New media and the Israeli ethos

If we want to avoid the situation we were in last month when the deaths of our airmen in Romania were only reported in our mainstream media six hours after the incident – while blogs and tweets were published freely – we had better come up with a solution.

Romania crash search 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Romania crash search 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
There are several lessons that we, as a nation, must draw from the training accident involving our airmen in Romania two weeks ago.
One of them, in the field of military-press relations, is that technology was victorious. In the struggle between ethics and ethos on one side, and technology, the die has already been cast.
Let me explain: the national ethos in the State of Israel places our casualties at the top and, correctly, grants them great respect. Both respect and value are granted to those killed defending the country, either in battle or in training.
Israel, which has lost, since its establishment, over 21,000 fighters, knows how to value the heavy price that we have all paid: the warriors with their lives, their families with their loved ones, and the Israeli public as a whole with their best people.
One element, essential to that respect, is the attitude toward the casualties’ families, which we term mishpahot haschol. This is an old Israeli expression that embraces a large public – hundreds of thousands, who have suffered a great loss in some manner. The practical arrangement with them has been that when a soldier is killed during military service, the announcement of his death to the media is withheld until the family is notified. There were instances in which family members were abroad, and it was customary to wait until their return. The Israeli media respected this arrangement.
In the past, the military censor would forbid the publication of this information, but after the censor itself was weakened by the High Court of Justice, Israeli media outlets decided to continue honoring this arrangement willingly and out of respect for those killed and their families and despite the fact that it was no longer defined as a security issue but as a personal and humanitarian one.
It is interesting that in spite of the revolution that the Israeli media has undergone, and despite the intense competition between print and electronic media, and within those fields, this practice was still maintained.
BUT WHAT arguments, conflicts and massive competition failed to accomplish, new technology has. The Internet, the age of cellular phones, and other communications systems have created what is known as the Web 2.0 concept of new media. In this situation, the traditional media outlets have been pushed aside in the face of blogs, tweets, Facebook messages and other social network tools.
Initially, it became clear that one can no longer separate between Israel and “the whole world.”
The dichotomous division of internal and external information was exposed to be anachronistic and absurd. There is no foreign channel that is not available in Israel, and there is not an Israeli media outlet that is not accessible overseas.
At the next stage, the sources of internal information directly attacked the “old order.” They did it in a manner that was extreme and heavy-handed, but I must admit that it was also effective.
It was just a matter of time until the revolution challenged the last national consensus by which information about casualties is not prematurely published.
But in this era, the rules of the game have changed in the field of global communications, and new players have appeared, some of whom publicly state that they do not intend to follow any of the old protocols. It is dubious if the censor would – or even could – enforce its will on the informal new media.
THE HELICOPTER incident in Romania was extensively covered by the Romanian media, and after a short time, was picked up by other media outlets in Europe and the United States. Then, the electronic media swung into action – blogs and social networking devices began to circulate the notice and it could not be stopped.
At the same time, the “old” media in Israel maintained its silence. News anchors on central television programs stayed mum and did not reveal the information that their newsrooms already knew. Only six hours after the incident was the official announcement released, after which the media could cover the event freely.
This dilemma – of revealing information that the Israeli media possesses but that is under military censorship while overseas outlets are reporting on it throughout the world is not new.
Incidents that occurred over the past year already revealed this new challenge in full force: The death of IDF pilot Lt. Asaf Ramon z”l for example, or the various questions surrounding the publication of material in the Anat Kamm affair, proved the impotence of trying to prevent the public from accessing the information.
THE DILEMMA now stands before us. Can television channels, newspapers and radio segments continue to place their credibility in question, while the information flows freely on new media outlets? After all, anyone who receives even a bit of information can piece together what is happening.
The situation demands a rethink.
The last time a public committee dealt with the topic was over ten years ago.
The conclusion back then was that the IDF spokesperson’s office and other IDF officials must speed up the process of issuing notices to families as much as possible and that the media, as far as it was concerned, would wait as long as necessary.
I believe that we must find a respectable solution that will adapt to the existing and future technical realities. One way, for instance, would be to publish a partial notice reporting a given incident, giving out basic details such as its geographic location and time, and only later publishing the complete story.
In the delicate balance demanded by this scenario, the media outlets will only be permitted to reveal the entire incident after the terrible notice has already been issued to the families. The ideal situation is that the gag would be lifted simultaneously with central news programs in Israel so that they will not find themselves in the impossible position they were in last month.
If this does not happen, there is no alternative but to, once again, appoint a public committee led by a public figure with both media and security experience, in order to examine the relevant laws on the matter. Ignoring the communications revolution and its implications will only place us in impossible positions in the future as well.
If we do not want to live in a “world of idiots,” we must show flexibility and creativity in order to adapt the Israeli ethos to the 21st century.

The writer is a Kadima MK and a former IDF spokesman.