Arab-Israeli government restrictions on journalism promote hate
By Ray Hanania
Last June while performing with the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, which included two Israeli comedians and a Jewish American comic, we were approached by a popular Lebanese newspaper to do an interview. The reporter of the publication interviewed me, a Palestinian. I suggested she might interview one of the three other performers, Israelis Charley Warady or Yisrael Campbell, or even Aaron Freeman, an African American Jewish comedian well known in the United States. The reporter was somewhat apologetic but frank, explaining to me, “It is illegal for me to interview an Israeli. I would go to jail.”
The reporter quoted me, mentioned the “Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour” by name and mentioned the other performers. But the Lebanese reporter was not going to risk jail to add a few quotes from my colleagues.
I was surprised. Israelis explained the restriction showed how serious repression is in the Arab World, even though the performances came less than one year after the war the previous summer between Lebanon and Israel that created such anger, hatred and bitterness between the peoples of the two nations.
This week, I read a news report on a web site linked to the National Arab American Journalists Association (http://www.NAAJA-US.com) in which Israel had announced that it was prosecuting three journalists who had visited two Arab countries. Lebanon and Syria.
And I realized, the restriction is not about Arabs being repressive, because apparently Israel is no different. The real issue is the governments in the Middle East are all repressive, especially when it comes to journalists who seek to report the truth.
Now, you might immediately think the targets of the Israeli repression are Palestinian journalists, as many have been arrested for interviewing individuals accused of “terrorism” by the Israeli government.
That kind of political persecution is not unusual as the term “terrorists” is loosely defined by Arabs and Israelis alike to describe people they dislike, regardless of whether or not they are or are not terrorists.
Believe me when I tell you, you will get a heated debate on this topic from all sides. And it will be packed with emotions, denial, and finger-pointing, always in the other direction.
But in this case, the repression by the Israeli government is against three Israeli journalists.
Israeli police announced charges last week against Ron Ben Yishai of the daily Yediot Aharonot, who in September traveled to Syria, and two journalists who visited Lebanon, Lisa Goldman and Tzur Shizaf, both of the private Channel 10 television network. Shizaf also writes for Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper.
According to a report from the International Federation of Journalists, Alon Sharabani, the officer in charge of the case, told Israeli public radio, “We intend to ask prosecutors to indict the three journalists as with their illegal acts they not only put their lives in danger, but also the security of Israel.”
He said journalists must first obtain clearance for the visits from the government, something rarely given, other sources note.
Apparently, although the three journalists hold Israeli passports, they used their foreign passports (dual citizenship) to obtain entry to the countries.
The journalists can be jailed for up to four years.
Whenever a government wishes to prosecute someone, they always cite national security.
Clearly, it doesn’t matter which government is involved.
In truth the prohibition is ridiculous. Journalists take risks in order to get to the truth all the time, because oftentimes, taking risks are the only way to obtain the truth.
Like in the Arab World, the Israeli media is replete with propaganda, including writing so hateful it is often hard for me to read the columns published in the English language Israeli media.
Israelis don’t consider their hate-speech hateful at all. Not surprisingly, it is the same in the Arab World where the media is also filled with propaganda and writings so hateful it is difficult to understand how hatred can pass for journalism.
What’s fascinating about all this is that while the people on both sides almost always quickly rise to defend their governments against accusations of human rights abuses and their media of hate speech, they are doing themselves a disservice when they close their eyes and hate becomes “relative.”
Israelis feel anti-Arab hate speech is justified. Arabs feel anti-Israeli hate speech is justified, too.
But having been in the region, and meeting Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis on all sides who recognize the faults of all, I know that journalism faces a serious challenge not just in the Arab world but in Israel, too.
And that’s not good for anyone. It certainly isn’t good for the truth.