Friday, August 21, 2009

Coming up against censorship

My internship at the Jerusalem Post now half-way through, I guess it's only normal that I should start coming up against some of the issues that real journalists have to contend with. And so it proved this week; when twice I came up censorship.

The first time I was prevented from working on a story was not such a bother to me - the story (that of a Chabad man who had gone missing and was suspected of having been abducted and murdered) was always going to go to a reporter more senior than myself, but the second instance of censorship was at once annoying and intensely gratifying.

About three weeks ago, I was sent an email by an ex-intern detailing a potential story about a solidarity and pressure campaign on Twitter being run by a New York-based organisation called the JIDF for Gilad Shalit. As it happens, I already knew about the story. I wasn't sure about running it though, as there have been so many rallies and solidarity drives for Shalit over the last three years. Another reason for my hesitation was that the person running the JIDF has a reputatation for sowing discord within the online Zionist community, sometimes even resorting to underhanded tactics to get his own way. Despite my reservations, upon seeing that somebody else thought this campaign was indeed newsworthy, I decided to do some research on it. I contacted the founder of the JIDF, investing quite a lot of his (and my) time in messaging him and interviewing him via email. I got some good quotes and I started typing up an article. As far as I was concerned, this thing was going to run, albeit as a smaller piece.

I should mention at this point that my news editor is a very busy man who never seems to have much time to be relaxed. It's not that he isn't a nice guy; he's dropped in to the lounge (the area of the Jerusalem Post offices where the interns would congregate) from time to time and had a laugh with us, but it's very rare that he hasn't got a lot on his plate.

At any rate, Wednesday afternoon was fairly quiet and he came in to the lounge area for a few minutes to speak to another intern. As he was leaving, I told him that I was working on this story. I expected him to approve it, as it was fairly topical given that Shalit's 23rd birthday is next Shabbat. To my surprise he turned around and firmly and almost sharply, said "No!" Censorship #2.

I was taken aback, but regained my poise sufficiently to ask why he didn't want to run such an article. The answer he gave, as I mentioned above, irked and delighted me in equal measure. My editor's logic was that "we want him [Shalit] back... do you think that if we continue running articles like this it will make it any easier? No, of course not!" The fact is that Hamas sees our media, and realises full well that we are desperate for his release, and makes the terms of any swap deal that much higher.

If we stop to ask ourselves who we are lobbying, the simple truth is no-one but our own government - and they want him back too, of course, so what's the point? If we are demonstrating to raise awareness in other countries, the question we have to ask ourselves is, "Do we really expect Hamas to listen to popular opinion, or external pressure?"

By campaigning endlessly for Shalit's release, all we do end up doing is perpetuating his suffering. The slogan used by Habonim Dror after the Second Lebanon War, "אל תתנו לאדישות להרוג אותם - Don't let indifference kill them," until Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev's bodies were eventually returned to Israel particularly irked me - I doubt that there's even one person in Israel who didn't care about Ehud and Eldad's fate. To imply that Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora don't care about their captured soldiers is wrong, and overlooks the real reason why the two were only returned to Israel two years after the war ended, and why Shalit has not yet been released.

The fact of the matter is that Hezbollah and Hamas understand that Israel is willing to enter into deals whereby one side gains far more than the other, and hence try and squeeze Israel as much as possible. If we didn't campaign as much as we did, the story would be out of the press, and the stakes wouldn't be anywhere near as high as they are now. Israelis and Jews care hugely for their soldiers, and would give almost anything for Shalit's safe return, but not quite everything. If the price is so high as to be intolerable, then we can't turn around and accuse the government of being unsympathetic bastards - quite the opposite is true.

And so my I came up against censorship once more. But this time, paradoxical though it may sound, I was relieved and glad to be told to throw away hours of work. I might want to get my name in the paper, but it was good that my editor had his thinking cap on, kept the ever-willing intern in check and ensured that Shalit stands a better chance of returning home.


  1. I didn't realise that. What you've said makes sense but can we undo all the support, have prisoners held in captivity anonymously fared any better? I'm an Indian but have always supported Israel, even before I became a Christian. I feel very strongly that so many people praying for him and storming heaven will not go unheeded by the Lord of all creation. He is powerful and if one angel could wipe out an army of over 100,000 soldiers, what more can the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Prayer now, and only prayer is the answer.

  2. I blogged about this a while ago.

    I have to admit, though, that this makes me just a bit uncomfortable.

    OT1H, I (clearly) agree with the assessment of the JP editors in this case that adding pressure will make it more difficult for us to get Gilad back.

    OTOH, media censorship of news items can go the other way, too, as when the media hounds forumlated their infamous "Etrog" policy for Ariel Sharon. They decided it would be best for the country's interest that Sharon should be shielded from any negative publicity, so that the disengagement would be able to pass smoothly.

    All told, I'd rather have a free press than have political decisions made for me by newspaper editors as to what I should and should not know.