Driving foreign journalists away

Taking away tax exemptions for their first three years here, as the Treasury intends to do, will only cause news networks to move elsewhere, like Ramallah or Amman.

journalists media 248.88.ap (photo credit: AP)
journalists media 248.88.ap
(photo credit: AP)
Rightly or wrongly, Israel has a reputation for being good at news management. But every now and then the government does the PR equivalent of picking up a revolver and taking aim at both feet. When that happens, responsible observers need to try to talk it round.
Over the next month, it seems likely the Treasury will take away foreign journalists’ tax exemptions. Instead of paying a flat rate of 25 percent for their first three years here, they will have the same deal as Israelis. It will make the government an extra few hundred thousand shekels a year. And, you may ask, why should foreign correspondents get subsidized anyway?
There are several good reasons why the government should think again. There is already a steady drip of foreign networks and newspapers moving their operations away from here, mostly for cost reasons. Israel should be doing what it can to reverse that. Instead, it may end up driving foreign journalists to Ramallah, Amman or further away.
TO REPORT on Israel, you need to live here. This is a unique country, facing unique challenges. The many different points of view here are complex. If Israelis want them understood, they need to explain them. That is why Israeli spokespeople go to the lengths they do, and why they are good at it.
And that is why people who have worked with the likes of us, like MK Nachman Shai, are horrified at the Treasury’s shortsightedness: “We always complain that the press has a superficial view, but they really do tend to build relationships here and learn many dimensions of the complex situations. In contrast, temporary or visiting reporters have no commitments to anyone,” Shai said.
Exactly. What Israel needs to avoid at all costs is foreign paratroopers – journalists who land in the country for a few days, armed with a clutch of Wikipedia articles and the book they read on the plane.
You cannot ‘wing it’ if you want to report on this part of the world, although many try to get away with it. More often than not, when they do they take sides, because they think it helps them report the story better. Black and white is easier to communicate, but as we all know, the truth is usually in between.

I have been here four years, so I am no longer entitled to special treatment. But I know the benefits of having been here that long, and would suggest it is in everyone’s interests to maintain the status quo.
There are insights you get just by being here. When your next door neighbor’s daughter, who has baby-sat your children, goes into the army, you understand better how Israelis have a different attitude to their military, and the risks they take compared to citizens of other countries.
And there is what you learn by just sitting talking to people over the gallons of coffee and tea I must have consumed, from Gaza to the German Colony to Majdal Shams.
Israel has learned that the worst kind of PR agent operates from a bunker, barking at the foreign media. But for some the message has not sunk in. The Treasury risks driving us away.
Shai has a point when he says, “This is a country with a special talent for harming itself – we are experts at that. There are reporters here who are not enemies of Israel, even if they are critical, and but instead of drawing them closer, we are hurting them.”
One government official recently complained to me about the “groupthink” anti-Israel mentality of journalists, diplomats and aid workers living in east Jerusalem.
Causing a stampede of foreign journalists to Ramallah or beyond is not going to help.
The writer is Sky News’ award-winning Middle East correspondent and has been based in Jerusalem for the past four years.

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