Spokesman's Unit hails 'fair' coverage

Avi Benayahu says IDF has moved on-line in struggle for hearts and minds.

Avi Benayahu 88 (photo credit: )
Avi Benayahu 88
(photo credit: )
Foreign and domestic television crews are lined up along Herzl Street in Sderot on a cold Thursday afternoon. A siren sounds and the crews run into crowded bomb shelter doorways as three booming thumps are heard in the distance. Kassams have just struck the Negev town. This first-hand experience of life under rocket fire may be one of the reasons Israeli diplomats and spokesmen feel Israel is finally getting a hearing in the international media. "We're talking to families who have lived under this for eight years," said a journalist from a major European outlet who asked to remain anonymous. "It's an important part of what's happening here," he said. IDF officials, too, feel the coverage has been mostly fair. "I'm surprised for the better. The coverage has been balanced on most channels, even on some outlets not known for being pro-Israel," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, head of the foreign press department in the IDF Spokesman's Unit. Israel's two advantages, she says, are a new kind of media operation and an understanding in the international community that Hamas is the aggressor. "The world understands Israel has a right to defend itself, and has to respond to the rocket fire," she said. The IDF has spent the past six months learning to fight a different kind of media war, developing a capacity to take its message to the 'new media,' a general term for a wide variety of on-line social networking, user-generated news and personalized content sites. "In terms of communicating our message, new media is the future," Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, the IDF's spokesman, told The Jerusalem Post. Benayahu has overseen a new orientation in the spokesman's unit toward these on-line outlets, even taking his unit's senior officers to an intensive new media workshop at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya in mid-2008. This has translated into a profusion of new initiatives across the Internet. A YouTube channel established by the IDF a day after the fighting began has become the second-most popular channel on the popular global video-sharing site, drawing over 386,000 page views in the first half of Thursday alone. Meanwhile, the IDF has been in regular contact with over 50 major American blogs covering the fighting. Within Israel, a new video-on-demand channel will launch over the weekend on the HOT cable network carrying nothing but IDF footage from the fighting. Even Israel's major cellular companies, Pelephone, Cellcom and Orange, will begin offering the army footage over 3G cell phones in the coming days. "The new media lets you present your content at all times on all existing platforms, so it's there when the consumer wants to see it," explains Lt.-Col. Dinor Shavit, commander of the Filming Unit in the IDF Spokesman's Unit. Shavit is the coordinator for the dissemination of the 23 videos and 48 still photos the IDF has released to the world so far. "The army is creating, initiating, thinking ahead. We have photographers embedded in all the units preparing to enter Gaza, and we already have incredible footage that we are planning to release [if] we go in," he says. "Explaining your actions is a kind of ammunition in this sort of war," says Benayahu, and Israel has entered the new media arena in true military style, with broad coordination across government agencies. To that end, one of Shavit's most crucial missions is to disseminate the material within the Israeli government itself, to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and military attaches and ambassadors around the world. The coordination and dissemination of information to journalists and - through the internet - the wider world, has replaced the traditional wartime press conference held regularly by the IDF Spokesperson's Unit during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Instead, IDF spokespeople are in direct real-time communication with journalists and offer quiet background briefings to Israeli officials, media and foreign reporters."An army has to fight, not to spend its time in front of television cameras," insists Benayahu.