Between the lines: An auspicious week for Israeli media

A leaky investigation; censoring the Schalit talks; and the IDF shoots itself in the foot.

Talansky hold it 224.8 (photo credit: AP )
Talansky hold it 224.8
(photo credit: AP )
This has not been the most auspicious week for the Israeli media. Actually, that's understating matters somewhat. I cannot recall another time when the local press was the focus of so much criticism and controversy on so many different fronts. Though some of that criticism is justified, in other cases the media is serving more as a convenient whipping boy than a legitimate target of reprobation. The highest profile issue involving the press right now is the continuing leaks from the current investigations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reaching a peak at the beginning of the week with the publication of pages from the actual transcripts of the police interrogations conducted with Olmert in the Morris Talansky affair. As a journalist, I have to congratulate Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv for getting their hands on those transcripts; as a citizen, I find it deplorable that confidential investigatory material was made public, a violation of Olmert's right to the presumption of innocence just like any other Israeli. What about the charges made by the prime minister's defenders that it represents a "conspiracy" by members of the criminal justice system and the media to carry out a "putsch" against Olmert and force him from office even before he faces a possible indictment? The police may have their motives for leaking this material. And a case could be made that the source might have been someone working on behalf of the prime minister, looking to discredit the entire investigation against him. But the media, in this case, are simply doing their job. It's certainly ironic that the two newspapers mentioned above, which previously have been slammed by some for going too easy on the prime minister, now are being accused of overstepping ethical boundaries in their coverage of his troubles. Although some of my colleagues are understandably opposed on professional grounds to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's declaration that he will work to uncover the source of those leaks, I can't share in that viewpoint. Of course, official leaks are essential for the press to do its job as a watchdog of government, and any journalist will instinctively oppose efforts to discourage such sources. This doesn't mean that the media, or those from whom they receive such information, are above the law, especially when what they do involves trampling on other essential democratic rights. The line should be drawn, though, on any attempt to legally force journalists to give up those sources, a basic infringement on the rights of a free press. If Israel had something like a US-style grand jury system, where the legal norms were crystal clear and serious penalties were already well established for anyone making public confidential pre-trial information, it might be a different case. As it is, given the leaky nature of all aspects of our political establishment, from the top down, accusing the media of being the source of this problem is a charge that just won't hold water. THE DEBATE over the media's role in last week's prisoner exchange with Hizbullah continued to reverberate through public discourse this week, especially as the security establishment now focuses on securing a similar deal for the release of Hamas hostage Gilad Schalit. Beyond continuing questions over whether the press is fairly presenting the debate on this issue, or is basically just serving as a platform for those who want such prisoners released at any price, lies the question of how much censorship is justified when it comes to this literal life-and-death matter. All news stories relating specifically to details of prisoner negotiations already have to pass through the IDF censor. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak went even further at this week's cabinet meeting, calling for the censor to enforce a complete "media blackout" on the effort to win Schalit's freedom, arguing that "it is impossible to conduct negotiations when all the cards are on the table." One can well understand Barak's concern, and if ever a security issue justified official discretion, this is it. What's more, the Israeli press has sometimes failed to live up to the standards of responsibility placed on it in this matter - for example, the decision by Ma'ariv earlier this year to violate an agreement by the local media not to make public a letter written by Schalit to his family. That being said, a full-scale ban of the kind Barak is talking about here takes the matter too far. This is not just an issue of press freedom; those who oppose these types of prisoner exchanges will also be in a position to argue that such a blackout also served as an effort to stifle legitimate debate about the price paid in such deals. This is one of the most problematic examples when it comes to balancing the public's right to know with genuine security concerns, as the latter applies in this case not to hypothetical scenarios, but the immediate fate of one individual solder. Still, even in this instance, complete censorship is not the answer - as long as the media can rise up to the level of responsibility bestowed upon them in this case. ANOTHER CASE in which the media found itself on the firing line this week is the footage that featured prominently on every local and many foreign news broadcasts of an IDF soldier deliberately shooting a rubber-tipped bullet into the foot of a bound-and-blindfolded Palestinian, arrested for taking part in a violent protest against the West Bank security barrier. The incident was filmed by one of the many Palestinians supplied with video cameras by the Palestinian-rights organization, B'tselem, especially to capture on tape incidents just like this. Needless to say, this illegal, immoral and stupid act caused Israel image-damage way out of proportion to the severity of the offense. Obviously, if the incident hadn't been caught on tape, it would barely have rated a mention in most foreign media reports, and it's difficult to imagine that similar such occurrences elsewhere in the world would ever get such coverage. Well, tough noogies, as they say in my native New York. The main criticism of anyone who cares about Israel's image problem should be directed in this case not against the media - or for that matter B'tselem, which is entitled to pursue its specific political agenda - but entirely at the IDF for allowing this incident to take place. Not only because it was wrong, but because our soldiers have to be made by their commanders to understand that they operate in a media fishbowl, and thus have to assume as a matter of course that every action they take in the field is liable to be observed or filmed by outside sources. Nor should the blame - and punishment - be limited in this case to the individual soldier involved, or even to his immediate superiors. Clearly, the IDF is not doing enough to educate and train its troops about the conditions in which they must now operate while trying to maintain order in the West Bank. As it happens, I spent years in the reserves being thrust into patience-trying situations at checkpoints and on the edges of Palestinian demonstrations, and rarely did I feel myself being adequately briefed or prepared by my superiors on the possibility that our actions in the field would be subject to media coverage. Granted, this is a public-relations challenge that any military would find it difficult to contend with, all the while trying to fulfill its basic mission goals. But the IDF has to understand that if it doesn't do a better job of policing its troops in the face of continuous scrutiny by the media and Palestinian-rights groups, it will simply continue to shoot itself in the foot. [email protected]