Note to Israel's Lawmakers: Democracies Don't Conduct Witch-hunts Against the Foreign Press

Criticizing 'hostile' and 'partial' international media coverage long ago became a replacement for actual policy. But Israel's accusations of malign intent are now losing all sense of proportion.

The CBS News headline on the story describing the stabbing attack by three Palestinians on Israeli border policewoman Hadar Cohen, at Nablus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 3, 2016. The headline was subsequently changed.
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Every nation embroiled in a conflict situation feels it is uniquely maligned. Israel, where criticizing media coverage long ago became a replacement for actual policy, is losing all sense of perspective. 

Last week the Government Press Office threatened to withdraw press credentials for reporters whose outlets published flagrantly misrepresentative stories, following a spate of misleading headlines that failed to distinguish between aggressors and victims.  

On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee called in members of the Foreign Press Association. The trigger: a CBS News report headlined, “Three Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on,” on the shooting and stabbing attack at Nablus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City. The “three Palestinians” were the assailants who killed border policewoman Hadar Cohen. The headline was subsequently changed following a protest by the government. 

The FPA was indignant, both before and during the Knesset session, stating in a letter before it began that, “Parliamentary subcommittee hearings that start from the premise that the foreign media are biased tend to look like poorly conceived witch huntsSuch conduct is unbecoming of a country like Israel, which likes to describe itself as the only democracy in the Middle East headlines are never the full story, and are usually not written by journalists on the scene, but rather by editors sitting in New York, London or other headquarters.”

Fetishizing the issue of sloppy headlines is a mistake. The disconnect between the desk and the reporter is huge; headlines, especially online, are indeed written in a tearing rush by someone junior often thousands of miles away. 

Large media operations can and should do better. But the GPO and the directors of all the pro-Israel lobby groups and trolling circles know perfectly well that reporters on the ground really have no input. 

A clumsy headline, however, is a convenient way to whip up a storm of online outrage and unleash the social media warriors.

Jerusalem is not doing itself any favors by constantly bandying around accusations of malign intent. This obsessive sense of victimization is self-defeating and has led Israeli representatives to have zero credibility when it comes to calling out anything of real concern.

“They complain about everything and now have a reputation for being tendentious time wasters,” said one seasoned foreign correspondent. “They fight battles they can't win and in the process have lost influence.”

It’s extremely doubtful that anyone covering Israel will have credentials withdrawn, as the Israeli government press office head threatened, over the publication of a clumsy or misleading headline. The military censor operates with an unusually light hand for a country so focused on security and officials are more often passive aggressive than actively obstructive.

It’s true than an undue amount of international coverage is devoted to this one measly, semi-frozen semi-war. There are fringe outlets and bloggers implacably opposed to Israel and there is some shoddy reporting on this issue, like on any other. 

But it’s strange how the supposed worst offenders of all are otherwise respectable media outlets such as the BBC, the New York Times or the Guardian. We are supposed to believe that these institutions, which cover numerous other areas of conflict with distinction, suddenly become somehow unprofessional when reporting Israel-Palestine.

Arbitrarily threatening sanctions against reporters also serves another function: it sends a clear, and unsettling, message. 

This seems to fit a pattern. First, internationally-funded NGOs are foreign agents that need the firm hand of government control to neutralize their threat. Then, supposed leftists infiltrating culture and the arts constitute a danger to the nation. Now, in a handily populist move, the shadow falls over the foreign press. 

The idea of international media bias is axiomatic to the Israeli mainstream. Israel likes to claim that no other Western country would put up with the level of partiality it has to endure. This is just not true.

In democracies, there are voluntary codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for journalists. When mistakes are made, corrections are requested. Beyond that, there are libel laws and in extremis, censorship for reasons of national security. (It’s worth noting that all the tendentious headlines Jerusalem highlighted were also rapidly changed). 

During the U.S.-led war in Iraq, for instance, some photographers were “disembedded” from army tours for showing photos of dead soldiers. The red lines were clear – not breaking media blackouts on the predisclosure of fatalities or operational details. But there were no sanctions for criticism or even bias.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written in academic studies on the “hostile media effect”. People don’t consume media passively. They understand content according to their own partisan values and bias, and what particularly stands out is information that contradicts their own existing beliefs. Where people with neutral views might see a piece of news material as unbiased, those with strong preconceptions one way or another tend to see hostility to their own positions. Israel-Palestine features highly, but also a huge swathe of other issues. (Let’s leave aside Palestinian outrage at the under-reporting of their own casualties in the mainstream press.) 

Azerbaijan, for instance, feels no less smeared by partisan reporting on Nagorno-Karabakh and its own human rights record. 

Baku also complains of delegitimization fuelled by an organised disinformation campaign (in their case from Armenia), and foreign media are warned darkly about “not following the rules”. There are Azeri Facebook groups dedicated to identifying hostile media and countering “biased articles” from the Western press.

Like Israel, Azerbaijan competes in the Eurovision song contest and cares deeply about international opinion. But unlike Azerbaijan, Israel remains relatively fair and free according to international journalism indices. As the FPA put it, “Such conduct is unbecoming of a country like Israel, which likes to describe itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Previous attempts by Jerusalem to punish the foreign press corps have proved futile. In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, the GPO loudly announced it would be withdrawing privileges from the BBC in retribution for what its then director-general decreed to be unacceptable bias.  A few invitations to press conferences were withdrawn, but the boycott was feeble, short-lived and now recalled even in government circles with embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the now-defunct Maariv newspaper warned at the time, “There are international precedents to decisions of that type. Events of that nature used to happen in Albania and East Germany. Then in Iran and Afghanistan. Once again, Israel finds itself in good company.”

This time round, in 2016, with public opinion slowly surrendering to mass paranoia, threats against the foreign media barely raise an eyebrow. 

Daniella Peled is the Acting Managing Editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East.