Jul 30 2009

How did Israel stop being a free country

Here’s a story about how un-professional a pro-democracy organization becomes when dealing with the State of Israel.

On May 1st 2009, Freedom House, an international NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, declared that according to its Freedom of the Press Index, Israel is no longer a “free” country, but only “partially free”.

Palestinians shoot rockets at Israel (photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

Palestinians shooting rockets (photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

That was odd: if anything, the Israeli press might be blamed for over-aggressiveness, lack of respect for privacy matters and tendency towards sensationalism. Maybe much more so than many other Western media, the Israeli press is robust and boisterous, and far from not being free.

On the other hand, Freedom House is an extremely respected organization, quoted frequently in all major newspapers, as well as in academic papers and governmental reports.

I decided to check with Freedom House how did they arrive at that conclusion, and to my great surprise, I discovered I was the first journalist (Israeli or non-Israeli) to do that. No one before asked Freedom house what was the reason for downgrading Israel to be only “partially free”.

Freedom House publishes every year its Freedom of the Press Index, with scores running from 1 to 100. The lower the score is, the better the situation is in that country. Freedom House regards countries with 0-30 points as “free”, countries with 31-60 points as “partially free”, and countries with 61-100 points as “not free”.

Until now, Israel was regarded as “free” (with 28 points for 2007). But now, for the first time, Israel received 31 points and the title “partially free”. It was an obvious PR victory for all those who claim that the Israeli society is indeed not democratic. Now an important organization says just that.

I asked Freedom House the full report about Israel covering the year 2008. It is published here for the first time. The report notes that “Israel’s status declined due to the heightened conflict in Gaza, which was reflected in increased travel restrictions on Israeli and foreign reporters; official attempts to influence media coverage within Israel of the conflict; and heightened self-censorship and biased reporting”.

Freedom House’ report contains incorrect assertions, and claims with heavy political bias. For example, the report says that “On December 31, the High Court ruled in favor of a Foreign Press Association petition that the Gaza ban be lifted, but the government ignored the court ruling”.

That’s not exactly true. The Israeli High Court offered a compromise between the Israeli authorities and the Foreign Press Association, according to which a few foreign journalists would be allowed to enter Gaza. That did not happen, but the court said later that the governments’ acts were reasonable.

But that’s mainly semantics. Official attempts to influence media coverage, as the report states, are done on a daily basis in all aspects of life (by spokespersons for example). But the strangest part in Freedom House’s report relates to “heightened self-censorship and biased reporting”. Self-censorship is hard to prove: the only one who knows for sure if he was practicing self-censorship is the journalist himself. But you can’t ask him, because if he did, he would surely not admit it. So – who is to decide if “self-censorship has been growing in recent years in Israel?”

Freedom House also says that “many media outlets largely reflected and indeed fed popular sentiment and prioritized nationalistic themes”. That’s again a problematic assertion: most Israelis felt exactly the opposite, that too many journalists were demoralizing the troops and actually were feeding defeatist sentiments. As in many other cases of social sciences, this kind of judgement is difficult to make, especially if you are going to pin it down with numbers and scores. Exactly because of this there should be clear and professional criteria, which are not derived from the author’s political views.

With all these questions I approached Adam Werner, Freedom House’s representative in Israel and the author of its 2008 report. Mr. Werner is not familiar to most Israelis: he is not a journalist (except for some articles he published for the Jerusalem Post), and this is the first year he works for Freedom house.

He said he worked alone on the report, and that his sources were reports of international media watchdogs, such as “Journalists Without Borders”.

I asked him how he knew that there were cases of self-censorship. He said he based that on an interview with Mr. Yizhar Beer, former director of B’Tselem and the current director of Keshev, a watchdog group. Due to Beer’s well known political views, which are on the far left side of the Israeli spectrum, I asked Werner if he consulted anyone else. Jurists, for example, or specialists for communications law. Or, let’s say, journalists, or maybe ex editors-in-chief, or perhaps political scientists.

He said “no”.

The questionable assertion about heightened self-censorship (which actually led to Israel’s status decline) was based only on Mr. Beer. The problem of course is not of him being a leftist, but of him being the only source. Such a sensitive issue should have been dealt with much more prudence, and surely with many more interviews and sources.

I asked Mr. Werner about the High Court’s decisions. He said he didn’t know, and asked me to send him the rulings (rather late, I’d say). I asked him also about the studios of RAM FM, “a pro-peace radio station”, which according to the report was closed by the Israeli police. He said the studios were closed because they didn’t have a permit, and after the permit was obtained, RAM FM went back on air. Six months later they closed again, this time because of financial problems.

So – why is this case included in the report? And why mentioning that it’s a “pro-peace radio station”, rather than to deceivingly imply that there was a political background to it (when Werner admitted he had no information indicating in that direction)?

I wanted to know who other than Mr. Werner approved this report. According to him, the procedure is that after he sends a draft to the United States, Freedom House sends it to three Israeli professors of communications studies. Unless they sign the report, it’s not approved.

I asked Dr. Karin Karlekar, senior researcher and managing editor for Freedom of the Press Index, who were those professors this year. She admitted that this year, due to financial problems, the report was not sent to any professors at all.

To sum it up: an un-experienced person, who is not an authority in his field, writes a report based on an interview with one interviewee with a very clear political agenda. No body checks it. Freedom House headquarters decide to downgrade Israel from “free” to “partially free”, even though they declare that when a country is being downgraded, an additional check is made. Such a review did not occur.

So – a professional report? A mockery? Decide for yourself.

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