Media Comment: Trigger-happy media

With big stories, the honest journalist must make some hard decisions.

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv gather to protest racism and police brutality, May 18, 2015 (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Demonstrators in Tel Aviv gather to protest racism and police brutality, May 18, 2015
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
It was less than two months ago that the whole country was ablaze due to a video of a policeman beating Ethiopian-Israeli soldier Damas Pakada. Members of the Ethiopian community went on a rampage, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited the victim to his office in attempt to reduce the tensions. The media was full of accusations against the police, the government and Israeli society in general for our racist handling of the Ethiopian community.
People such as Kol Yisrael’s Keren Neubach made it a point to show how our society does not know much about the former Ethiopian community, or perhaps does not want to treat its members fairly. Pakada was hailed as the model of innocent youth, serving in the IDF only to be mishandled by a police officer because of his skin color.
The story did not end there. The police were under pressure, and the policeman in question was summarily dismissed. The justice mill turns slowly, but it does turn. This week, the attorney general decided that the policeman would not be prosecuted. The story, it seems, is much more complex, and perhaps even damning.
Pakada, if we are to believe Weinstein, was not an innocent babe in the wood.
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The policeman instructed him not to enter a cordoned-off area due to a suspicious object, but Pakada did not heed the warnings.
He attempted to enter and was forcibly stopped by the police. Pakada, Weinstein accepted, then simply punched the police officer, and even picked up a stone and threatened to hurl it at the officer, who then, instead of reacting coolly, hit him back. This last act was broadcast nationally.
The press at the time did not even attempt to hear the police officer’s side of the story. It just did not exist; it was clear he was a racist.
The footage shown was clearly edited, yet the press swallowed the story for it sold well, made good headlines and increased ratings. Who cares if a police officer had to pay with his livelihood? Yet even after these revelations, our media should be asking some questions.
For example, how could it be that the officer in question was so quickly sacked? Who fired him? Were they using him as a scapegoat? Prime Minister Netanyahu and the media should be asking his aides how it came to pass that the prime minister was unwittingly aiding someone who according to the attorney general is a violent law-breaker. The attorney general should be asked why he isn’t prosecuting Pakada for striking an on-duty police officer.
The press should be demanding that the officer be reinstated. But no, the story is over. The media had its party and that is all that counts.
This story is not unique. It repeated itself just this week. MK Oren Hazan (Likud) was the latest victim. Based on material which, at least at this point, would not be acceptable in any court, MK Hazan was accused by Amit Segal of Channel 2 TV of procuring prostitutes and drugs for himself and his friends during the time he managed a casino in Bulgaria. Rather strong accusations against a newly elected MK. Yediot Aharonot even went so far as to quote a girl from Hazan’s school years as saying that he was a “bad guy.”
Segal introduced testimony from a number of people, most of whom had their voices changed so as not to reveal their identity. If these stories are true, these people should be talking with the Israeli and Bulgarian police, but that will probably never happen. The Channel 2 report showed pictures of Hazan with young girls, perhaps not something that your average citizen would support but certainly not illegal in itself. One photograph, presented as if it were snapped at the casino, was in fact an old one, taken years ago.
On Monday evening, the ante was upped when Channel 10 reported that three women were accusing Hazan of sexual molestation. The women did not go to the police and again, the use of anonymous accusations of sexual or any other molestation is itself an ethical impropriety.
We do not know the facts nor have any empathy for Hazan. According to our sages, someone who is involved in running a casino (Hazan did not deny this) would not be acceptable as a witness in a court of law. Hazan’s presence in the Knesset does not do great honor to this august body. But the issue is the ease with which the media can accuse a person of serious criminal behavior, when such charges would not stick in any court of law. How can Hazan answer his anonymous accusers? The reports of channels 2 and 10 are not much better than those of the NGO Breaking the Silence, which smears Israel all over the world using anonymous and unverifiable testimony against the IDF.
Most of us would claim that Breaking the Silence is a reprehensible organization – but was Segal’s report so very different? After all the brouhaha, it was reported yesterday that the attorney general is reopening an investigation into Hazan’s alleged assault against officials of the Ariel municipality! The most worrisome part of this story is that it could lead to tragedy. Segal must be aware of the suicide of Ariel Ronis, a senior manager in the Interior Ministry accused by name on Facebook for racist treatment of a person of Ethiopian descent. In the aftermath of the violent demonstrations, Ronis was immediately judged in the court of public opinion. He had no way to defend himself. Our media did not ask the accusers tough questions, Ronis could not take the pressure and committed suicide.
Some legislators claimed afterward that something must be done to prevent such tragedies, but it was all lip service and the Hazan story is the proof.
There is a real dilemma. Many times, stories such as Segal’s revelations regarding MK Hazan have eventually brought crooks to justice. Indeed, we have a former president who is currently sitting in jail. We also have a prime minister who was brought to justice due to among other things the professional efforts of journalist Yoav Yitzchak on his News 1 website. In these cases, the stories were true, in the sense that they brought about a trial and a conviction.
The honest journalist must make some hard decisions. On the one hand, she or he has a great scoop on their hands, and if they don’t publicize it, someone else probably will. On the other hand, there is the nagging worry that the journalist is being used, that the testimony is not truthful, that the people giving evidence have an ax to grind, etc.
We would like to believe that our professional journalists know when to publish and when not to. But judging these three events, it seems our media is a wee bit trigger- happy.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (