Analysis: Quiet! Army at work!

Israeli media coverage was supportive of Gaza op. Too supportive, some say.

survey.gaza.war.2009.results (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
While the Israeli media was blamed for exceeding its mandate during the Second Lebanon War, and even inadvertently providing information that assisted Hizbullah, some are now accusing the mainstream press of too willingly surrendering to the restrictions imposed by the IDF Spokesman's Office while covering Operation Cast Lead. During the Second Lebanon War, many both within and outside government accused the media of endangering soldiers by reporting on troop movements, not submitting to military censorship, and broadcasting material filmed by soldiers in the field. By contrast, during the Gaza operation, some critics charge that the IDF expended enormous effort withholding information from the press, and that the local media went along - voluntarily censoring itself, dutifully sending material, as required by law, to the military censor, and sticking to a high-spirited mode of coverage. Israel-based foreign journalists were not allowed into Gaza even though the High Court of Justice, during the first week of the operation, ordered the state to give them access, and the only Israeli channel of information was controlled by IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu. The Foreign Press Association boycotted all still photos and videos the IDF Spokesman provided, condemning them "as a substitute to independent reporting," and many foreign news outlets reported an Israeli "media ban" on Gaza coverage, even though Palestinian journalists ensured wide reporting from inside Gaza. Most Israeli journalists accepted IDF-imposed limitations with more understanding, even though only a handful of Israeli military correspondents were included in limited pool coverage from the battlefield itself. Soldiers, whether regulars or reservists, simple soldiers or commanders, were instructed not to speak to the media. Hundreds of military policemen were deployed along the Gaza border, and they arrested or detained photographers who tried to take pictures of soldiers in violation of orders declaring the area a closed military zone. Were the Israeli media untenably compliant? TV and radio journalist Ilana Dayan told Army Radio morning show host Razi Barkai on Monday that it felt like the Israeli public was perfectly satisfied to know only what it was told. The public, she said, wasn't interested in critical reporting and journalists surrendered to this general atmosphere out of fear of a public backlash. And so, though Israelis kept hearing Palestinian reports of hundreds of innocent victims - precise figures are still being disputed - the Israeli media kept on using pictures of IDF soldiers and "clean" pictures of demolished houses in Gaza, with no dead bodies in evidence. For bloodier pictures, Israelis had to search the foreign wire services. But a senior Israeli journalist, who asked not to be named, countered that prime-time Israel TV news broadcasts featured heavy coverage of what was happening in Gaza each day, including footage of the impact of the IDF's operation, and interviews with ordinary Gazans, medical personnel and even Hamas officials. As for the "bloody" pictures and footage that featured more heavily in Arabic and other foreign language media outlets, he noted that the Israeli media has always acted with relative restraint in not showing dead bodies and gory images, whether the casualties were Israeli or Palestinian. Rafi Mann, the editor of Ma'ariv's opinion section, who also teaches journalism at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Koteret School of Journalism in Tel Aviv, said it was perfectly legitimate for the local media to reflect the mood of the public, which believed that Operation Cast Lead was justified. "After eight years of rocket fire and the withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005, the people felt [the offensive] was right and the press decided to side with the public's feelings and to be more patriotic - as happens in times of emergency. "Even the British media, which is against the participation of the British army in the Iraq conflict, refers to slain British soldiers as 'our boys,' and that's something that's normal. Mann added that as far as the IDF is concerned, it achieved its goal and controlled the information far better than during the Second Lebanon War. "For that Benayahu should be credited," he added. Veteran photographer David Silverman, one of the scores of photographers who covered the war, charged that, "basically the Military Police was busy preventing the media - stills, print, radio and TV - from doing their job. Many of my colleagues were detained, arrested, verbally and even physically abused. "Of course this made the coverage much more difficult and frustrating, especially when the IDF Spokesman could have prevented this situation by allowing us limited, controlled access. "Giving us