Jailing Journalists

The IDF's manipulations of the media, which willingly cooperates, may be good for the army, but it's very bad for Israeli democracy.

The Israel Defense Forces has learned from past wars. Take the Falklands War - in 1982 the British Navy sailed thousands of kilometers to liberate, 19th century-style, the remote and scarcely populated islands, which had been seized by the Argentine Army. British war correspondents were on board, plied with Defense Ministry briefings, on which they depended to write their reports. If those reports did not meet censorship criteria, they were simply tossed out. Journalists were turned into hostages.

The IDF has not gone so far in placing limitations on the media, nor has it had to. It was enough that during most of the of war it prevented journalists from entering Gaza. Instead of direct and independent reporting, the Israeli public is receiving partial coverage that has passed through the monitoring and filtration of the military censors and IDF press officers.

The IDF's "mouthpiece" policy comes in reaction to the Second Lebanon War. In that conflict, under the inspiration of then IDF spokeswoman Brig. Gen. Miri Regev, journalists were allowed to walk "between the legs" of senior commanders on the ground. The result was often embarrassing, even for stalwart defenders of freedom of speech - recall the incident in which a brigade commander mocked his division commander in front of the microphones and cameras of the international press.

Regev's intentions were good. She wanted to open the IDF, while engaged in war, to the press, and through it to reach the public. However, the campaign was implemented poorly. The IDF Spokesman's Office and senior commanders lost control and the unbridled chatter that unintentionally helped Hezbollah's psychological warfare campaign. Despite the strategic and diplomatic achievements of that war (amid tactical failures on the level of force deployment and the function of some senior commanders), many correspondents and commentators peddled the mistaken impression that Israel had been defeated.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who at the war's start said he had been surprised by Israel's fierce reaction to the kidnapping of its soldiers, eagerly embraced Israeli media reports heralding his own victory. The lesson the IDF learned from the excessive openness of the Second Lebanon War manifested itself in its next extreme decision, to prevent Israeli and international media from doing their jobs.

In the Falklands War journalists were "jailed" in the living quarters of warships, and in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq they were confined to the cabins of armored personnel carriers, their field of vision narrowed to the width of a peephole.

In the Gaza War, journalists are being held in modest media facilities on the border of the coastal territory. Their positions have been filled, reporters and photographers alike, by troops of the IDF Spokesman's Office. The move is meant to present a sterile picture of war, to prevent Israeli media outlets from showing images of death, destruction and horror coming out of Gaza. But this is a shortsighted approach, one driven by the "ostrich policy" of planting our heads firmly in the sand.

In the age of the information superhighway, Israel and the world still see the same images and hear the same voices broadcast on most of the foreign television stations. The IDF's manipulations of the media, which willingly cooperates, may be good for the army, but it's very bad for Israeli democracy.