Trying to Buck the News Blackout

If and when Anthony Zinni ever finishes his shuttles between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, a reporter dealing in security affairs joked yesterday, he might want to try solving the problems between the IDF Spokesman's Office and the TV channels, particularly Channel Two. It looks like the two sides need a creative mediator.

If and when Anthony Zinni ever finishes his shuttles between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, a reporter dealing in security affairs joked yesterday, he might want to try solving the problems between the IDF Spokesman's Office and the TV channels, particularly Channel Two. It looks like the two sides need a creative mediator.

The latest storm was caused by a report broadcast on Friday night and then rerun on Saturday night, on Channel Two's news show. It showed an IDF force taking over a house in the Al-Ayida refugee camp. During the briefing before entering the house, the soldiers are told to break down the door with a hammer, and if that didn't work, to use an explosive brick.

That's what they do. The result: The mother of the family is mortally wounded and lies on the floor, bleeding. The children stand behind her, choking back tears. The father tries calling an ambulance, but it is trapped between checkpoints. The soldiers continue moving through the house, and break into the next house by cutting through the wall. The daughter begs them not to break the wall, but they ignore her. One of the family members asks the soldiers a question, and is shouted at to shut up. To top it all off, one of the soldiers says to the cameras, "I don't know what we're doing here. Purification. Apparently it's dirty here. It's not clear to me what a Hebrew soldier is doing so far from home."

The report's power lay in the matter-of-fact manner in which the incident was documented. The soldiers did not depart from orders and regulations. They did not intend to harm the woman or any of the residents. Nonetheless, the results were tragic. Later, it was reported, the woman died.

Immediately after the report was completed, the IDF spokesman was swamped with angry telephone calls from the most senior officers in the army. They all asked, "Is this why you stick us with the reporters?"

The answer is no. The IDF was not at all interested in the report being broadcast, at least not those sections described here. But to the dismay of the IDF spokesman, at a certain point his office lost control over the material that reached the screens.

The affair began with the series of IDF raids on refugee camps and towns in recent weeks. At first, the army refused to let reporters accompany the soldiers, but after enormous pressure by the media, and after the IDF realized that allowing reporters in could serve the army's interests, the army decided to work by pool arrangement. That means that the IDF would attach a camera crew and a few reporters to each operation, and when they returned to their offices, they would pass the material on to the other reporters.

Through the IDF filter

For the reporters, it was a convenient arrangement, offering relative comfort and security, as well as the obvious advantage of being on the front line, even if from a very specific angle - that of the IDF soldiers. In exchange for all that, the IDF Spokesman's Office imposed a condition: All the material collected during by the pool participants would be "filtered" - in other words, approved by the IDF spokesman before publication. It would be shelved if the officers vetoed the material. Channels One and 10 agreed. There is a dispute about Channel Two's position.

A priori, it should have been clear that if some channels agreed to let their material go to the spokesman for approval, while Channel Two did not, an explosive situation would be created. Indeed, about two weeks ago, Channel One's military commentator, Ron Ben-Ishai, came back from the field with an interesting report: Golani soldiers dedicating a song to Ariel Sharon along the lines of "Come down to us .. and take us home in coffins," which was sung during the Lebanon war. Ben-Ishai gave the material to the IDF spokesman, which shelved it. Within the context of the pool, the pictures and sound also went to Channel Two. They hurried to prepare their tape for broadcast, and only a telephone call from Ben-Ishai to Ram Landes, news editor at Channel Two, kept it off the air. Ben-Ishai told Landes that even if his commitment to the IDF spokesman was problematic, he had given his word. If Channel Two broadcast the material, it would in effect be breaking Ben-Ishai's commitment. Landes accepted the argument, and the Golani soldiers' songs, for the moment at least, were sent to the archives.

But from that point on, says Channel Two, they made clear to everyone that they would not accept the spokesman's arrangement, and henceforth would ignore the his decisions about what could and could not be shown. Nonetheless, Channel Two reporters continued to accompany the forces, with the approval of the IDF Spokesman's Office.