daily photo opportunities of troops in the field, under IDF Spokesman supervision, would have meant that the media would not have needed to enter the closed areas and therefore would not have been in a position of possibly compromising security," Silverman said. "Eventually the IDF Spokesman lost what is being called among the photographers 'the paparazzi war,' because it lost control over what the media were covering," he continued. "Instead of letting them take strong images of soldiers going off to war to protect their homes, many foreign journalists and photographers were left with the sole options of either violating the closed military area order or taking photos of explosions and missile-firing helicopters, which were often accompanied in the world's media with pictures of dead and dying Gazans," he added. Another senior Israeli journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity harshly criticized the way the Israeli media, he said, chose to play along with the IDF Spokesman. He also slammed the public for becoming "numb" to what he called the "injustice" of 40 years of ruling the Palestinians, and charged that the IDF Spokesman "managed to sell everyone the bluff that Israel had no choice but to face the cruel armed enemy. "Of course there were exceptional voices that appeared, especially in the print media, but in the broadcast media the voice was almost disgustingly singular," this journalist said. But other observers rejected the criticism. Retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, now president of the Israel Press Council, said it was not true that all Israeli reporters toed an official line. "Personally, I read a few articles by journalists who wrote against the war during the operation; there wasn't a complete unity of voices," Dorner said. She agreed, though, that the press, in covering this war, "chose to be more patriotic than usual, and [in this] it actually followed the voice from the street, because the polls show that most of the public was satisfied with the way Operation Cast Lead was covered." Dorner expressed her disappointment that foreign journalists were not allowed into Gaza, especially those who have lived here for many years and are familiar with the nature of the conflict. "The High Court of Justice ordered [the government] to let them in, and I think it was a mistake not to let them in, because they would have covered it more objectively than the Palestinian reporters inside Gaza - who were probably also being restricted in their coverage," Dorner said. Early in the operation, Channel 2 news anchor Yonit Levy remarked on the air how difficult it was to explain Israel's side to the world when Israel, at that point, had suffered only one fatality and the Palestinian side had 350. Shortly thereafter, an Internet petition against Levy, signed by 34,518 people, demanded her dismissal for expressing "empathy with the enemy," while thousands of talkbacks rebuked her for not being patriotic enough. Or Heller, Channel's 10 military reporter, who was among the few journalists who got to accompany IDF forces inside Gaza for a few hours, agreed in an interview he gave to Ma'ariv that this operation was hard to cover. "What is amazing is that the public here thinks that this is perfectly okay. The public prefers in times of war to be left alone," Heller told Ma'ariv. When asked if he felt that his hands were tied as he worked, Heller said that he had had to spend a lot of time trying to find out what exactly he couldn't report on. "From this aspect, the embedding [of journalists to army units] to the soldiers was highly important, because until that point we faced a situation in which we couldn't interview soldiers and the commanders were afraid to talk. This spirit of strict centralization is coming from the chief of the General Staff himself, [Lt.-Gen Gabi] Ashkenazi," he added. It was clear, however, that the soldiers themselves were fine with the restrictions. "I am so glad that the media is having a hard time reporting," Amir Ovdat, 39, a reservist from Moshav Yagel, near Lod, told this writer last week, after two weeks in Gaza. "I fought during the Second Lebanon War, and it was ridiculously dangerous; TV reporters reported live on every move we made, and Hizbullah listened and targeted us two minutes later. That was crazy!" he said. Asked to respond to the criticism on Razi Barkai's radio show, Benayahu denied that his policies prevented a public discussion of the war. "The IDF Spokesman's job is to supply information given the restrictions of field security and to allow the IDF to achieve its mission... "We implemented a different approach this time [as opposed to the Second Lebanon War] that was ordered by the chief of General Staff and the IDF... There were lessons that were learned and implemented such as taking the mobile phones and cameras [from the soldiers] and stopping the leaking of information. "The media drew its own conclusions this time and chose to follow the censor's instructions," he said.