Howard Epstein – IS ISRAEL’S MEDIA SAFE FROM ITS GOVERNMENT?
As late as last Monday Mr Donald Trump was speaking of “Crooked Hillary” (Clinton) to supporters’ cries of “Lock her up”. On Wednesday, President-Elect Trump said the country owed Secretary Clinton a debt of gratitude. This leaves us with the firm impression that there are two Donald Trumps, Trumpty and Dumpty. One only speaks the truth and the other only tells lies. One guards the path to economic prosperity, security and harmony – the other the path to stagnation, instability and discord; and, to reach the future, you get to ask only one of them just one question. But which one, and what question?
That may mean that America is in trouble, the only predictable thing about the two Trumps being that they are unpredictable; but of one thing we can be reasonably sure: press and media freedom in the US is unlikely to be severely restricted by either of the Trumps. Compare and contrast with these unlikely bed-fellows: Russia, Turkey and Israel.
In Russia, you publish something offensive to the President or the Prime Minister (in either case, depending on the election cycle, it will be Vladimir Putin) and you will very probably lose your life. This has been the pattern since the Yeltsin years, with 180 murders of journalists between 1993 and 2016. To be fair, whilst 2010 saw no less than ten murders, the annual body-count in the ensuing years has been but one or two. Perhaps the scribblers got the message.
Turkey takes a slightly less bloody approach. Whilst “only” 16 journalists are listed as having been murdered between 1996 and 2015, another form of punishment awaits those who displease the government: arrest and detention. Between 2002 and 2016, 84 journalists were treated to Midnight Express style hospitality (as portrayed in the chillingly-violent exposé of Turkish prisons in the 1978 eponymous movie). It is thought that any improvement in Turkish prison conditions since then has been imperceptible to the increasing numbers who sample them – thus, the Turkish website, Daily News:-
The number of journalists jailed in Turkey has dramatically risen in 2015, according to a special report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists …. Turkey ranked as the fifth worst jailer of journalists globally in 2015, with 14 journalists currently behind the bars in the country.
Overcrowding is, therefore, unlikely to be showing signs of amelioration. According to The Guardian (UK newspaper) edition of Saturday, July 30, 2016:-
Arrest warrants were issued this week for 89 journalists, at least 40 of whom have now been detained. The Turkish government has used a state of emergency law to order the closure of at least 131 newspapers, television and radio stations, publishers and news agencies.
Is President Erdoghan embarrassed about this? To bring matters right up-to-date, on Friday last, Akin Atalay, head of the board of Cumhuriyet one of Turkey’s last remaining opposition newspapers, was detained at Istanbul airport on “terrorism charges”. (Hmm. Seem unlikely to you, too?)
Why do some governments turn against their journalists? Conversely, why do others, such as the UK, the USA, most of the EU and Scandinavian states, Australia and New Zealand, tolerate energetic and critical media? The answer to the first is insecurity and, to the second, respect for their democratic traditions, which are seen as more important than the president’s or prime minister’ ego. When that is the motor for the curtailment of the freedom of the media to take political figures to task, liberty sheds tears of despair.
What, you ask, has all this got to do with Israel – and how come the name of the Jewish State appears in the same sentence as Russia and Turkey? I make no allegation of any attempt here to control the media by the killing or detention of Israeli journalists or other media personalities, but events in this context turned decidedly ugly last week.
On Monday evening last, Israel’s respected and popular TV Channel 2 broadcast an hour-long exposé of Israel’s first family by journalist, Ilana Dayan. Her thrust was that there is a disordered, almost anarchic, and paranoid culture inside the Prime Minister’s office. The program alleged that, bizarrely, Israel’s “First Lady”, Sara Netanyahu, plays a significant part in policymaking. (Mrs Netanyahu was already a little sensitive to criticism, having recently lost two law suits brought by former employees in the official residence complaining that she had abused them.) The last six minutes of the program consisted of Ms Dayan reading to the cameras a personal attack on her by Prime Minister Netanyahu. He had written a screed in which he called her an “extreme leftist” who “hates the prime minister”.
