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Nachum Barnea, Leading Israeli journalist.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Ehud Barak, Israel's Minister of Defense and his wife Nili Priel.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Defense minister Ehud Barak talks to Ze'ev Shiff's widow.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

L-R: Amos Harel,Dalia Dorner and Nachum Barnea at the symposium.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Media Accountability and The Second Lebanon War : In Memory of Ha'aretz military correspondent Ze'ev Shiff

By Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

"There are two kinds of journalism when Israel is at war. There is journalism with no boundaries or there is patriotic journalism.   Between us,  I am a Jew. In wartime, a journalist has an additional obligation [not just to report on events], but to take Israel's security needs into consideration," said Nachum Barnea, one of Israel's leading journalists who writes for Yediot Ahronoth.

Barnea  was one of a number of well-respected Israeli journalists who participated in  a symposium on the subject of  the  accountability of the media in the Second Lebanon War held in the summer of 2007 at Tel-Aviv University.  The symposium was held in memory  of Ze'ev Shiff,  premiere military correspondent for Ha'aretz, who died on June 19, 2007.

The lessons spoken about at the symposium are as relevant today as they were then.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who spoke at the event, praised Ze'ev Shiff as being a journalist, who was a patriot and an Israeli who was concerned with security. As Barak said, "Ze'ev Schiff didn't ever hesitate to criticize the I.D.F.He was always at the forefront of  giving harsh criticism from our side.  [But] he was responsible in what he published and in what he didn't."

Barak indicated that there were times when Shiff decided "it wasn't right to publish in order that we (the I.D.F.) could repair [the situation]."

In his remarks, Barnea noted that the war in 2006 was different than earlier wars, when there were no cell phones. "In this war, a soldier made two phone calls, one to his mother ("Emaleh") and the other to "Carmela" (a nickname for the media).  Practically everyone had the cell-phone number of a journalist.  The information journalists received didn't arrive in small leaks, but flowed in streams.," he said.

"As a journalist you can't ignore the information you get.  But there were some journalists who were there when katushas fell and gave out too much information too fast.  This can interfere with security.  As journalists we have to consider which information we want to get out to the other side," he said. In Barnea's view, journalists have  a duty to subject the military to criticism, but also to remember the expression "Sheket Yorim' (Quiet, they are shooting).

Barnea said that when he interviewed Palestinians, they told him that there was military information that they got from the internet.  "Some Israeli journalists reported on the war as if it were a soccer game," he said disapprovingly.

Barnea's sentiments have been echoed  by then Knesset Foreign affairs and Defense Committee chairman, Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima)who testified before the Winograd Committee that the IDF ought to have closed off more areas to reporters.  "It is inconceivable that broadcasters will report from Metulla and tell the enemy what they think the army is going to do next," he said.

Motti Dankner, an Israeli photographer who attended the event agreed with Barnea's assessment.  "Everything about this war, including confidential I.D.F. maps could be found on Google.  Israeli journalists were willing to sell anything, and that's how information got passed onto Hizbollah," he said. 

When I asked why he thought this was the case, Dankner responded.  "It's not the first time in Jewish history that we were our own worst enemies. Why was the Temple destroyed?  When Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, what were the children of Israel doing ?  They were making the golden calf."

Amos Harel, defense correspondent for Ha'aretz, said that the path of patriotic journalism as espoused by Ze'ev Schiff was the correct path for a
journalist to follow.  

"As a journalist I have to try to tell the truth.There are times when I know that even though Nablus is only one hour away, most Israelis don't know what's going on there.  There are times I have to tell them, so they can't ignore it," he said.

At the same time, however, Harel added that  "Zev Schiff understood that there was more at stake than just tomorrow's headline.  He was professional but along with that he had the ability to see the wider picture."

Harel criticized some Israeli journalists who believe that "the I.D.F. isn't something to be proud of," and who "automatically believe that the I.D.F. is lying and the other side is correct"

Harel remembered a talk with Schiff in which "I moaned about the pace of events in the intifada.  Then he told me:  Think of covering the events in Sinai, how hard it was then, with no mobile phones or beepers."

Harel  noted that in retrospect he realizes that in the last number of years

when he, and other Israeli journalists went up to visit Israel's  northern border, they  did not have a real understanding of what Hizbollah was up to.
" We [journalists] did not know enough about what was happening on our northern border.Ze'ev Shiff understood more than other journalists," Harel said.

Today, we [journalists] still don't have a clear enough picture vis- a vis Syria,"  he added.

Israel Press Council president and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who also spoke at the symposium said that "Freedom of expression can not be unlimited but must be  balanced with rules of ethics." She added "If journalists follow [Schiff's] lead the Press Council's tribunals will be out of work."

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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