If a stranger were to land in Israel these days and be exposed to the government reports, the headlines and the discussions on the social media, they would be convinced that we are in the midst of an all-out war against hostile armies.
In the eyes of Israeli authorities and the general Israeli public, the coronavirus pandemic is a security issue: The Shin Bet security service was recruited to operate electronic surveillance devices to track patients and their relatives, the Mossad was sent to bring medical equipment, the National Security Council has set up a war room, the Israel Defense Forces Home Front is publicizing recommendations for proper parenting, and above all of them sits Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who is trying to wrest control of the crisis from the Health Ministry.
The media for the most part has also incorporated the militarization of the situation. The headlines scream about “the war” or “the battle” against the pandemic, the pundits talk about “the civilian sacrifice” and the “victims of the pandemic,” and the correspondents report on the “mobilization” of the public in order to maintain “national morale.”
The price of the government policy and the media mobilization is paid first of all by anyone who is outside the national and security consensus, with its private lingo and accompanying privileges – but not only by them. This is also paving the way for belligerent discussions on social media, with the singling out of those who “are not helping to carry the stretcher” (army jargon for sharing the burden) in the battle against the coronavirus.
As in war, in this crisis too, most of the media outlets are operating as a kind of national public relations division. They are so busy with “mobilizing” to wage “the battle” that they are missing out on their most important and significant role in every democracy: Identifying failures and erroneous decisions, preventing exploitation of the crisis to overstep authority, and protecting the weak and those who lack rights.
A quick glance at the spokespersons and experts who comment on the situation every evening on the news programs illustrates the civil damage caused by this security-oriented approach. If during wartime we find former generals and military commentators there, this time it’s health experts and former hospital directors – almost all of them Jewish men from the heart of the Israeli establishment.
The crisis has caused a regression in the small progress we have seen in recent years in the variety of speakers on the screen. The news corporations have relapsed to their old ways, and rarely bring women, Arabs, and representatives of other minority groups onscreen. When hospitals and research departments are full of outstanding Arab professionals, both men and women, there is no reason why this is not reflected on our home screens as well.
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When the point of view being discussed publicly is once again narrowed to that of the well-to-do Jewish male, so, too, is the scope of the issues being discussed. Since the outbreak of the pandemic there has been a public discussion about the problems of health, education and employment, but virtually all of it is devoted to the needs of the strong Jewish majority. In the war rooms, the television studios and the op-ed columns you will find almost no representatives of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox minorities, residents of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, asylum seekers, the tens of thousands of migrant workers, and the thousands of Palestinian construction workers who are now penned in on construction sites and continue to work as usual, far from the public eye. In fact, you won’t find much about women and gender issues either.
All of them are excluded not only in an essential and concrete way, but even on the level of language and terminology. Where you will find them is in the negative items on the violation of regulations or the absence of civil cooperation − even if there is no evidence for that on the ground, as happened with the false reports about a “problem” in Arab communities. Haredi society has recently been the subject of unprecedented coverage − virtually all of it superficial and negative.
But beyond the issues of language and representation, the media’s self-censorship, its turning a blind eye to the blow to basic civil rights and the rule of law, is a genuine danger to all citizens. When the headlines deal with the “curve” of the infection rate and the ventilator situation, the reports about the use of extraordinary means of surveillance against citizens by the Shin Bet and the invasion of their privacy were received almost without criticism and public discussion − this, despite the fact that the extreme measures were approved in the middle of the night without parliamentary oversight, while the courts were paralyzed and the citizens were in their homes.
The news presenters reported it laconically, while shrugging and saying that this is an “extraordinary situation” that requires extraordinary measures. The media abandoned its role as the almost exclusive gatekeeper of human rights in these times.
This silence of the media and the public prepared the ground for an exacerbation of the attack on individual rights, and Bennett is already rushing ahead to the next stage. While ignoring laws and regulations, he brought in the dubious cybersecurity firm NSO Group, which is being accused throughout the world of helping to persecute regime opponents in undemocratic countries. When Bennett was asked about his personal ties with the firm, he said that “in war there are no tenders.”
Public and media cooperation with the security-oriented perception of the crisis gives the politicians a green light to do things that would be unimaginable in ordinary times, and constitutes a dangerous precedent from which it will be impossible to retreat. Instead, the media must come to its senses and return to its basic role as the gatekeeper of the rights of all civilians.
The writer is co-director of the Shared Society Department at Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, and a lecturer in communications.