Media Comment: Biased, but free

Reporters without Borders, in its ranking of freedom of the press, dropped Israel this year to the 112th place, down from 92.

Newspapers (photo credit: Wikicommons)
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
All who read our columns know that there is much to criticize when it comes to Israel’s media; too many infractions of ethical codes; to many laws regularly ignored; ineffective regulatory bodies; inadequate financial oversight. Its interference in politics, economics and societal issues can be deleterious to the media consumer, who is all too often misinformed and misled.
All these and more have demonstrably harmed Israel’s democratic fabric.
But none of these factors were the reason Reporters without Borders, in its ranking of freedom of the press, dropped Israel this year to the 112th place, down from 92, out of 179 countries.
No, the organization gave Israel bad marks based on actions carried out during “Operation Pillar of Cloud” in the Gaza Strip. The group claimed the IDF “launched a deliberate assault on journalists and media buildings associated with Hamas, in addition to Israel’s continuous arrests of Palestinian reporters.”
Reporters without Borders has a rather strange approach towards measuring freedom of speech when it comes to Israel. It differentiates between “Israel within the Green Line,” where Israel was ranked 40, and Judea and Samaria, where it was ranked 150. The final number is then obtained by some adjusted measure of the two.
The organization admitted that Israel’s journalists “have full freedom of expression; however military censorship still poses a structural problem.”
This is not the first time that this advocacy group has attacked Israel based not only on its own political bias but on a seemingly naïve outlook on the unfolding of events between Israel and its neighbors. Nor is this the only international media organ to demean Israel’s press standards.
We wish to make it quite clear: Israel’s media is very free, perhaps even too free. This is documented in many ways.
Israel has a system of ombudsmen appointed to supervise the broadcast media, whether the state-sponsored Israel Broadcasting Authority’s television channels and multiple radio stations, the IDF’s Galatz radio, the Second Radio and Television Authority’s two commercial television stations (Channel 2 and Channel 10), 16 regional radio outlets and Educational Television Network.
However, complaints are poorly handled; no fixed system of punishment exists. Israel’s press council, a voluntary oversight body, is also rather powerless.
Program hosts offer the public their personal opinions unchecked. They can label one politician or social activist an “extremist,” while ignoring the extremism of another. The ultra- Orthodox can be discriminated against and termed “parasites.”
Sexist remarks can be uttered with no more than a finger-wagging from a supervisory forum. Foulmouthing is rampant. An Army Radio editor, Golan Yochpaz, is free to become an editor, for two years, of Yair Lapid’s Channel 2 show while continuing to edit the army station’s news.
There is a lot of freedom in Israel’s media.
Our printed press, which originated over 150 years ago (HaLevanon was founded in 1863), is robust and hard-hitting. Haaretz has been so consistently anti-government in its positions that Menachem Begin famously quipped: “The last time a Haaretz editorial was published that was pro-government was during the Mandate period, when the British ruled.”
Indeed, complaints about anti- Semitic caricatures appearing in newspapers abroad seem quite ludicrous when considering some of the cartoons appearing in Haaretz.
Consider the following: Yediot Aharonot, following the announcement that Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer intended to resign, headlined its report, “No confidence in Netanyahu.” The reporter, Sever Plocker, formerly of the Marxist Al-Hamishmar daily, wrote that Fischer’s departure was “a vote of no confidence... even if Fischer himself denies it.”
Although reporters are supposed to have the inside track on their beats, the liberties he – and his editors – took with the facts here is problematic. After all, Fischer stated that all is mostly fine with Israel’s economy, and that he had full confidence in the policies of the prime minister (indeed, other reporters even speculated that Fischer might become foreign minister).
But in Israel’s too-free press fact and fantasy may intermingle – as long as it serves the interests of editors and journalists.
Israel’s media is much too free to browbeat and intimidate parliamentarians.
They do not hesitate to use threatening language in the Knesset’s committee sessions, with the aim of assuring continued public funding and financial support for their failure.
A failing television outlet (Channel 10), whose owners have repeatedly, for nearly a decade, played the scoundrel with respect to their legal commitments regarding fees and repayment of debt are free to continue their flaunting of law and order, with hardly any public outcry.
ARGUABLY, HOWEVER, the best evidence of the exaggerated freedom of our journalists is the phenomenon of journalists going into politics – there will be nine in the 19th Knesset.
Journalists have become used to using their position to create political facts on the ground.
Can one forget that Shelly Yacimovich, together with Carmela Menashe, almost single-handedly caused Israel’s rout in South Lebanon by their subversion of the public discourse? Or the fact that Yacimovich not only used her journalistic freedom to support MK Amir Peretz in 2006, but a few weeks later joined his party? Yair Lapid, whose main claim to professional fame is as a columnist and interview show host, is another one of those who realized the power of politics. Indeed, he may become one of the most senior cabinet members.
When Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz first became a member of Knesset and sought to pass legislation that would limit the ability of a media outlet to remain a virtual monopoly, he had to face a boycott by the Yediot Aharonot news association.
Our media has little respect for the free speech of others.
Nor does Israel’s media does not limit itself to attacking politicians.
The wealthy have also become targets.
Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson are always knock-worthy – especially since they believe that Israel should have true freedom of speech and plurality in its media.
The fact that the publisher of Israel’s largest paid-circulation newspaper, Arnon (Noni) Mozes of Yediot Aharonot, is very much a tycoon himself, with extensive holdings in the media market and outside of it is not of great interest. Perhaps because he also holds what the media conceive to be “politically correct” attitudes toward Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
In contrast to the media, Israel’s public is far more open-minded. Last week’s TGI readership survey indicates that while Mozes’ flagship paper (there are also local weeklies) is read by 37.4 percent of the Israeli public , the free daily owned by Sheldon Adelson, Israel HaYom, has overtaken it and has 39.9 percent of the readership on weekdays.
Mozes also maintains a premier online news site and portal, Ynet, and a former editor of his paper, Rafi Ginat, has now been selected to be the head of Channel 10.
As we noted in our column of last December 19 (and also of November 16, 2011), the continued outlandish financial support for Channel 10 from state bodies, through various exemptions and benefits, reported to be over $400 million, was obtained via blatant violation of the democratic process.
As Israel HaYom’s Gonen Ginat phrased it, the channel’s directorate succeeded by “waving the flag of ‘freedom of the press’ and making false accusations of ‘stifling free speech.’” This past Monday evening, Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker broadcast a piece of investigative journalism on Israel HaYom – which had been held back until Channel 10’s extension arrangement with the government had been finalized – which Israel HaYom’s editor, Amos Regev, dismissed as a hatchet job.
Our politicians are far from being as astute as the Israeli public.
They do not understand the importance of media pluralism, nor of their duty to refrain from pouring public funds into failing media outlets.
Israel’s broadcast media networks feel themselves quite free to circumvent the laws that obligate pluralism. Too many elements within Israeli society are marginalized.
Political opinions, cultural views, religious outlooks, ethnic uniqueness which do not fit in to the stereotype of our “liberal,” “educated” and “open” media personnel are usually ignored.
The Reporters without Borders document was outrageous in its mendacious portrayal of what happened in Gaza during the latest anti-terror campaign, ignoring international law in its protection of Hamas and al-Qaida “media personnel.”
Reporters without Borders could contribute positively to our media if it undertook a politically unbiased and open look at it.
In our opinion, our media indeed does not deserve to be at the top of the list of countries in which freedom of the speech is respected – because it is much too free to do as it pleases.

The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch,