OPINION: Media coverage of Israel must also reflect its unique situation

OPINION: Media coverage of Israel must also reflect its unique situation

By Yiftah Curiel, Spokesperson of the Embassy of Israel, London

A senior British journalist recently told me that he’s no longer capable of having the “coverage of Israel” conversation; he said it bores him and it’s been done to death.

Yiftah Curiel
Yiftah Curiel

I thought to myself that it probably has, and then I thought, how convenient of a leading member of a major news organisation that criticises everyone and everything day-in day-out, to “be bored” of a conversation about its own conduct on a major world news issue.

So here’s fair warning that we’re going to have that conversation one more time right now, and whoever is bored of hearing it can stop reading now. This week I filed my 18th complaint to The Guardian this year; just to make clear, I don’t get a bonus or a vacation in Eilat if I reach 20, and I don’t complain about everything I don’t like, only about factual errors, omissions that prejudice the integrity of a news story, or coverage that is unbalanced to an extent that can be described as misleading.

Granted, that’s a lot of complaints, nowhere near the low-single-digit average for other UK papers. It’s a number that reflects the massive attention the Guardian gives to Israel. In fairness to the Guardian, our complaints are treated seriously, always looked into professionally, often leading to a correction.

The Guardian’s readers’ editor in a recent column gave two main reasons for his paper’s focus on Israel/Palestine:The first is an “historical” explanation, the gist of it being “we’re focusing on this issue because we always have”. The second reason has to do with a reality in which a far larger quantity of photos are coming out of Gaza, for example, than from Syria, Islamic State-controlled areas or even the Ukraine, thereby directly influencing the selection available to photo editors.

There’s no doubt that Israel is a safe-haven for journalists covering the Middle East, with hundreds stationed permanently in the country, often as a base for overing the region, and peaking at more than a thousand when conflict erupts.

At the same time, the rest of the Middle East has become perhaps the most dangerous place on the planet for journalists, where they’re kidnapped and murdered and even used as reporters-at-gunpoint by ISIS. The New York Times’ Tom Friedman in a recent column wrote of the danger the international community faces by “flying blind” with no on-the-ground journalistic coverage of the current bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq.

A cynic may suggest that Israel should make itself less hospitable a place for the media and thus perhaps achieve the minimal attention that most countries in our region receive, but of course we wouldn’t have it any other way; our democratic values and liberal society dictate the open welcome that the international media receive in Israel. Still, sometimes I think that we’ve overplayed the “only democracy in the region” card, which has been successful to such an extent as to be misunderstood.

For the fact that Israel is a democracy doesn’t mean that it’s similar to Sweden, or Norway, or even the UK. Israel is a democracy in an almost permanent state of war with hostile countries or vicious state-backed terror groups, whose citizens are rocketed on a regular basis, and whose very survival often depends on its leaders making difficult choices between bad sets of options.

The proverbial journalist sitting in a hip Tel-Aviv café while filing her story on Syrian fighting as seen from the Golan Heights, three hours drive north, or Sinai terror attacks as experienced from Eilat, four hours south, or events in Gaza or the West Bank, an hour away, can shed light on this abnormal reality that most Israelis call their life. She can bring to play not only the flaws of Israel’s democracy, but the extraordinary success of maintaining an open liberal society under extreme circumstances.

Finally, it’s not the harsh criticism of Israeli policy, nor the massive coverage and photos coming out of Israel by hundreds of journalists that begs an explanation, but the inability to reflect Israel’s most basic, physical, geographical surroundings, in the midst of an unravelling, chaotic neighborhood, that is sometimes baffling. Israel is a unique story that will continue to generate disproportionate attention in the media, and perhaps nothing can change that, but the story must also reflect the unique circumstances of its existence, and until it does, like it or not, we’ll continue to have “the conversation”.

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