For 10 years or so, I regularly gave lectures to Israeli army units on the need for a free press in a democracy. It was my army reserve duty, in the army’s Education Corps. The qualifications for such duty, as a graduate school professor said when he told me to apply, were “higher education and a low medical profile.”
So I spoke before officers and mechanics, tank crews and pilots, and often to infantrymen serving in the West Bank. As soldiers they feel uncomfortable with journalists watching them, I explained, but as citizens they needed the media to shine light on the government’s actions — including its military operations. A subtext was that it was a dumb idea to stick your hand over a photographer’s lens. I don’t know if my civics lessons had any effect, but I was impressed that the army wanted them.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, on the other hand, thinks it’s a great idea to put the heavy hand of the law over every lens pointed at Israeli soldiers. On Sunday, a committee of cabinet ministers (half from Netanyahu’s Likud party) voted to support a bill that would outlaw photographing confrontations between soldiers and Palestinians.
The bill explicitly says it’s aimed at Israeli groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem that report human rights violations in the occupied territories. In the West Bank, foreign television networks have provided cameras to locals for years to gain more footage and improve reporting. B’Tselem has equipped and trained 200 Palestinians to use cameras to boost monitoring of rights violations.
A spokesman for right-wing lawmaker Robert Ilatov, the bill’s author, says it wouldn’t apply to mainstream journalists. This provides zero comfort. Citizen journalists with their cellphones have played a crucial role in revealing abuses by governments and businesses. They, and human rights groups, are a valuable source for news organizations. And freedom of the press vanishes when a government gets to decide who is a legitimate journalist and who isn’t.
Another weak reassurance: The governing coalition has objected to the original bill and plans to water it down so that it merely bans interfering with soldiers in the line of duty. Yet in the hands of an aggressive prosecutor and a cooperative court, the vaguer language could still be used against an Israeli activist or a Palestinian with a video camera. The threat to the free flow of information will be softened but not eliminated.
The bill, let me stress, fits a larger context. The core right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s coalition have waged a long, public and legislative campaign against groups whose original and primary aim is to inform Israelis about what their government is doing in the occupied territories. Netanyahu personally has sought control over the media to ensure flattering coverage of himself. The combined goal is to protect policies and politicians by limiting or distorting what voters know.
Another example from this week: The front page of the daily Israel Hayom on Sunday blared the “scoop” that the European Union was funding a project from Breaking the Silence and two other human rights groups to take legal action against individual Israeli soldiers for military actions meant to prevent terror. The purported revelation, it turned out, was based on a bad translation of the groups’ funding request in English.
The story, in short, fit one of the right’s standard lines of attack on human rights groups: that they are out to get Israeli soldiers. The charge is particularly bizarre when aimed at Breaking the Silence, a veterans’ group that collects soldiers’ testimonies about their service and jealously guards their anonymity. The aim is for citizens to judge the policy of occupation, not the foot soldiers caught up in it.
Israel Hayom puts Fox News to shame as propaganda pretending to be journalism. American billionaire and Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson owns the tabloid, which circulates for free amid losses. It functions as a daily message sheet for Netanyahu. Last year, under the pressure of a freedom of information order, the prime minister admitted that he spoke with the paper’s previous editor almost daily during elections in 2013.
Netanyahu wants similar treatment on the air. On his watch the government shut its BBC-style television and radio station and opened a new public broadcasting corporation. He supports a law (now on hold due to a legal challenge) to spin off its news operation, apparently hoping to gain more control over its reporting. Besides that, three of the police investigations against the prime minister involve allegations that he used, or tried to use, government favors in return for favorable coverage.
In their own perverse way, Netanyahu and his allies are paying the compliment that illiberal leaders always pay to a free press. They fear a better-informed public. They fear the uncovered lens.