Israel is very, very far from the worst place in the Middle East for journalists. But that's no cause for complacency – or impunity for restrictions or assaults on the media.
A glance at the Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) color-coded press freedom map of the world shows Israel a vivid orange – ranking at 91 out of 180 countries – amid a sea of more repressive red and black.
But recent reports that security personnel have been restricting press access to the mass prayers and protests on the Temple Mount – and in some cases physically assaulting media workers – are nonetheless worrying.
Several journalists reported unprecedented levels of police obstruction, with the Foreign Press Association describing the situation as "deplorable".
It’s certainly ludicrous to assert, as the Jerusalem authorities did, that they were restricting access merely to physically protect the press corps, poor fragile creatures that we are.
(Israel made the same claim, albeit on a larger scale, when it took the egregious decision to ban all foreign media from accessing the Gaza Strip during the 2008/2009 war. That didn’t exactly improve coverage of Israel’s actions).
Movement of the press is certainly not an absolute right. Journalists can’t trespass on private property, obstruct officers in their duty or resist arrest. And they should obey orders from law enforcement officers - but those orders need to be reasonable. This week, the Old City was still open to tourists; yet journalists doing their job were harassed and refused entry to the protest sites located there.
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Reporters on beats in conflict zones know how to manage risk and take responsibility for their own safety, backed up by their employers if they’re lucky,. The checklist for covering a protest is basic – identify possible escape routes, partner up with others, don’t get caught between protestors and the security forces, keep constantly monitoring the mood and atmosphere. Old hands might carry saline solution to flush off pepper spray or a lemon for neutralizing tear gas.
The Committee to Protect Journalists suggests that a journalist acts like a referee on the playing field – he or she "must be close enough to observe the game accurately, yet must take every precaution to avoid getting mixed up in the action".
Serious journalists are also aware of the concept of conflict-sensitive reporting and that their actions in this context will have consequences, whether positive or negative. Sometimes, merely producing a camera is enough to trigger people throwing stones.
But although it would be a nice way for Israeli and Palestinian political echelons to absolve themselves of responsibility, events in Jerusalem over the last two weeks were not simply a case of crowds acting up for an audience.
Israel for its part has form when it comes to this kind of bullying behavior. Reporters encounter general disdain and casual abuse, often couched in the vague pretext of security. Security forces sometimes suggest that they can supply footage of a demonstration (which in some cases take place too regularly to be newsworthy, surely, they suggest) – so why would the press need to be there themselves?
The FPA have complained over and over again about the behavior of the Border Police, and the RSF notes that "the Israel Defense Forces often violate the rights of Palestinian journalists and journalists of other nations, especially when they are covering demonstrations".
It says something about attitudes in certain quarters of Israeli law enforcement that they feel no compunction behaving like this, quite literally in front of the cameras. They often feel particularly free in the occupied territories, as in October 2015, when an officer in the Border Police was recorded casually walking over to cameramen covering a West Bank demo and spraying them directly in the face with pepper spray.
Some media workers say there’s a culture of impunity, fuelled by a narrative promoted from senior government onwards that delegitimizes the media as leftist fifth columnists whose work poses a threat to the state.
"This perspective trickles down through the military and police, from the highest command levels to the simple soldier or police officer in the field," one Israeli colleague told me, adding that harassment was often arbitrary.
He recalled covering weekly demonstrations at Nebi Saleh where one deputy battalion commander was respectful to the media and talked freely with Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists. When he was on duty, there were very few attacks on journalists.
Of course, the situation amongst most of Israel’s neighbors – including the West Bank and Gaza – is mostly very much worse (Lebanon, however, ranked at 99 by RSF, is also orange on their map of the Middle East).
RSF puts Palestine is at 135, although the situation varies between Gaza and the West Bank, and tensions building in both territories have led to increased pressures from the authorities on journalists there .
(Freedom House ranked Israel at 33 on a scale of 0=most free and 100=least free. The West Bank and Gaza came in at 84.)
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms reports a sharp rise in the number of media freedom violations by both Palestinian governments in the past two months, to the point that they have exceeded the Israeli government’s violations – a rare occurrence, the center said.
As they tend to be, things in Gaza are worse.
"Gaza became a place where you really can’t speak up," a Gazan colleague told me. “If you criticize the electricity problems or anything you’re subject to be detained by the Hamas government."
But press freedom, like other rights issues, loses much of its value when it becomes relative. It’s not much of a point of pride to boast about if a country’s liberalism is highlighted only in comparison to its repressive neighbors.
Sadly, the media is unlikely to get much sympathy from the public in Israel, a country where the belief that the international press is biased against the Jewish state is axiomatic. It’s a populist-enough move to dismiss or ridicule us – or as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did this week in the case of al-Jazeera, vow to shut down critical operations entirely.
It’s true that many international media outlets have a highly polarized approach to their coverage. But Israel should know that trying to prevent negative or biased media coverage by cracking down on the media at large is a hiding to nothing.
Protecting press freedom is a profound democratic principle – and also a matter of self-interest. I don’t believe that Israel wants to go back to the bad old days of the first intifada, with press reports full of shots of soldiers thrusting their hands over cameras. In any case, it’s not practical. Today, anyone with a smartphone becomes a citizen reporter.
Journalists tend to be a gnarly enough crowd to withstand some rough treatment. We can stand being jostled and we don’t expect Israeli soldiers to tenderly wipe our pepper spray tears for us. Just not to fire canisters at us directly – or try to shut us down.
Daniella Peled is managing editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has reported widely from across the Middle East.
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