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The Military Does PR for Itself, and Israeli Media Play Along

anat saragusti
Anat Saragusti
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Israeli soldiers carry shields during clashes with Palestinians in West Bank the village of Kfar Qaddum, last week.
Israeli soldiers carry shields during clashes with Palestinians in West Bank the village of Kfar Qaddum, last week.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP
anat saragusti
Anat Saragusti

Like a skilled choir, each of whose members work in complete concert with the others, every television outlet and every internet news site published footage this week of a military operation in Nablus to capture wanted men.

As far as anyone can tell, none of the journalists who reported on the incursion into Nablus were there with the troops, nor were any of them in Nablus at the time of the operation. Nevertheless, all of them used the same footage and provided their viewers and readers with details of the operation. And as far as anyone knows, the military reporters didn’t include information from Palestinian sources in Nablus in their reports, even though this is a basic journalistic practice.

The people who were on the ground and did the filming were soldiers from the filming department of the military spokesperson’s unit. They provided the military correspondents with the raw footage and the details, and the reporters relied on this material to craft their reports.

This un-journalistic behavior stems from the fact that the spokesperson’s unit often functions like a public relations firm – one that’s slick, skilled and, above all, rich in human and technological resources. The media, for its part, is hungry for cheap filmed material (in this case, it’s free) that’s cool, shows real “action” and even nurtures national pride and fires up morale.

In the same orchestrated, coordinated manner, the same choir published a report a few days earlier with identical wording: “The military has permitted publication of the fact that Israel uses armed drones during operational activity.”

Here, too, the driving force behind this orchestrated report was the army, which also runs the unit known as the military censor. The censor is the one that prevented this fact from being published in the Israeli media in the past, even though it has been known for 15 years that Israel uses armed drones and reports about this have been published multiple times in the international media.

On the one hand, the army denies the free press the ability to criticize, investigate, publish and inform the people about issues that are of great public interest. And on the other, it carefully selects not only what it considers permissible to publish, but also when publication will be permitted and in exactly what manner.

No one disputes that operational information that could undermine the success of a concrete military operation must be barred from publication. Any journalist would agree to a restriction of this sort. No news item is worth the human lives that could be lost.

The problem is that the heavy hand of the army’s influence and the gag orders imposed by the military censor go far beyond the bounds of concrete protection for specific military operations or the lives of soldiers and civilians involved in these operations. It stems from interests that bear no relation to such protection.

In the year 2022, Israel is the only Western country whose military censor operates routinely. This means the question of whether the censor is actually effective seems archaic. There’s no need to waste words about the age of social media and the technology that turns smartphones into high-quality broadcasting stations with access to countless platforms around the world.

But the question of effectiveness isn’t the only one that arises here. There are also questions about the content and the principle – that is, what exactly the military censor is proclaiming to protect. In the case of the armed drones, for example, given that every child in the Gaza Strip knows what the censor barred from publication in Israel, what advantage does it offer?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the censor, together with the Israel Defense Force Spokesperson’s Unit, is also a public relations agency whose goal is to orchestrate the publication of reports in such a way that turns trivial information, the military’s daily routine, into an expensive product that’s hard to obtain.

The censor and the Spokesperson’s Unit thus turn the entire media, and the network of military reporters, into a captive audience for their pronouncements. They stuff the media with footage from operations behind enemy lines and showy performances by elite units at a time suited to the goals and interests the military wants to promote. These interests don’t necessarily align with the principles of a free and independent media.

This system thereby causes the qualities without which there is no free and independent media to wither – curiosity, independence, fearlessness in the face of any authority, tycoon or government, and a desire to hunt for stories in the places most shrouded in obscurity.

Anat Saragusti is a journalist and heads the press freedom department at the Union of Journalists in Israel.

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