Some appreciation may be due the journalists who participated in yesterday's emergency conference for a free press - in part because they momentarily set aside the bitter rivalry among themselves, and in part because they dared to raise their voices against a campaign to silence their colleagues in various media outlets. Unfortunately, however, many of the journalists who responded to the call to protest have primarily themselves to blame. For years now, the Israeli media have been belittling the threatening process of suppressing opposing voices, restricting freedom of expression and silencing democracy.
Most media outlets failed to protest vehemently against the laws that discriminate against Arab candidates for civil service jobs, and did not cry out against the law imposing sanctions for boycotting products made in the settlements. They didn't get agitated over the bill (since frozen ) that explicitly aimed to wipe out left-wing movements and human rights organizations by blocking donations from abroad.
Whether the relaxed coverage of these issues in the last few years has been motivated by a lack of interest, fear, agreement or a desire not to make anybody angry, quite a few journalists have depicted the right-wing government's war on the opposition as a story of marginal importance, a problem of the Arabs and the leftists.
Now it's the media's turn. There is a straight line connecting the laws that discriminate against Arabs to the recent steps taken against the press, including the harassment and dismissal of journalists who don't toe the government line, the threat that the government will shut down the Channel 10 television station, and stricter libel laws. Members of the press who ignored the early stages of the campaign to destroy public criticism in Israel must now deal with the next stage, which threatens them directly.
It has now become clear that anti-democratic legislation and the persecution of political opponents affects not just left-wing movements in Jerusalem or the Arabs in the Galilee, but also the journalists sitting in the centers of power in Tel Aviv who are used to enjoying fruitful cooperation with the government. Now, after remaining silent in the face of the persecution of others, they are suddenly feeling the sword upon their necks.
The journalists are not alone. Other centers of critical thinking, like universities and the justice system, are not doing enough either. But the journalists have more power than any other group; they are the ones who decide what's important. If they realize now that the destruction of democracy must be a top priority in the media, they will be able to stop it. If they decide they are taking a stance not just against the silencing of the media, but against the overall anti-democratic sentiment, they will have an influence.
The media's job is to report on events, not create them, but we are all familiar with the large headlines reserved for special occasions, with the intensive and enthusiastic coverage of events on which the media wish to lavish attention. This summer's tent encampment on Rothschild Boulevard to protest the high cost of living would have remained a Tel Avivian curiosity had the main media outlets not brought the people and principles behind the protest to the public at large.
If journalists get behind the campaign against the draconian laws in the Knesset just as they got behind Daphni Leef and her friends, if they overcome ratings pressures in favor of defending freedom of expression and the human rights of all Israelis, they will find ways to shake the foundations and show the Netanyahu-Lieberman government that there are people who will prevent them from destroying Israeli democracy.
In facing an indifferent public and a government that has lost all shame, the media - more than any other institution - have the tools to stop the downhill slide toward life in an unenlightened country in which no one will be able to utter a word.
The writer teaches history and American studies at Tel Aviv University.
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