The next development came last Friday. In the last two weeks of intensive military activity, military correspondents were in the field almost daily, only reaching their editorial offices in the evening, shortly before broadcast time. Dozens of hours of tape that reached the TV stations every day from the pool were never used, with most thrown into the archives without anyone even looking at them. At Channel Two, however, they sat some people down to scan all the material, and that's how they found the report about the family, which ironically was shot by Channel 10's Yinon Magal, the station's military reporter. Channel Two's Ruti Shiloni edited the material into the report shown on Friday night.

A short while before it went on the air, the IDF Spokesman's Office, and Magal, learned that Channel Two was going ahead with the report. For Magal, it was an insufferable situation. He had brought this good material in from the field, but got a thumbs down from the IDF Spokesman's office; while his news company abides by the IDF rules, Channel Two ignores them.

The IDF Spokesman's Office used its own pressure on the Friday news magazine at Channel Two, conducting difficult negotiations with Landes. Eventually, Landes agreed to give up some of the more damning images, and broadcast the rest. Channel Two says that everything broadcast was ultimately shown with the approval of the IDF Spokesman's Office. They, however, say that Channel Two brutally broke the agreement, that from from the start Channel Two had never said it would not adhere to the arrangement for the pooled material.

The broadcast, of course, resulted in fury at the Spokesman's Office inside the army. Today, a summit meeting between the IDF spokesman and the representatives of the three TV stations is scheduled, to try to work out clear guidelines. Meanwhile, the IDF Spokesman's Office has announced that the entire issue of journalists accompanying IDF forces is being reexamined.

Honey and sting

The refusal by Channel Two's news magazine to accept the conditions of the IDF spokesman is based on the most fundamental rules of journalism. But in the current environment, a lot of independent thinking and professional backbone is required to follow that rule. It is difficult to believe that independent media outlets in a democratic state would agree to let the military review their reports form the field - not, heaven forbid, by the military censor, but purely for the army's image. That condition enraged several of the reporters and commentators. Ben-Ishai, for example, says "that was appropriate for the War of Attrition, but by the Lebanon war, it was irrelevant." But the decisions were made at a higher level. In their defense, the TV people say that without the IDF's help, they would not be able to report on the war from the scenes of fighting, and the lack of information from the field would only be worse.

The IDF Spokesman's Office sees things very differently. The IDF feels "it is inconceivable that we accompany the reporters, take care of their security, impose them on the brigade commanders, and then get spit in the face." If we are going to let people cover us, they say, then the pictures have to go through us. Asked if reporters who forgo that deal - getting neither the army's honey nor its sting - will be allowed to enter the territories independently, the IDF Spokesman's Office says no. LIke all other Israeli citizens, they are prohibited from entering Area A.

The army, therefore, does not leave the press much choice. But it seems they could get along without IDF favors if they really wanted to. Just as Suleiman al-Shafi of Channel Two reports from Gaza, presumably with considerable production efforts, the TV channels could produce independent reports from the fighting in the West Bank. But in that case they might face pressure from the Palestinian side, and particularly, harm from Israeli tank fire. The reporters, and this is understandable, prefer to be behind the Israeli tanks, not in front of them. Nonetheless, their editorial offices must find a solution that is more creative than relying on the IDF's image filtering.

Another thought comes up in the wake of the specific controversy surrounding the report shown on Friday night on Channel Two: The footage showed only the tip of the iceberg of what is really happening in the territories when the IDF comes into contact with Palestinian civilians. Many civilians, women and children, have died since the beginning of this month in the West Bank and Gaza, and practically none of it has reached Israeli TV screens. The Israeli public - partly by choice - is living with a complete information blackout with regard to the extent of the damage and death taking place only a few kilometers away from their homes. Maybe the public doesn't want to know, but the media has a responsibility, which it has shirked.

It's also interesting to follow the internal logic of those inside the political and security establishment who were against the broadcast of the report. The National Union/Yisrael Beitenu faction in the Knesset issued a statement yesterday saying the report revealed "a professional distortion and a moral flaw in Channel Two, which denigrated the IDF soldiers trying to wipe out terror." Denigrated? Channel Two offered no comment on the images it broadcast, letting the pictures speak for themselves. And those were precisely the pictures that Avigdor Lieberman and his ilk wanted to see for so long: soldiers going from house to house in the refugee camps. So why do the pictures on TV make them feel so uncomfortable?