Israel's Answer to Al Jazeera Vows to Avoid Propaganda

Editors of i24News, which was launched this week in English, French and Arabic, vow to give an Israeli take on current events.

The most noticeable thing when you enter the building of the i24News television channel is the smell of fresh paint and just-unpacked office furniture. That’s not particularly surprising, because when we made our first visit to the channel, sometime in June, it was under construction. Here and there you could still hear sounds of drilling, and in the office of CEO Frank Melloul there was a worker armed with a drill. The Internet desk had just been established, shiny keyboards placed on the glass table, and the thought that a channel and portal would soon be broadcasting to an international audience 24 hours a day sounded − well, optimistic.

Although there was a two-week delay, the new channel finally took to the air on Wednesday. On the news program, its very first broadcast, the excitement was evident on the faces of presenter Lucy Aharish and the various reporters surrounding her. There was excitement, but no hitches. With the Jaffa Port behind them, the staff continued to broadcast faultlessly the next day as well, proving the effectiveness of the dozens of hours practicing in the studio.

The establishment of i24News was announced in April 2012. The press release spoke of an initiative by Patrick Drahi, the Franco-Jewish businessman who owns the HOT cable company, reporting that he planned to donate money to start a trilingual news channel with an Israeli flavor. It didn’t take long for the word “Al Jazeera” to be mentioned − a reference to the international news station based in Doha, which was established by the emir of Qatar and covers news from an Arab angle ‏(and for that reason was boycotted in Israel in 2008 because of allegedly tendentious coverage‏).

The staff of the new channel preferred to keep mum. In the interim, the home base of the channel was established in Luxembourg and includes an editor-in-chief and director − former diplomat and Franco-Jewish media mogul Melloul, who was one of the founders of the state-owned French news channel France 24. Haim Slutzky Communication Channels is the content producer, and editors were appointed for each of the three languages: Ofer Perecman-Shemmer for English; Stephane Calvo for French; and journalist Suleiman al-Shafi for Arabic.

At the same time the studios were built on the second floor of the Jaffa Port hangar. There are three studios, built in a semicircle facing the sea, serving what is in effect three channels − in English, French and Arabic. At the moment the broadcasts can be received in all Arab countries and Canada, and in most of Europe, Asia and Africa. They will soon be launched in the United States, too. In Israel, for now the channel can be viewed only on the website.

At the end of June, a few days before the original scheduled launch date ‏(July 1, which was postponed due to a technical hitch‏), things looked very calm at the channel. It was morning, and Keren Hirsch, the editor of the channel’s magazines, was drinking instant coffee in a paper cup bearing the HOT logo, in the cafeteria.

Before working for the channel, she worked as a coordinator for the Israel Women’s Lobby, served in many capacities on the television investigative program “Uvda,” as an editor at Bulldozer and as editor of the investigative program “360.” The fact that the new channel plans to broadcast magazine programs − four a day on various topics such as culture and economics − is interesting in itself. One reason is that the audience is global, and the channel has to find topics that will interest various cultures, and also because such a program will have to be adapted for speakers of French, Arabic and English.

“The editorial staffs are composed of mixed teams, speaking various languages,” she explains. “At one desk there’s a French journalist and an English journalist, and the Arabic staff will join at a later stage. We handle every story and present it in several languages.”

What stories interest you? After all, you have to bridge many cultural gaps.

“We’re looking for a mixture that includes a large number of international stories. We’re looking more at the global news lineup rather than locally, which is not similar to what’s happening in the world. The prism is different, we’re learning to reexamine the news, and that’s a privilege.”

How does one build such a project?

“The ideal people are those who speak more than one language. We’re also working to understand the fine points, the levels of interest of the different audiences on various subjects − that’s the main work in terms of content.”

Does it have a chance of working?

“Nobody has ever tried to put together an editorial staff that really works together; everywhere else the teams in the different languages work separately. I hope, I can’t predict, but what’s interesting is that on the big issues it seems to be working.”

Different dress code

A tour of the newsroom that morning hints that the project’s biggest problem will be to bridge the gaps in language and culture among those involved in it. When you enter the newsroom you get a polite “Good morning” from those present. A young man in a tie leaves the monitors suite looking worried. He turns to another worker and asks, in English, if by any chance she speaks Arabic.

It seems only the different dress code is likely to help the staff know who’s who. The French are in suits and starched shirts; the English speakers are well dressed, but less formal; and the Israelis, faithful to their casual reputation, are in T-shirts and sandals.

Jeff Abramowitz is the editor of the evening edition, the channel’s main broadcast. He has been living in Israel since 1979, worked for 15 years as a senior correspondent for the German news agency, and for NBC and Israel’s Channel 2 news. He observes the goings-on inside the studio with interest − another pilot in the context of the endless preparations for going on air.

“I see this project as a channel that broadcasts from Israel, from the Middle East, but it’s not about what’s happening here,” he explains. “Of course stories that happen here, in the Palestinian Authority, in Gaza or in Israel, are interesting, and I’ll put greater emphasis on them as opposed to other arenas, but it depends which subjects.”

Give us an example.

“A new governor for the Bank of Israel would be too local a story, but the rumors about a renewal of the peace process is a subject that will definitely be covered as a high priority.”