This is a puzzling allegation because Bibi, as he is (or was) affectionately known by Israelis, made no such complaint when Ms Dayan interviewed Abu Mazen, (the nom de guerre of) the Palestinian leader, and extracted a significant confession: that he survives by the good grace of the IDF. Nor had Bibi complained when Ms Dayan broadcast last January an investigation into, and secret recordings of, Ezra Nawi, a Israeli left-wing “human-rights activist”, who boasted (secretly, as he had thought) that he had helped to finger Palestinians who were willing to sell land to Israelis – and to get them killed. (Ms Dayan later apologized for that broadcast.)
Netanyahu’s tirade against Ms Dayan included these words:-
“The time has come to unmask Ilana Dayan, who has proven once again that she has not even a drop of professional integrity” …. “Dayan’s show demonstrates perfectly why the media needs reform.”
Ah, so nothing that leads us to fear for the life or freedom of Ms Dayan, thank G-d, but what is this about “[the Israeli] media needs reform”? That does not chime well with our image of ourselves as a free and democratic society.The main opposition party, Zionist Union, called Mr Netanyahu’s comments “incitement”, and former prime minister, Ehud Barak, said: “He’s completely lost it.” Barak may well be right. Can you imagine the BBC (as left-wing as any western broadcaster) being reined in by British PM Teresa May or any of her predecessors? No? So why here?
Such intimidation from the Israeli premier is nothing new. Last year Mr Netanyahu threatened to break up Channel 2; and the most liberal of Israel’s private networks, Channel 10, which narrowly avoided bankruptcy last year, blamed its financial woes on the same Mr Netanyahu because, they said, he blocked a deal to resolve their longstanding debts.
Independently of those complaints, we may judge for ourselves the truth of the allegation of paranoia on the part of the Israeli Prime Minister. As if that job is not more than enough for one man, Netanyahu is also his own (and the country’s) communications minister. Oh, and I nearly forgot. He is effectively the Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister, too, given that he has not appointed anyone else to carry out that function. All this betrays, for most right-thinking people, a suggestion of an over-weaning arrogation of power – which is a close hand-maiden of paranoia.
There are further sources of concern: the departure of former allies in recent months, some of them significant. In May 2016, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon announced his resignation, citing a “lack of faith” in the Prime Minister. Last month it was the abrupt resignation of the (some think) indispensable Doré Gold, as Foreign Ministry Director-General, for “personal reasons”, which led to inevitable speculation that the cause was Netanyahu himself (which Gold, a long-standing friend of the PM, was congenial enough to deny).
Bibi has been in power now for seven continuous years. Together with his first term, that makes ten years in the aggregate as prime minister. Some of us feel as though we have been here before. Like Margaret Thatcher, towards the end of her eleven years in power, Netanyahu now suffers from the steady drip, drip of departures and the increasing isolation from mere mortals that augments arrogance and paranoia. More than ten years at the top in America has not been seen since the death of the political colossus Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 and will not be seen again. No American president can stand for more than two four year terms.
The time has come for Netanyahu to be statesmanlike and execute a three-point plan:-
- pass control of the communications ministry to some-one who has no conflict of interest;
- take formal charge of the foreign office (where he will shine); and
- resign the number one job.
Enough already! And, in the meantime, hands off our media!
Coda: Surely Netanyahu has realized in the last few days that he and his right-wing government have little to fear from a left-wing press. The overwhelming thrust of the media in the USA is, and for many years has been, left wing. Plainly, it did not stop the two USA Presidents-elect from trumping a left wing deck that had been stacked against them. If the PM cannot see that, he really has lost it.
© Howard Epstein – 2016 November
Howard Epstein is a political commentator and the author of Guns, Traumas and Exceptionalism: America in the Twenty-First Century, recently published by Amazon and on Kindle. He writes:-
There is no need for me to tell you that the scourge of gun crime is perhaps the most pressing issue in the USA. My book takes a new approach – support failing gun control by viewing gun crime through the prism of gun culture.
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