Behind the Lines: Unambiguous claptrap

It was sheer frustration for a fearless media that the only way they could possibly report on one of the sexiest issues was to wait patiently for a newspaper abroad to come out with new details on the Israeli bomb.

press media photographer (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
press media photographer
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Monday night, I gave a lecture to students at the Sha'arei Mishpat Law College in Hod Hasharon in a seminar on ethics. The main point I tried to convey was that the official ethical code of Israel's Press Council and the laws of libel and privacy governing the media are basically irrelevant. I argued that they had been replaced long ago by a de facto set of regulations and practices which, despite their not appearing in any law book, are much more effective. One of my main points was that the military censorship regulations have become totally archaic. Not just those pathetic examples of topics that have to be cleared by the censor before publishing - such as loans made to the Israeli government by foreign sources, or details of citations given by the IDF, even if they have long ago appeared in the history books; no newspaper in its right mind is going to ask permission for that. But on more serious issues too, such as troop movements and impending IDF operations, censorship virtually evaporated during this summer's war when the IDF did nothing to prevent TV cameras from filming soldiers preparing to enter Lebanon. There is only one thing that the censor is still adamant about, I said, and that is the country's nuclear program. Any mention of that has to be authorized without fail, even if the reporter is merely quoting something that has already appeared in the foreign media. For that reason, I explained, Mordechai Vanunu - after spending 18 years in prison for spilling the nuclear beans to the Sunday Times - might be allowed to swim and chat up female tourists at the American Colony Hotel, but the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) still keeps close tabs on his every contact and he is routinely arrested after speaking with journalists. Another Israeli who fears arrest every time he visits his homeland is Prof. Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and other learned tomes on nuclear policy. On the way back home I found out that another Israeli had just broken the nuclear omerta, but I don't think Ehud Olmert is worried about being hauled in for interrogation, at least not for that. The following morning, Ha'aretz's Amir Oren wrote one of the sharpest sentences I've seen in any newspaper for a long time: "Ehud Olmert yesterday did a great service to the Israeli press. Thanks to him, one will never again need to rely on 'foreign sources,' real or imagined, when referring to Israel's nuclear capability, unless the prime minister himself is a foreign source." Damn, I wish I had come up with that one myself. OLMERT'S INCLUSION of Israel in the nuclear club might have been made during an interview with a German television crew a few days before his trip to Berlin, but the Germans didn't realize what they had at the time. The scoop can be said to belong to a sharp-eared researcher on Channel 2's foreign desk, who picked the quote out of what should have been just another routine interview given by the prime minister to news organizations of countries he was about to visit. A few sentences on German television became the release warrant the Israeli press had been awaiting for decades. It was sheer frustration for a fearless media, serial slaughterers of every possible sacred cow, that the only way they could possibly report on one of the sexiest issues was to wait patiently for a newspaper abroad to come out with new details on the Israeli bomb. Once they did, they pounced, quoting with relish. In 1986, prime minister Shimon Peres convened the newspaper editors committee and told them that the Sunday Times was about to publish the story of Vanunu, a former technician in the Dimona reactor. Peres asked the editors to make do with just a cursory quote from the Sunday Times, but to no avail - they published it all, including the photographs Vanunu had taken inside the reactor. Peres was powerless to stop them after one of the world's major newspapers had run the story. The same thing happened a few years later when the Daily Telegraph published a purported map of Israel's nuclear bases. It was immediately reproduced by Yediot Aharonot. A decade later, when satellite photos of closed areas began appearing on the Internet, they became a matter of routine in local newspapers. The military censor tried desperately to plug the leaks, which were turning into a deluge, but all an editor had to do was prove that the information existed somewhere on the Web. But it was still only quoting the not always very accurate work of others, which is never the same thing as getting your own scoop. Over the last few years Israeli journalists found a way to do some original work by reporting matters such as the high incidence of cancer among reactor employees and the resulting lawsuits, and environmental dangers such as the pollution of soil and water sources around the reactor. They were, of course, addressing real concerns, previously unreported and neglected by the media, but there was also the added frisson of treading on forbidden ground and pointing the public's attention in a direction frowned upon by the powers that be. In a small country with many real secrets, where classified information is known to tens of thousands, many of them journalists, a degree of security is still maintained, thanks to the personal responsibility of those citizens. But when it's a huge secret sitting out there in the Negev for more than four decades, clearly visible from the road, it becomes a farce. In the information age, when there's no difference between accessing Israeli and foreign news sources on your Internet browser, the distinction is lost. OLMERT'S FAUX pas didn't really change the situation. We didn't learn anything more than we already knew; at the most it taught us something about Olmert. The fact that we can now refer to Israel as a nuclear power without adding the obligatory "according to foreign sources" is merely a matter of semantics. We still don't have a license to write freely about warheads and megatons and will continue to rely on our colleagues abroad for that. What the media should be doing is urging our leadership to update its nuclear ambiguity policy. It's not only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is breathing down our necks. [email protected]