Media Matters: Freedom's not just another word

Whatever the seeming slant in local coverage of the conflict, it is voluntary - which is why it doesn't constitute propaganda.

media army 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
media army 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Just after a grad missile hit a Beersheba kindergarten on Tuesday evening, a good portion of the public took a time-out from Operation Cast Lead for some comic relief, in the form of a special edition of Channel 2's Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Country"). Those who were less inclined to laugh that night were able to tune in to Channel 1's Politika, the subject of which was local media coverage of the war in the South. But Haaretz's Gideon Levy - who debated former IDF spokesman Nachman Shai, award-winning war correspondent Ron Ben-Ishai, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's media adviser Ra'anan Gissin and others - was so funny that he might as well have been on the competing political satire show instead. According to Levy, who is typecast as the knee-jerk leftist, whatever the production, "Since there is always opposition to peace" on the part of the press, "the media are only really put to the test during wartime," when any criticism of the government or the IDF automatically renders them "disloyal." If this weren't hilarious enough, Levy asserted that while the Israeli media are always drafted by the government, they are especially so during wartime. At this, Ben-Ishai, clearly irked at the implication of collusion with the "authorities," quipped that Levy, too, is an "enlisted" man - in the service of the Palestinians, that is. He instantly modified this statement, however, with the Hebrew equivalent of "just kidding," though, unlike Levy's comment, Ben-Ishai's was actually more accurate than amusing. Gissin, too, took issue with Levy, insisting that the media here weren't drafted by the government, but rather volunteered in the service of the country. Though this may sound like nit-picking, it is a crucial point - one that is at the very heart of the distinction between propaganda and voluntary support of a policy. And it is this distinction that separates democracies from dictatorships. FREEDOM OF speech is defined by the extent to which a person is at liberty to voice any opinion about the state in which he lives, its institutions and its leaders. Freedom of the press is defined by the extent to which the media are at liberty not only to voice opinions, but to subject a state, its institutions and its leaders to scrutiny, and to expose their findings. The Israeli public and media enjoy this right to such a degree that at times it feels like more of a licentious free-for-all than a privilege to be treated with the utmost respect and gratitude. Alas, such is the way of all things taken for granted. Which is why Gideon Levy and his ilk think nothing of expressing sympathy for the plight of a terrorist entity bent on destroying this country. And they do so not only in print, both at home and abroad, but on the state-run television network as well. The irony is obvious: It is Israel's true democratic nature that enables the likes of Levy to accuse the state of violating human rights, and to attack his colleagues for being pawns in its employ. Though he is right that the media here have been exhibiting support for the operation - well, so far, anyway - he's dead wrong about their being on the proverbial payroll. In fact, he even said so himself, out of the other side of his mouth. "Just wait until next week, when things start going badly," he practically spat out with customary cynicism. "Then we'll start hearing everybody insisting that they knew the operation was a mistake." Shai took this sentiment in a different direction. That the media tend to jump on the bandwagon at the beginning of a war, as they have been doing in this case, is all well and good, he said. But he would prefer that they be "less patriotic" now, and more understanding later - rather than going to the opposite extreme when the initial euphoria wears off. MEMBERS OF the Hamas media don't have the luxury of choice in this matter. They have considerations well beyond whether they agree with their colleagues' positions or with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's policies - such as keeping their throats from being slit while they sleep, for example. This means that whatever opinions they hold as individuals - or whatever their view of reality, based on events they witness - their reportage constitutes propaganda, period. Nevertheless, the International Federation of Journalists condemned Israel for targeting and destroying the offices of Al Aksa TV in Gaza on Sunday. "The IFJ and other press freedom advocates have consistently condemned attacks on unarmed media installations which are not being used for military purposes," read a statement it released following the attack. One might be able to argue - though not very persuasively, given its locale and raison d'etre - that Al Aksa TV falls under the category of an "unarmed media installation." One might even attempt to prove that it is "not being used for military purposes," as well - though this is even less credible, given the inflammatory material it broadcasts regularly. But any organization calling itself a "press-freedom advocate" ought to be condemning the real culprits in the World War of Ideas: Hamas and all other groups and countries whose rule by the sword forces populace and press alike to toe the party line, or perish violently. The good news for the IFJ - and the bad news for Gaza residents whose daily existence is so ghastly that the best they can hope for is paradise in the afterlife - is that Hamas TV was up and running almost immediately, thanks to reserve transmitters. Another stroke of luck for journalists who hold press-freedom sacred is the High Court's decision on Wednesday to allow a pool of foreign correspondents into Gaza, pending negotiations with the Israel-based Foreign Press Association on the exact number of journalists such a pool would contain, eight or 12. The caveat: that they enter at their own risk. This ought to make freedom-fighters Levy and Haniyeh awfully happy. Now that's political satire that even Eretz Nehederet can't match.