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
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 -
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
You are talking of a reflection of reality and now we are
talking in what we quoted of a reflection of a reality of
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
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
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
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
Every Palestinian, even if he is working for The New York Times,
is considered a security threat because he is a Palestinian, unless
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
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
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
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
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
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.