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Journalism 101: A recommended course for the IDF

Israeli army’s Facebook status chides journalists for not choosing sides and becoming active participants in conflict.

By Mati Milstein

“Pictured is Zehava Weiss, who was injured earlier this year when Palestinians threw bricks at her windshield. Reporters on the scene were positioned to film the ambush and did nothing to stop it.”

The status update above, on the Israeli military’s Facebook page last week, exposed its dangerous misunderstanding – and outright perversion – of the role of journalists in conflict situations. This potentially endangers both the lives of journalists and their ability to freely expose situations of conflict to the wider public.

In the status, the army accused journalists of failing to intervene to prevent a rock-throwing attack on an Israeli vehicle in a Palestinian village. The caption implied photojournalists at the scene erred, acting immorally and unethically when they refrained from jumping into the fray to act as would armed enforcers.

The post garnered significant public attention. At the time this column was written, it had 1,839 likes, 1,420 shares and 260 comments. Many user comments were run-of-the-mill racism: “Jihadi scumbags”; “Islam = Wrong religion and real Hate against God and Humanity”; “Put up the wall around that road to keep those animals from throwing stones or just push them over the Jordan river like rabbi kahane suggested that only solution.” Many of the comments also called directly for the murder of Palestinians.

But there is an additional problem.

While repeatedly claiming to “respect the importance of free expression and journalism,” the Israeli military simultaneously promotes public campaigns – as illustrated by this Facebook status – aimed at delegitimizing journalists and undermining the fundamental role of journalism in Israel’s purported democracy.

Responses to the post revealed a widespread misunderstanding of the media’s role:

“Reporters who stand and film horrors should be put on trial as accessories to whatever.”

“SHAME ON THE REPORTERS FOR NOT HELPING THIS WOMAN in this ambush! COWARDS are the only words to describe these reporters!”

“They are not reporters they are evil accomplices – no difference to the murderers!”

One of the most problematic responses to this post expressed a certain satisfaction with violence against journalists:

“Shoot to kill in return. Reporters are collateral damage. Always felt most were scum anyway.”

The Israeli military – and the public it has drawn in its wake – is apparently not entirely clear on the occupational distinctions between journalists and private security contractors.

What should be priority for journalists: reporting or saving lives?

The IDF’s PR machine appears ignorant of the dialogue between the Israeli media, military and justice system regarding the ethical responsibilities of journalists in conflict, described in a comprehensive Haaretz article from 2003.

That year, the Israeli Press Council added a clause to its charter of ethics entitled “Saving Lives”:  “The moral and legal duty to proffer assistance to a person who … faces grave and immediate danger to his life or to his body applies also to a journalist in the course of his journalistic activity.”

This approach, one of many, remains highly contested by journalists.

On one hand, a journalist is bound by the nature of his or her profession to avoid taking sides. We must walk a delicate balance and occupy a position of neutrality in order that we may work freely without fear of retaliation, something that would harm both the individual journalist as well as wider public access to free news coverage and information.

In 1998, Israeli photographers drew harsh public criticism after they refrained from coming to the aid of soldier Assaf Miarra when he was attacked by a group of Palestinian students near Ramallah. Realizing they could have faced personal danger, the photographers decided to continue documenting rather than act as riot-control police.

Indeed, a decision to intervene can result in a dangerous outcome. In 1996, an Israeli television crew perched on a tower filmed an exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Palestinians at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. The crew became the targets of Palestinian fire after one of them began assisting Israeli troops, signaling to them the positions of Palestinian officers. His crew’s “immunity” was compromised the moment he began collaborating with Israeli military forces and two journalists were seriously wounded.

On the other hand, a decision to intervene has also proven in the past to save lives.

During Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, a Palestinian man was wounded when he was attacked by settlers. Journalists in that situation chose to put aside their cameras and notebooks to assist in evacuating the wounded man from the scene.

There exists a very important debate on whether and how journalists should intervene in conflicts. But the problem presented by the Israeli military’s Facebook status simplifies this complex dialogue, placing exclamation marks where question marks might have been more appropriate.

This status is just the latest stage in the army’s ongoing promotion of a paradigm in which journalists are perceived as – at best – a nuisance that should be recruited as collaborators or – at worst – an enemy that may be violently targeted.

This Israeli military assault is carried out on two fronts: virtually, when it uses social media to delegitimize and incite violence against the media; and much worse, when its soldiers aim their weapons directly at journalists in a clear pattern of intimidation and outright assault.

In mid-August, Israeli troops were filmed detaining and beating clearly identified press photographers in the West Bank village of Kufr Qaddum.

In July 2011, Israeli troops opened fire with tear gas grenades on me and other news photographers in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, and threatened us with arrest. Half a year after I filed a complaint, the army issued a statement defending and justifying its attack.

In September 2008, Border Police fired tear gas grenades on photographers in the West Bank village of Ni’lin. Then-chief photographer at Reuters’ Jerusalem bureau confirmed Israeli attacks on the media were routine in Ni’lin.

Such direct assaults on the media happen on a regular basis, during the course of almost every protest in the West Bank.

Attacks on press freedom are certainly not unique to Israel. Indeed, media suppression of varying degrees has been recently reported in countries including the Ivory Coast, Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia, Syria, India, Argentina, Spain, Japan, and Mali.

But a survey of international journalist advocacy organizations has not revealed any recent incidents in which a government military force – aside from the Israel Defense Forces – has called on journalists operating in the territories under its control to directly involve themselves in conflict situations.

Journalists in a democratic society must be ensured the freedom to work and document without being subject to demonization or physical attacks.

When the Israeli military targets journalists, it undermines the free, protected press – one of the most basic characteristics and ideals of a free and democratic society.

Mati Milstein is a freelance photojournalist who works in the West Bank and Israel. Visit his website here

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    COMMENTS

    1. Danny

      Sorry for Zehava that she had to get a brick in the face to realize that she was trespassing on land that belongs to others. Perhaps one day she will come to the correct conclusion that she should live in her own country rather than illegally occupy another one.
      .
      And a big raspberry to the IDF for trying to delegitimize journalists for reporting the TRUTH in this Israeli-made hellhole.

      Reply to Comment
      • BOOZ

        OK, I get it .

        It is wrong to wage a PR war on one side and the other side have every excuse for their misdemeanors.

        Yawn.

        BTW, Danny I have a candid question : what is Zehava’s country ???

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          “what is Zehava’s country ???”
          .
          Double YAWN.

          Reply to Comment
          • Dan

            And i’m sorry for Jamila Riada that she had to get a burning Molotov in the face to realize that she was trespassing on land that belong to others.

            Two can play this game.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron

      What gets me is that those damn soldiers refuse to take photos and interview people for magazines and TV.

      Reply to Comment
    3. If the journalists are not actively aiding those the IDF designates as dangerous, there is no reason for their public campaign. The journalists are not, in their passive stance, interfering with IDF action. The Facebook campaign is a breach by the military into civilian affairs. If the government wishes to ban journalists, let it do so. Otherwise, the IDF should remain silent, as it is perportedly under civilian control.

      The Facebook campaign is an attempt to inflame and mold segments of public opinion for political ends. This a civilian controlled military cannot do.

      Reply to Comment
    4. kate

      strange photo it appears that the brick rather than the windshield was broken and how was it that journalists were conveniently on hand to get this photo-op?

      It seems an all around game

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      The Facebook post and responses were quite stupid, perhaps more than Mati explains.

      1. The general idea that someone “was there and did nothing” is stupid unless we can tell what that “something” should be. Presumably, some individuals had prepared stones and the photographer could either lecture them to abandon their preparations, or call police or waive to approaching cars to make a detour. None of these seems practical. Calling police: hello! I see a boy with bulging pockets, I think these are stones.

      2. Actually, being photographed in the act of throwing a stone is not good for the person who does it as it can be a proof in subsequent prosecution, these photographers were helping IDF.

      Thus one should make a distinction between good photographers who document bad stuff done to Israelis and bad photographers who show bad things done by the Israelis.

      Besides being stupid the post was devious. Some of 2000 rocks were hurled by Israelis.

      JERUSALEM, Dec. 13 (Xinhua) — Several dozen right-wing activists broke into an Israeli military base in the West Bank overnight Monday to protest plans of dismantling illegal Jewish outposts, escalating already-strained relations between settlers and security forces deployed in the area.

      Some 50 settlers breached the regional brigade headquarters near the West Bank city of Qalqilya shortly after midnight, then threw rocks, burned tires and vandalized military vehicles, the military said.

      A senior officer was lightly wounded when rioters threw stones at him and his deputy during a scuffle with base personnel, the Ha ‘aretz daily reported.

      Then there are rocks thrown by the settlers at non-Israelis, it is reasonable to guess that there were more than 2000.

      Then there were rocks thrown at armored soldiers, with armored cars, body armor, helmets with masks and shields. In such cases it is quite misleading to say that “they can kill”. When XXI century military is prepared for rocks there are no fatalities. It is not like Palestinians used trebuchets.

      And of course settlers do not throw stones ONLY at Israelis. And there are other projectiles used in “Judea and Samaria”

      Reply to Comment
    6. Sam

      Not impressed.

      I would be impressed if some action is ever taken against rock-hurling, life-threatening 12-year-old Israeli kids on yom kippur. I’d bet the number of rocks flung every year during that day alone well exceeds 2000.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Laurent Szyster

      An IDF media campaign makes the hypocrit whine about his inalieable right to stage photo-ops.

      That’s rich.

      Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      How exactly were the journalists supposed to stop the stone-throwing without becoming the target? Schmooze up the Palestinians holding the stones? I thought the forces of order were the ones in charge of protecting people (including journalists) out there. (Thinx: wonder if *they’ve* ever tried schmoozing instead of skunk and tear gas; maybe it works.)

      Reply to Comment
      • Laurent Szyster

        Reporters are not expected to stop stone-throwing.

        Nor are they supposed to participate in staged photo-ops where people are put in harms’ way.

        People that wait to take pictures of an agression staged for them are not journalists but cynic exploiter of the conflict.

        If you don’t understand what I say, picture yourself a row of photographs standing on cue for a group of jewish teenagers waiting in ambush to lynch some arab youths.

        Do you get it now ?

        Reply to Comment
    9. Vadim

      People waiting in an ambush until a Jew drives along to take photos of Arabs throwing stones at them are not journalists. They are moral cripples at best. They are the kids that take photos of their friends bullying other kids and posting it online. Your attempt to portray them as journalists and their job as anything to do with reporting is equivalent to a mental rape.

      Always perform the following test to make sure you are driven by just thoughts instead of Israel bashing – change the sides of the participants. Imagine a bunch of photographers, waiting in ambush with settlers. They wait for an Arab to come and stone him when he does. Then the photographers take photos and sell them to Reuters. Would you call them Journalists? I wouldn’t – I’d call them moral cripples and think they are evil people.

      These so called Journalists are not just passive observers, they encourage these fine lads by their presence. I don’t expect them to stop this traditional Palestinian behavior or to call the Evil Zionist IDF. I expect them to refrain from attending ambushes on Jewish civilians.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Tim

      If photographers are morally required to prevent violence, then so are soldiers, passers by and any observers. Perhaps the IDF should understand that when they fire tear gas and rubber bullets at those protestors who oppose violence…. Oh, but that violence is different isn’t it… the illegitimate kind where the victims have no rights and no recourse to the law.

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      I confess it did not occur to me that this incident was set-up in advance with journalists in the know, but since such arguments seem to be the standard line taken by pro-settler commenters both here and elsewhere (see the Silwan incident with the infamous David Be’eri, when he drove straight into a group of stone-throwing children while press photographers were filming), it would be interesting to hear their views on the “embedded journalism” that has become the norm with mighty armies over the past couple of decades.

      Reply to Comment