Perecman-Shemmer, the English news editor, says he is interested in “defense” issues that interest “the international audience ... Not on the level of the checkpoint or Israeli soldiers confronting Palestinians. Israel is a power in defense industries, and that fascinates foreign audiences. It has to be balanced, we’re not building a war channel here and the situation determines the agenda and what we’ll report, but that’s an aspect that interests viewers. We take advantage of the fact that we have more access to people and institutions in Israel than media outlets that are not located here.”

So how do you create that balance?

“We report on what’s happening in the world, with a formula of 70 percent international news and 30 percent local and regional news. In that 30 percent, you take advantage of the fact that you’re here in Israel and provide a fuller picture. I’m not going to judge or say who’s right or wrong, but when you give both sides the story, it is more complete and more interesting, and what’s happening in the rest of the world at the moment is that only one side of the story is being told.”

Abramowitz adds: “My objective is to report on things as they are and bring precise facts. I’m not interested in any political policy, but in facts and in the truth.”

You’re anticipating the question pertaining to the very fact that it’s a channel that broadcasts from Israel and is funded by Jewish money. Can such a channel be objective?

“I’ll be happy when the Israelis think I’m a traitor and the Palestinians think I’m a Thatcherite Zionist capitalist. If I get letters of complaint from both sides, I’ll know that I’m doing my job properly. I know there are people who are waiting for the channel; it’s no secret there’s dissatisfaction in Israel with the international media. To be honest, that’s not my problem. My business is to provide a reliable broadcast, in which the facts are correct and which doesn’t lie in order to serve some agenda or other, although each of us has his opinions.”

Abramowitz is correct regarding the questions that have arisen surrounding the new channel. Can a channel funded by a Jew, which broadcasts from Israel, possibly be objective? Is that its purpose? And more important, can it be seen as objective, reliable and relevant by an international audience?

Dror Even Sapir came from Israel Radio’s French-language broadcasts. He will be the channel’s political commentator in French and also present a weekly current events program. “The emphasis is international rather than Israeli,” he insists. “The goal of the channel is to give an Israeli angle to the international arena, but when I say an Israeli angle I’m emphasizing the pluralistic side of Israeli society. I believe that people are interested in hearing other voices from Israel, and that we can provide the other angle. The international audience may not be accustomed to that when it thinks about Israel, but we can demonstrate that this is a far more pluralistic country than is generally thought in Europe.”

That’s an approach with public relations value.

“I don’t like the expression ‘public relations’ in this context. We aren’t working on behalf of the government or the Jewish Agency, and the objective is not PR. I think viewers will simply be surprised at the free tone of the channel. We really aren’t a PR agency and don’t want to be − on the contrary. We’re from Israel and we don’t hide that, but that’s not the purpose. I’m French, I grew up in France and I know how deeply rooted the prejudice is when it comes to Israel and the entire Middle East. And in other European countries it’s even worse.”

Dvora Salam supplies a similar story. She produces the morning program in French and is married to the French evening edition editor, Jean-Charles Banoun. The couple and their two young sons immigrated to Israel last June after a meeting with Melloul and Calvo. Until then, they worked in state-funded radio and television in France and lived in Paris.

“I believe the channel has a great responsibility,” she says, when asked about the skepticism with which the channel is likely to be greeted among foreign audiences. “Israel is an issue that’s hard to understand and love. I believe we have to explain to the international audience what Israel really is, and what really happens here.”

The question is whether there will be a willingness to hear something else. “They have to,” Salam says. “The point of view in France and Europe is also changing, because they’re more exposed to terror, fighting security threats that Israel has known since its establishment. Maybe now there will be a willingness to hear another version of things.”

Salam is in a small office with glass walls. It’s Wednesday, the day they’re finally going on air, and you can sense the excitement around the office. “i24News is, first of all, a commercial channel that wants to make a profit,” says Perecman-Shemmer. He previously worked on a morning program for Channel 2 franchisee Keshet and the dailies Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv for years, and has a firm opinion.

“If it isn’t perceived as reliable it won’t make a profit, there won’t be advertisements and there will be a problem. It has to be objective, reliable and faithful to the facts and the details. I keep hearing that it’s Al Jazeera, propaganda, but I think there will be people who will have to eat their hats. If this channel serves up propaganda, it won’t have a future. In the end it’s news and they’ll see that; we can’t do things under the table.”

Natalie Erlich is also optimistic. She is also a new immigrant, and joined the channel after a career at CNBC − the Consumer News and Business Channel belonging to MSNBC − where she was a producer, writer and reporter. Today she presents news updates. “International viewers oftentimes don't get to see first-hand the complexity of things here, and are not familiar with how varied the Israeli population and the points of view are here,” she said.

Is there a chance for such a new channel to succeed?

“Al Jazeera succeeded even after 9/11. You could reasonably have expected that, under those circumstances, it wouldn't succeed, but it's successful. In the United States, the conservative Fox News channel is a huge success, and I am sure there's a good chance this channel will also succeed. People want a new source of information, a fresh perspective − that's why viewers went in the direction of Al Jazeera. People are looking for new points of view.”

Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On
Ofer Vaknin