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Palestine-Israel Journal: We would like to ask you first what is the role and vision of the Government Press Office?
Moshe Fogel: The Government Press Office (GPO) provides services to journalists and its main mission is help create an environment that enables them to carry out their work. That means it is a government institution doing its best also to provide the media with a platform to criticize the governmental institutions themselves. The function of this office is, in this sense, to present government policy, but also to reflect the major events and points of view of Israeli society and Israeli institutions.
So, if we have a visiting journalist or press delegation, we will, on our own initiative, include in the program members of the opposition parties and people who do not present the official government line. A multitude of points of view are presented, keeping in mind that we are not an unbiased body and we do present government policy.

So what is your bias?
Anyone who comes to a representative of the government knows he is coming to receive a certain point of view. I have a flag of Israel on my right and a picture of the prime minister on my left. I am an Israeli spokesperson for the government.

Not for the country?
For the government, a reflection of governmental policy. What we do not represent are narrow political points of view, such as statements by any political party, or political party platform. But we will present the governmental point of view and it is clear that the way I will explain government policy will be different from that of my predecessor (in the Rabin-Peres governments - Ed.).

You are a political appointee.
The head of the GPO is appointed by the prime minister and approved by the cabinet. Before he enters his job, the director is interviewed by a committee headed by the head of the civil service who reiterates that, while in his job, the director cannot participate in political activity or use his position for political purposes. This is part of the role of the civil service and it is emphasized to government appointees in these sorts of positions.

As an appointee of the present government, can you summarize the attitude of this government toward the media, and what it expects from the media?
The free flow of information is crucial to the well-being of Israeli society. In spite of a vibrant judicial system and an effective police force dealing also with corruption, etc., it is very important that the media be able to criticize and to investigate these institutions of government.
They must understand that their work will be subject to the scrutiny, not only of established state institutions, but also to public scrutiny as is done by the media. Now we pay a high price for this media scrutiny because, in the media, there are often reports which are incorrect. There is often sensational journalism and it is not easy to be exposed on a daily basis to criticism.
I take into account that before the journalists call me or come to me, they have in their minds a significant part of the story and the way they are going to report it. I take that as reflecting the reality of the situation and the question is this: in my presenting the facts as I see them, what influence will I have on the way they report? They come to me as part of their professional job to get different points of view, including the governmental view.
The Western journalist, or the Israeli journalist who has what we call Western standards of journalism, will always take with a grain of salt what an "official" spokesperson will tell him. I don't have to do anything to encourage criticism, but, at the same time, one of the jobs of the director of the GPO is to make sure that there are no impediments to the legitimate role of journalists in the daily life in Israel.
Having said those flowery words, I can tell you that real life is very difficult: I wore a uniform during much of the Intifada and it is one thing to talk of democracy and criticism, and another thing to be on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of criticism and still to stick to the principle of a free press and a free flow of information. At the end of the day, you'll hear even Israeli generals saying that the Israeli military was better off as an institution for that exposure.

You talk about the free flow of information. That is a theoretical issue. Let us talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict. What is your vision as the representative of the government on the role of the media in the conflict, issues of incitement, issues of openness? Has the media stirred up trouble? Has the media allowed the government to know what the public thinks of the situation?
There are different types of media. Often the sensationalism has come from the visual media when the picture has a visual impact which has not reflected reality. You can have a military patrol going through Bethlehem and children will be playing on the streets. The picture on the TV screen will be of an army of occupation, while the reality may have been that the children and their families felt secure enough to be playing on the streets while the soldiers went by.
Both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides know that the media is a tool. The Palestinians use it to bring to the attention of the decision-makers points and issues which they want to expose.

But it is not a one-sided issue. What sort of tool is it for the Israelis? How does the Israeli government use the media? For what purpose? Is that part of your job?
People sometimes talk about the issue of how the media is manipulated. I usually give somewhat more credit to the media as a whole. For example, during the Gulf War, the real-time pictures of missiles falling on Tel Aviv brought home to the foreign viewers the plight in which Israelis find themselves. So the electronic media in different periods has presented the cases both of the Palestinians and of the Israelis. It has worked to the benefit or the detriment of both sides and it wasn't necessarily one-sided.
In general, over the past decades, I think the Palestinians have succeeded in portraying themselves as the underdog and the media has tended to benefit the underdog. I don't know that it is necessarily exclusive to Israel that the underdog is painted in the foreign media in favorable terms.
The heart of the issue is not how the foreign media covers events here, it is the Israeli media and public, reflecting the rights of the Israeli public to know and the obligation of Israel's public institutions, be they military or governmental institutions, to meet demands of the public to know what is happening.

