Media Comment: Media darkness

A debate on the use of gag orders or on the need for military censorship is always welcome.

Zygier's gravestone (photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
Zygier's gravestone
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
Israel’s media devolved into a frenzy last week. Availing themselves of an Australian news program which reported on an apparent suicide in an Israeli prison, the editors and correspondents and columnists of our printed press and broadcast media erupted into what in retrospect proved to be the spreading of much misinformation.
Leading the campaign of the “public’s right to know” were a few MKs who, with incomplete details, exploited their parliamentary immunity and, on a live TV feed from the Knesset, asked the (wrong) justice minister, who was responding to other questions, whether this or that part of the story was factual, which it now appears they mostly were not.
Our interest in this column is not the incident itself. It also isn’t whether the government bodies who dealt with the case at the time, a few years ago, or currently, acted properly or legally. We review the media, its standards, its ethical and professional behavior, biases and foibles – purposeful or accidental – and, when they happen, its violations of law and codes of conduct.
The principle of the “public’s right to know” has been traced back to something the American president James Madison wrote in 1822: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both...
a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
And as the author of much of that country’s Bill of Rights, he had inserted therein that the “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press....”
However, the American Supreme Court, as well as the high courts of many other countries have curbed the freedom of the press. And despite the howls of the media here, one could question whether what they were seeking was to further good governance and inform the populace, or simply sensationalism for the sake of selling newspapers or advertising space.
The media pushed several basic themes. One was: Why did the news have to come from abroad? As it turns out this is an easy question to answer. Most of the information obtained by the Australian media outlet came from our own media. In this context, Eitan Haber, formerly prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s press adviser and longtime Yediot Aharonot writer, had a story to tell.
In a column on Sunday, he reflected on Mordechai Vanunu, who had attempted, fairly successfully, to reveal secrets related to Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Haber asserts that in an effort to stem leaks from being published in Israel, then, as today, the editors’ forum was convened by Shimon Peres to provide background justifying the lack of information and asking them only to quote from the British press. Immediately after the meeting ended, Gershon Schocken, the editor/publisher of Haaretz, alerted his Londonbased correspondent, who provided the British media with the information that he himself needed to quote, thus assuring that the true story could appear in Israel, with all the subsequent damage.
This past fortnight, Haaretz twice attacked the gag order as an instrument of the state. First on February 5 when its editorial on the air strike in Syria criticized what it perceived to be the prevention of “a public debate in Israel about the wisdom and responsibility of Israel’s pushing itself into the boiling lava of the Syrian civil war... turn[ing] Israeli media into a fighter in the ‘perceptionshaping’ army,” a task the paper despises. Then on February 14, it railed against Israel “disappearing” people. While the paper did grant that state secrets should indeed be kept, it opposed what it termed “a grave infringement on the civil rights of people who are confined in prison.”
Was there such an infringement? Was the media championing democracy and a free press? AS OF this writing, it would appear that for all the brouhaha, the press did a bad job of providing real information.
Instead, using headlines, pictures, graphics and repetition, it was engaged in sensationalism.
While not a crime, this is not only bad journalism, it shows little consideration for state security and, perhaps, the lives of agents in the field.
Moreover, although a feed from Australia’s secret service or other sources cannot be discounted, indications are that the Australian reporter, Trevor Bormann, was tipped off by a local Israeli media person.
Another recurring theme was the violation of Israeli democracy by making a person “disappear.” In fact, no one “vanished.” Mr. Zygier met his family, his lawyers and others while in custody. A Meretz MK at the time was involved, but chose not to follow it up further. His identity was kept secret at his own request .
Second, the judicial process was not “secret.” The case’s secrecy was warranted and authorized. It seems that there was adequate judicial supervision, not to mention one public leak which, it is true, was quashed. There was no disproportionate injustice or undue confidentiality, at least in comparison to previous similar cases in Israel and abroad.
In the final analysis, a free press is a necessary condition for guaranteeing civil rights and liberties.
However, an elected government is also responsible for the defense of the state and the security of the lives of its citizens. It is true that too many of the state’s bodies and officials have not internalized the enormous change in communication which comes as a result of the Internet, social media and other technological developments. Instead of realizing that there is a crisis and managing it, our officials only react to media pressure, giving an impression that they are hiding something, which was not appropriate.
Nevertheless, our media is not much better, and it, too, does not generate much confidence.
Mr. Zygier’s case is a personal tragedy for himself, his family and, too, for his handlers. Further investigation must be expected, as in any case of someone who purportedly commits suicide while in custody. A debate on the use of gag orders or on the need for military censorship is always welcome.
At the same time the story calls for deep introspection by our media. It should deal with news collection and publication, as well as the inevitable confrontation with governmental authorities over how the news is to be reported. However, running abroad with a story is not only a symptom of weakness, it is also indicative of a lack of patriotism. It is high time that our media recognized the fact that contrary to expectations, Israel remains a country considered illegitimate by most of the world. Its very existence is under constant threat. Anyone who deeply cares for our lives here must be at least circumspect and very careful when it comes to military or defense secrets.
For good or otherwise, our media should also hold a dialogue with the public it believes it represents. Since the press claims to be taking positions in the name of the public interest it should also concern itself with the question of whether our public is interested in the media being so antagonistic to the defense establishment.
This is more important than finding favor in foreign lands.
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch