ministers actually stood for, you can rest assured that the candidates would be issuing manifestos. I spent a few hours this week watching the two debates among the Republican and Democrat candidates for next year's US presidential elections. There are critics in the US, as well, who say that the debates are more about polished delivery than actual substance. Still, the candidates had to articulate some kind of policy on the central issues - from the war in Iraq to health care. No candidate - not even one of the clear front-runners - can even contemplate not speaking up. He would be pilloried by the media and the public alike. In Israel, Barak can get away with months of media silence during his campaign. Ariel Sharon did the same in his two successful election campaigns, sticking to short-scripted messages and refusing all debates and unlimited interviews. THIS PROBLEM is in no way restricted to Israeli journalism. It was impossible this week to turn on a news channel or open a newspaper without encountering a flood of special features on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War. Almost all of the features in the international press, and a fair number of those in the local media, were of a uniform pattern. The history of Israeli and Arab enmity began on June 5, 1967, and six days of blitzkrieg brought about 40 years of misery for the Palestinians, and gradual pariah status and social paralysis for Israel. The roots of the conflict before '67 - and positive developments since then - barely warranted mention. Here, too, Sharansky sees a lack of moral clarity. "All those writing and talking about the anniversary of the war have lost sight of the most important detail: that this was a war between a democracy and totalitarian states which wanted to obliterate it. That puts it all in context." But Sharansky is an Israeli and a proud Zionist. Can people on the other side also view the war through such a moral perspective? Another detail strangely lacking from most of the reports and features was the war's main loser. No, not the Palestinians, but Egypt, whose actions in Sinai precipitated the war in which its armed forces were decimated. Renowned Egyptian democracy campaigner Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent participant in the Prague conference, remembers the war vividly. "I was a student in North California, and when I watched the war on television, I couldn't believe the terrible defeat of my country." Ibrahim said he lost contact with reality for days, realizing only two weeks later that that he had grown a thick beard. "At that age I was not yet a democrat," he recalled. But the war changed his outlook. "I understood that [president Gamal Abdel] Nasser had made a huge mistake by sending his forces into Sinai, and it would not have happened if we had been a democracy. He was playing to the gallery, allowing demagogues to lead him." Ibrahim is not a Zionist. He believes Israel acted with arrogance after the war, and failed to respond to Arab peace overtures. He is also convinced that it should negotiate with Hamas. But he doesn't blame it for attacking his country 40 years ago. "Israel had every right to attack," he said. "It was defending its own survival." He also agrees that the Israeli-Arab conflict should be seen through the perspective of the fight for democracy. "The conflict is being used by every Arab dictator to indulge in authoritarianism and one-upmanship," he said, doing something both Amnesty and the media should take their cues from: putting the issue in context.