Are you saying that the foreign media reflects the Israeli media?
I am saying that the free flow of information in Israel, criticism as a way of life in Israel, do not emanate from foreign coverage of events in Israel. They emanate from the right of the Israeli public and media to cover public issues and events.

Do you think this has been successful?
I think that the Israeli media as a whole has succeeded in bringing news to the public, but the competition between the media has many times driven them to sloppy journalism. It is incumbent upon the journalists and the media themselves to act for maintaining high standards of journalism. I don't think it is governmental institutions which have to oversee the work of journalists, but the journalists themselves.

But after all is said and done, there are areas where there is a national consensus in Israel not to deal with and which are not questioned, like investigating the nuclear armory and issues of security. When a general says there is a need for a general closure in the territories, that is not questioned in the way a closure in Tel Aviv would be questioned.
I think that if one looks at Israeli democracy in our situation of a democracy under fire, which has to deal literally and physically with ongoing threats to its very existence - then we are an example of a free press. The test is not of a Western democracy in peacetime because that is not a fair comparison, but the question is what the USA did in its Civil War period, in World War I and in World War II, in the Gulf War? The British in the Falklands War? What the Western democracies did in times of conflict. Comparing that to Israel, Israel has succeeded in encouraging and maintaining a free and vibrant press.

To change the subject, may we quote from a Hebrew University research project published in Ha'aretz on October 27, 1998, which notes that "the average number of newspaper articles per year regarding Arab citizens (who account for about 20 percent of Israeli citizens - Ed.) was only two percent of the articles sampled" and "approximately seventy percent covered... bad news about crimes and demonstrations." That doesn't sound quite commensurate with your introduction about fair representation of all Israeli society.
Let us begin with the fact that I don't write the articles or print the newspapers. The debate about Israeli society, about self-criticism, about the issues on the agenda today, goes on in the media. But we all know that the media is also a business and the criteria which guide most of the media are circulation and ratings and I ask you, who is to judge for the media how they should report?

The question is whether you, as an institution, have a reactive or proactive position. Is it your role only to react or to initiate, or to try and fill in gaps, where some elements are missing?
First, we try to reflect reality and the events in the country as we perceive them. We issue government press cards, which are not a license to work, and you can be a journalist without having one. I can give Palestinian journalists who are very critical of this government press cards, but I don't give, for example, to the Arutz Sheva (a radio station with rightist views - Ed.), which is perhaps closer to government policy than some Palestinian journalists that I know. I don't afterwards go out and measure what effect this policy of accreditation has on explaining the position of the Israeli government.

You are talking of a reflection of reality and now we are talking in what we quoted of a reflection of a reality of discrimination.
I think that it is an unjustified point of view to say that the Israeli media is discriminatory. I refrain from using the type of criticism you are raising, from some survey which I haven't seen, and I have my doubts about the veracity of such surveys. As long as we have a free flow of information, it is always going to be within the framework of Israeli society, just as much as the British media will always be in the framework of British society.

Let's talk about the Palestinian press. You are talking about the Israeli press, but your government officials and your soldiers are in control of areas, or borders of areas, where there is another people and other media. What is your attitude to the Palestinian press in terms of conditions to work? Is it only a question of accreditation which you talked about? What about the harassment they face: limitations of travel, their being shot at? Where does the GPO stand on these specific issues?
The Palestinian press and members of the media there are part of Palestinian society, part of the population, and as such are often caught up in the conflict as members of what has often been a belligerent population. So the situation in which Palestinians carrying a camera within a demonstration of throwers of rocks and Molotov cocktails, and even with people in the crowd shooting at Israeli soldiers and security officials, is a unique situation in the world.
In different times, countries and circumstances, other democratic nations did not allow people that sort of coverage at all. To be generous, they were treated as intelligence-gatherers and not as members of the media, yet, here, the kinds of rules applied to all the media are applied to them in most situations.

