Lessons of the Al Jazeera Affair

The Al Jazeera affair – which reached a finale last week with the Israel Government decision not to revoke the press card of the station’s Israel reporter, Elias Karram – had all the prospects to be a watershed in Israel’s somewhat testy relationship with the international media.

The reporter, Elias Karram — in remarking in an interview to a Muslim Brotherhood TV station that he saw  journalistic work “as part of his contribution to Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation” –appeared to breach the traditional definition of  journalism of not allowing reporting to be colored by the reporter’s own views. Yet proving a causal relationship between inciteful reporting and violence is difficult to prove.

The affair showed up the tensions in interdepartmental governmental coordination because the Foreign Ministry overruled the Government Press Office (which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office) — claiming that rescinding the reporter’s press card would show Israel up as anti-democratic.  Yet, this claim is spurious since aside from an initial press report in the event of action against a foreign correspondent, there is generally no ongoing coverage by the media of such steps.   Indeed, inside the Arab world – hardly a paradise of press freedom – the impact of such a step should not be exaggerated. Moreover, it would have happened just when governments in the Arab world – among them Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates – had taken far severer steps against Al-Jazeera like closing down the bureau.

While there have been a number of cases – themselves far and few – where a reporter’s press card was rescinded for security offences, notably breach of censorship, it would have been the first time in sixty years that a foreign reporter  would have his press card withdrawn because of his or her views.

In 2009 an Iranian reporter for the Iranian TV station, Al Alaam, was arrested for security reasons concerning censorship. The London Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam who was instrumental in disclosing Vanunu’s story about his work at the Dimona nuclear centre has been barred from entering the country. In 1980 Dan Raviv of CBS had his press credentials cancelled after disclosing information concerning Israeli-South African nuclear relations. But the instances have been far and between – suggesting that Israel has flipped over backwards to avoid clashing with the foreign press corps.

Had the Al Jazeera reporter’s press card been rescinded it would have been a defining moment for clarifying the status of the foreign media because whereas the Israel Government has a moral obligation to keep Israel’s public, and therefore, the Israeli media, informed, democratic theory is far from clear regarding a government’s obligations — if any — towards foreign public opinion, and, therefore, towards the foreign media. So, while a reporter from an Israeli news organisation has full right to be informed inside Israel, once he goes abroad to, say, Washington to work as, say, his news organisation’s representative in the US, his rights regarding the US government are far from clear. At best, a foreign government may have a national interest – rather than a moral or legal obligation – to keep the reporter informed.

The question of the status of the foreign reporter has come up at different times in times of international conflict. For example, whereas in US conflicts like Vietnam the obligation to give access to the battlefield for the reporter from the US was clear, the obligation of the US government to provide access for foreign media in covering that same conflict was far from  clear.

To be true, in the Israeli case, the status of the foreign media came up in 1982 when the Israeli Government withdrew from Yamit , Sinai, and the Israeli Army sought to limit access for all journalists – Israeli and foreign – lest their presence hinder – indeed inflame – the withdrawal. It was an appeal by the Foreign Press Association of Israel to the Supreme Court which resulted in the Court confirming the right of the foreign media to be present, if only by a  `pool’ (a handful of selected foreign reporters to represent the entire foreign press corps).

Lost in the pros and cons of rescinding the Al Jazeera reporter’s press card has been the fact that the press card in Israel is not a requirement to work as a foreign reporter. It simply affords a reporter access to official events like press conferences. Today in particular, it is possible to get by without attending the press conferences since so much is reported on the Internet.  It contrasts with other countries where one may not work as a reporter without a press card. Indeed, consideration should be given by the Israeli authorities to changing this so that a press card is a requirement to also work here.

Even assuming that a democratic government like Israel does not have a democratic obligation towards the foreign reporter, the proposal to rescind the Al Jazeera would have been a sea turn in Israel’s attitudes towards foreign media. In the past Israel saw the fostering of public opinion as a cardinal tool in its soft power. For years – up to the early Nineties, Israel’s foreign press -comprised foreign media from two continents only – the US and West Europe – and there was no foreign reporter from the Arab world. This changed in the Nineties with the arrival of foreign correspondents from over 40 news organisations – many television – from the Arab world.

In part the arrival of Arab foreign correspondents to Israel reflected changes in the structure of Arab media, notably satellite television inside the Arab world. But it also reflected, Israel’s incremental integration within the region, following the creation of Israeli diplomatic relations with Egypt, and with Jordan.

Up to the outbreak of the 1980 Lebanon civil war, Beirut had traditionally served as the regional capital for the Western media to covering the Middle East (including Israel). With the danger to Western individuals including the kidnapping of Western foreign reporters, like AP’s Beirut bureau chief Terry Anderson, held hostage for five years, the foreign media packed their bags, some going to Israel, others to Cairo, and some Cyprus. In practice, the presence of foreign reporters in Israel has meant that they are exposed to Israeli thinking and lines of thought, even if necessarily they did not support government policy.

The arrival of correspondents from Beirut as well as from Cairo, was a further move since 1967 when Western news organisations opened full time bureau to cover the changing picture. (Up to 1967 only two foreign news organisations, the New York Times and the French news agency Agence France Presse [AFP] maintained a full time office with foreign staffers).

Did the Al Jazeera affair mean that, with some 250 foreign news organisations in Israel – some covering the entire Middle East from Israel – Israel today feel it is at a zenith and may wield an ax in front of the foreign press corps?   Arab media have value for projecting a strong Israel – even if the image is not a practically attractive one. Since the arrival of Arab media in the Nineties, Israeli government organs involved with the foreign media like the IDF Spokesman and the Foreign Ministry have had personnel who speak fluent Arabic to brief the Arab reporters.

Did the Foreign Ministry, in advising against rescinding Al Jazeera‘s accreditation – fail to articulate the difference between foreign news organizations from the Western world and those from the Arab world? Whereas in the case of the latter – from the New York Times downwards – Israel has sought to play down the image of might and play up Israel’s hopes for the peace process, in the case of the Arab world, Israel has an interest to project a deterrent image of might and strength – including even towards the media.

Whether by design or not, the outcome — or  `compromise’ – in which  Al Jazeera‘s correspondent’s reporting will be monitored in the months ahead to verify that it is not inciteful — may however, serve Israel the best. On the one hand, Al Jazeera may be expected to tread carefully in their reporting about Israel – as may do also other lesser reporters from the Arab world. On the other hand, Israel has  avoided taking the step of banning a key foreign news organisation.


(Professor Yoel Cohen is on the faculty of The School of Communication, Ariel University.  Among his books are: Media Diplomacy: the Foreign Office in the mass communications age; and Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel & Nuclear Secrecy.)

About the Author
Yoel Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Communication, Ariel University, Israel (School Chairman 2009-2011). His research interests include media and religion in Israel and Judaism; religion and news; foreign news reporting; defence and the media. He completed a doctorate in political sociology at City University London. His book publications include God, Jews & the Media: Religion & Israel’s Media (Routledge); Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy (Pluto) / The Whistleblower of Dimona: Vanunu, Israel & the Bomb, (Holmes & Meier); Media Diplomacy: the Foreign Office in the mass communications age (Frank Cass). His research has appeared in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics; Gazette; Journal of Media & Religion; Israel Affairs; Review of International Affairs; Encyclopedia of Religion, Communication & Media. He was departmental editor, Israel Media, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
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