Media Comment: Journalists' feast

2011 Eilat Journalist Conference participants wear “against the silencing law” T-shirts.

Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Wintertime in Eilat might just be heaven on earth. Sunny days with clear skies and zero humidity, cool nights, a beautiful and colorful desert with a blue sea as backdrop. Perhaps the annual journalists meeting takes place in Eilat since this profession is rather far from heaven but it wants at least to “make believe” for a few days.
The tone of the 2011 Eilat Journalists’ Conference was evident upon arrival. Each participant was given a T-shirt with the slogan “We are all against the silencing law,” referring to Knesset legislation setting stricter rules to curb journalistic libel. At the Sunday night plenum, the introduction by Tel Aviv Journalists Union CEO and conference organizer Yossi Bar-Mocha was crystal clear.
“You see tonight a large, impressive meeting – very, very serious and professional. Professional panels which reflect that our struggle is over our freedom of expression and in favor of anything that promotes Israel’s democracy,” he said.
Bar-Mocha was followed by the president of the Israel Press Council, former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner. Her statements were surprisingly similar: “There is a war against freedom of expression and freedom of the press... the libel law is but a symptom. It freezes the media’s ability to act, at the same time that the media has already been weakened due to its dependence on media tycoons... the freedom of the press is not just an issue which is of interest to journalists but it is of importance to anyone who strives for a democratic state with a biting and critical press. It is important that we keep our solidarity in this war for the sake of freedom of the press.”
Perhaps, though, the underlying reasons for the proposed amendment to the libel laws clarified themselves that same evening. The Israel Broadcasting Authority did not officially participate in the meeting. IBA officials from both the public supervisory body and professional executives boycotted the event.
There is a well-documented power struggle going on between the current IBA management, appointed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the previous leadership, appointed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert. The Tel Aviv journalists association has sided with the Olmert appointees and has fought tooth-and-nail to help them retain their jobs.
This struggle is perhaps legitimate. People who believe they have performed well at their jobs naturally want to stay in their leadership positions. But Bar-Mocha used the podium to publicly attack the present leadership of the IBA, stating that: “We have clearly and absolutely initiated the struggle against the happenings in public broadcasting. Crazy appointments are taking place and these appointments are hurting the IBA’s employees. People’s mouths are forcibly shut and this is actually a shutting of the mouths of public broadcasting in Israel... We are talking about a political mafia, under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, this is the fact, comrades, and one cannot deny it.
“And we will act. We will act to make sure that this does not [occur]. There are those who have an interest in promoting themselves at the expense of the public and at the expense of freedom of expression.... We will fight to the end to ensure that the public broadcasting does not become governmental broadcasting.”
Bar-Mocha did not mention the IBA’s leadership by name, however the no-holds barred attack was against people not present who could not defend their good name. Bar-Mocha and his supporters do not understand that it is precisely this kind of lack of professional standards that underlies the politicians’ concern over the freedom of the press to attack others without accountability.
FOR ALL the talk about democracy and the supposed threats, it should be noted that women speakers at the conference were a one-to-three minority. The central editors’ panel on Sunday evening did not include any Arab or Haredi editors, and concerns were raised during several panel sessions that legislation, as well as the financial hold of tycoons, weaken the ability of journalists to carry out biting and in-depth research on various topics, including improper financial actions of the billionaires or influence-peddling and the like by politicians.
However, as expressed by Dr. Dror Eydar of Israel HaYom, Ms. Ilana Dayan in her recent interview with Gilad Sharon did not even try to press him on issues such as the Greek island and other reported financial improprieties of the Sharon family. All this before any legislation has even passed!
Another panel discussed Israel’s international hasbara (public diplomacy) efforts. Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld from the Hebrew University claimed that it really does not matter what Israel says, only what it does, for it is our occupation of the West Bank which leads to our negative image.
The fact that Israel has overall a positive image in the United States did not faze him or journalist Ron Ben-Yishai. Facts are not really too important when journalists meet to discuss the issues of the day.
A public opinion poll commissioned by the meeting’s organizers showed that the Jewish Israeli public considers Channel 2 TV’s news to be the most left-wing TV broadcast in Israel. Yet the news director, Avi Weiss, repeatedly stated that he is proud of the pluralism of his channel and the fact that there are a few right-wing journalists working for him.
Interestingly, Channel 1 TV came out the best in the poll. Only 49 percent thought it was left-wing. Could this be another reason why the IBA has come under such strong attack by so many journalists? Was the meeting an important one? Will it bring about some positive change in our media scene? At least one aspect of the meeting was positive. There was more plurality of opinion than in any of the five previous meetings.
Not only was there much broader representation of the Israeli public among the panelists, the same may be said of the audience. Applause was heard more than once for right-wing speakers, not only for the Left. More importantly, the scenes of yesteryear in which right-wing panelists could not finish a sentence disappeared completely.
One can only hope this trend will continue; plurality is the lifeblood of a truly democratic press.