You don't give Palestinian journalists entry into Israel with their cars.
If Israeli TV or a foreign news-gathering organization were to open an office in an area under the control of the Palestinian Authority and to employ cameramen and journalists who are Israelis, they would not be able to function.

How can a Palestinian live in Tel Aviv? It is not a fair comparison. Can a Palestinian sleep in Tel Aviv if he wanted to work there?
The answer is yes, with a permit.

With a permit. And how many permits are given for Palestinians to sleep in Tel Aviv?
Our criteria toward the Palestinian press are the same for all members of the press, local or foreign. There is one difference between them which applies exclusively to the Palestinian press, that they have to meet security requirements as part of a belligerent population.

Every Palestinian, even if he is working for The New York Times, is considered a security threat because he is a Palestinian, unless proven otherwise?
Exactly the opposite. Every Palestinian can apply for a GPO card as long as he meets security requirements.

But that is not requested of anyone else.
Security is always an issue in a country such as Israel which is exposed to terror, to threats to its existence. I said that we give many Palestinian journalists who are critical of Israel press cards and don't give to those who don't meet the standards required. For example, the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation asked for GPO press cards. As long as they are reporting news, I won't treat them differently from someone from, say, the Cuban News Agency who asks for a press card. But when it was passed on to a security check, one of the people was found to be working for the Palestinian police force, and one has to decide between that and being a journalist. These are types of situations which are unique to the Palestinian request for a press card.
Palestinian journalists will not be tainted by security question marks, but will be treated even in difficult times like any other journalists. I want a vigorous security check for Palestinian journalists who want a GPO press card, but once they get it, they must be treated like any other Israeli or foreign journalist. The reality of the situation is that they are.

They can't drive their cars into Jerusalem, to their offices.
The issue of vehicles is one that is directly related to security aspects and I have tried to do my best within the security parameters to make sure the Palestinians receive accreditation and are able to do their job.

How do you define incitement? The government of Israel has made a major campaign against the Palestinian press, saying that they are inciting. I would like to know from an official of the Israeli government what is the definition of incitement and where do you draw the line between journalism, freedom of expression, free flow of information, ideas and opinions on the one hand, and incitement on the other.
We don't view the Palestinian media, in general, as completely free to express a wide variety of points of view.

But you said the Israeli media is also not free to express all points of view because of the state of war and, like the Americans in the Gulf War, you can't expect us to...
I didn't say that. I said that the framework in which the Israeli media operates is similar to that of other democracies in a state of war.

We mentioned nuclear and security issues and you talked about an Israeli security consensus.

In the Israeli media itself, the nuclear issue has been discussed along general lines. The bulk of the Palestinian media reflects the points of view dictated to it by the officials of the Palestinian Authority.

Which view is missing as far as you are concerned? The Hamas point of view?
Self-criticism. The criticism in the Palestinian media is reserved for Israeli society and institutions. It is vociferous and aggressive in everything, except self-criticism. So the institutions of the Palestinian Authority are exempt from the sort of self-criticism that you see in Israeli newspapers.

When Israel was founded in 1948, was it different?
The excuses we hear just don't wash. Palestinian journalists are warned, threatened, their advancement is often connected to their readiness to serve the goals of the Palestinian institutions: so there isn't a semblance of a free press in Palestinian society, which is sad. The basic way in which Palestinians are exposed to different points of view is that being so close to Israel physically, they see and hear Israeli media.

In reply to one of our former questions, you said you cannot control everything written in the Israeli press. Can the Palestinians?
On the issue of incitement, there can be various definitions, but printing or broadcasting material which leads to the delegitimization of the other side is incitement. I am not sure that many Palestinians understand that the burning of flags, the stereotype of "ugly" Jews in cartoons, the talk of Israel introducing tainted blood and AIDS into the territories, Palestinian television airing pictures of Palestinian children praising suicide bombers - all this raises doubts in Israeli minds.
The Israeli prime minister spoke of mutuality and in the Israeli press, there is much reexamination of values and precepts, though this doesn't mean we are less Zionist. I want Palestinian society to believe that peace means an absence of violence and incitement. In Israeli public and political life, with a media not controlled by the government, issues are put squarely on the table, whereas the trends in the Palestinian media don't comply with the peace process. The Palestinian press is not free, but an extension of the incitement practices by the Palestinian Authority. When the Authority's policy changes, this will also change.

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