Simon Plosker
Simon Plosker
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Israel “witch hunting” the foreign press?

Charges that the government is trying to clamp down on the international media are absurd

Israel has a pretty good record when it comes to hunting terrorists. Witch-hunting, unsurprisingly, isn’t something that Israel is renowned for.

Israel’s Foreign Press Association (FPA), however, when invited to appear before a sub-committee meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, issued a statement that read:

Parliamentary sub-committee hearings that start from the premise that the foreign media is biased tend to look like poorly conceived witch-hunts.

According to coverage in The Times of Israel, the meeting did not degenerate into a shouting match between Israeli MKs and representatives of the foreign press corps. Instead, it appears that the hour-long session focused more on the perceived ineptitude of Israel’s spokespeople rather than the journalists filing the reports.

Yet, so threatening was the prospect of a discussion in the Knesset, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) felt it necessary to issue a statement in advance expressing its concern “by reports indicating rising pressure from the Israeli government on the foreign press.”

Rising pressure?

A threat by the head of Israel’s Government Press Office to revoke press credentials from journalists misreporting facts was most likely made in anger following the outrageous CBS News headline used to describe a Palestinian terror attack that cost the life of a young border policewoman and injured her colleague: “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on.”

This example came on the heels of several months of foreign media headlines and reports portraying Palestinian terrorists as the victims, even when stopped in the act of wounding or murdering innocent Israeli women and children.

Hardly surprising that Israelis feel that they’ve been given a raw deal by many foreign journalists and editors.

Yet tweets such as this below by The Times of London’s correspondent show a willful dismissal of the problem. Clearly CBS was the equivalent of the final straw rather than an isolated example.

Instead, the journalists attempted to portray themselves as the real victims. The FPA stated:

Efforts to clamp down on the media, including sweeping allegations of media bias, state censorship and the detaining of members of the press, are the sort of actions usually associated with authoritarian governments in places such as Russia, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. It is unbecoming of a country like Israel, which likes to describe itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.

You’d think that the current chair of the FPA, Luke Baker of Reuters, had been dragged kicking and screaming into the Knesset by men in black ski masks.

The reality is that the FPA had the right to boycott the meeting if it had chosen to do so. Unlike its authoritarian neighbors, there isn’t much of a threat to life or limb for foreign journalists carrying out their profession in Israel, even those who consistently display a less than congenial attitude towards the country.

Instead, foreign journalists were invited to contribute to what turned into a discussion on how Israel’s PR apparatus can better service their requirements to get the story right.

There may be many readers whose knee-jerk reaction to some of the more appalling incidents of media bias would be to advocate the revoking of press cards and even the expulsion of hostile journalists from the country. This is an extreme measure that should only be contemplated if a journalist has for example, fed intelligence information to a terrorist organization.

Regulating the press in a democratic society, even one that faces severe security challenges and a serious fight for its public image, is fraught with dangers. Israel has a proud tradition of a thriving and dynamic domestic media and it is not for nothing that the Israel beat is a prized assignment for foreign journalists. Placing prohibitive restrictions on freedom of speech and the press is a slippery slope that should be avoided.

One compromise suggestion that has been made is to limit press cards for “parachute journalists” – those who fly in at times of war with little, if any, background in the history or politics of the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is these journalists, who have not experienced Israel first-hand, who are often the first to publish erroneous reports based on their own preconceived ideas and prejudices.

But that’s another discussion for the powers-that-be in the Israeli government. As for the good news, we thank the FPA for recognizing that independent media watchdogs such as HonestReporting are doing their job effectively, especially when the FPA’s own members aren’t.

As the FPA stated:

There are non-government, pro-Israel media monitoring groups, such as CAMERA and Honest Reporting, that try to find errors or perceived bias in the foreign media’s coverage and make direct contact with senior editors to request corrections or changes. These groups are very active and foreign media editors take very seriously any errors brought to their attention. Corrections are frequently issued.

And while the foreign media fail to acknowledge the problems in their reporting, so the errors will continue to be caught. The corrections may be frequently issued but it will be a long time until we hear any apologies.

About the Author
Simon Plosker is the Managing Editor of UN Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding the United Nations accountable to its founding principles. From 2005-2020, Simon was Managing Editor of HonestReporting following several years working in a variety of non-profit organizations and immigrating to Israel from London in 2001. He has a BSoc.Sc in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham and an MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics.