Benjamin Joffe-Walt
The Media Line (Opinion)
January 18, 2010 - 1:00am

For decades it has been a source of honor and dignity for Israel's defenders: the nascent democracy has consistently been ranked well above all other Middle Eastern nations in its level of press freedom.

Israel's free press status, confirmed each year by a number of international organizations from the US-based Freedom House to Reporters Without Borders, has withstood a number of wars, political revolts and Palestinian Intifadas.

The Gaza War changed all that, as Israel received extensive criticism for severely limiting journalists' access to the Gaza Strip during the heightened military conflict in the coastal strip in December 2008 and January 2009.

In a dramatic realignment in the annual rankings, Reporters Without Borders not only demoted Israel from its long-held spot as the top dog of Middle Eastern media freedom, but relegated the Jewish state to the 93rd most free media environment on earth, 47 spots below its 2008 ranking and well behind Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The Reporters Without Borders annual index is based on questionnaires sent to hundreds of journalists around the world.

The US-based Freedom House, however, retained Israel's rank as the kingpin of MidEast press freedom in its annual report, well over 20 spots above all other Middle Eastern and North African nations.

Israel also remained ahead of the region in Freedom House's annual 'Freedom in the World' report, released last week. A study of the ability of individuals to exercise their political and civil rights in 194 countries and 14 territories across the globe, the report assigns each country a 'freedom status' based on a series of parameters. While 89 countries, representing 46% of the global population, were given the 'Free' status, Israel has been the only Middle Eastern country designated 'Free' for over 30 years and remains the Middle Eastern nation with the most political and civil freedoms by a far margin.

The dissonance in Israel's ranking in the varying reports has analysts debating the methodology used in the international monitoring of press freedom.

"Israel was on the top since the press index was created and we never said that the press in Israel is not free," Soazig Dollet, head of the Middle East desk at Reporters Without Borders, told The Media Line. "But what we are condemning is the violation of press freedom by Israeli forces and the Gaza War explains everything."

"Palestinian journalists were killed, at least three media buildings were targeted by the Israeli army, Israeli journalists were arrested trying to cover the Gaza operation and two journalists were arrested and charged with spying on behalf of Iran," she said. "All of this explains Israel's drop in the press freedom index."

"How many journalists were arrested or sentenced to prison in Lebanon or Kuwait this year? None," Dollet said, explaining the placement of Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates all above Israel in the annual rankings. "How many journalists were killed by Lebanese authorities this year? None. How many journalists were killed by the Kuwaiti army this year? None."

Critics of the Reporters Without Borders report accuse the organization of conflating the press environment in Israel proper with that of the territories controlled by Israel. Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House and a number of other international media monitoring groups usually separate Israel, the Palestinian administered territories and the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel for the purposes of press freedom rankings.

"This is part of a whole hysterical wave of anti-Israel feeling across the world," Tamar Liebes, professor of communications at the The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There is absolutely no evidence of a dramatic reduction in press freedom in Israel itself. Israeli press keep getting leaks from the government. You name it and it was in the Israeli press this year. Anything they get they print."

"Foreign journalists are just upset that Israel didn't let them into Gaza," she continued. "But this was a war in a civilian area and there is a lot of danger to civilians in these kinds of situations. In fact over a dozen Israeli soldiers were shot by their own army. So it's Israel's responsibility to allow for free press but Israel also has to protect journalists."

But Soazig Dollet defended the 47 point drop in Israel's status.

"An Israeli reporter was arrested by Israel in Israeli territory," she said, citing a total of five journalists arrested in Israel and three imprisoned. "Two Iranian journalists were sent to jail in Jerusalem and two journalists from Al Jazeera were deported by Israeli forces from Israeli territory."

"In addition there are continuing difficulties for Palestinians and Israeli journalists covering the West Bank," she added. "Palestinian journalists have been targeted by Israeli forces while covering peaceful protests and there is military censorship. None of this is new so it didn't really affect the position of Israel but it explains why Israel has never been in the top 10."

Dr Mordechai Kedar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University argued that Israel had made a conscious decision to continue military censorship, despite the effect it may have on the country's press freedom rankings.

"Israeli soldiers' lives are much more important than the rights of journalists to report whatever they like," he told The Media Line. "The newspapers and TV are still totally free in Israel and we have no problem with letting out what happens and what does not happen, but censorship is usually a decision made in order to save soldier's lives and I think journalists who endanger Israeli soldiers should be punished, whether they are Israeli or not."

"The main reason for the drop in our ranking was restrictions which were put on reporting from Gaza during the war," said Dr Kedar, who served for 25 years in Israel's military intelligence and is an expert in Middle Eastern mass media. "If there is an action by Israeli forces and journalists can't photograph them, journalists don't like this and of course this will negatively affect Israel's press freedom ranking but I couldn't care less. The circumstances justified it."

"Another thing is that Israel did not let journalists go to Gaza from Israel," he added. "Israelis said if you want to go to Gaza go from somewhere else, but we are not a passage to Gaza. Israel is afraid that foreign journalists will become propaganda devices in the hands of Hamas and that they will not report things that Hamas does not like."


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