Last month Israeli soldiers ordered padlocks placed on the doors of the Palestinian Press Service in East Jerusalem. And last week they returned to close Al Awdah, a weekly magazine that the regional news agency had published in English and Arabic. Israeli government spokesmen said that both Al Awdah and the press service had been “supported and directed by a terrorist organization”—a clear reference to the Palestine Liberation Organization—“and served its goals.” But critics in Israel and abroad have argued against such restrictions. Some, indeed, saw disturbing parallels between Israel’s limits on coverage of the four-month-old Palestinian uprising and the near-total quarantine that South African authorities have applied to news coverage of black unrest.
Television crews, in particular, are choice targets. Government spokesmen in South Africa and Israel argue that TV images of beatings or riots incite further violence at home and damage their countries’ international reputations. In New York City, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent journalists’ rights advocacy association, has pointed to the official backlash about media coverage in both countries. Declared Eric Goldstein, a committee researcher: “The attitude is
similar: ‘The press is out to get us.’ ” But Goldstein added that Israeli media control was still much lighter than the strict measures that are now common in South Africa. Still, both democratic Israel and white minority-ruled South Africa have limited the media’s scrutiny of political turmoil—and of the ironfisted measures taken by security forces to suppress dissent. And some Israelis have urged even tougher media curbs, noting that upheavals continue in their country while relative calm has returned to South Africa.
Officials in both countries have cited threats to national security to justify the muzzling of the media. In South Africa, on June 11, 1986, after months of brutal—and widely reported—battles between police and rioters in black townships, President Pieter Botha added new rules to more than 100 existing laws governing journalists’ activities— including measures that banned coverage of riots and forbade the reporting of any security-force actions to quell unrest. Last August Botha extended those powers to allow the suppression of any publication for up to 90 days at a time. The government invoked that authority for the first time last month and closed down the anti-apartheid Cape Town weekly New Nation.
In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,
pro-Palestinian publications have been subjected to intense scrutiny since Israel seized those areas from Jordan and Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967. And since riots and demonstrations broke out in the occupied territories last December, the Israelis have jailed dozens of Arab reporters because they suspected them of inciting violence. Then, last January, Israel began barring all journalists from many trouble spots—a policy that culminated in a three-day closure of the territories to journalists last month.
Television crews and still photographers say that the new policy has stopped them from effectively covering events in the occupied territories.
Declared Robert Lily, the Israel bureau chief of London-based Visnews, an international TV agency: “It is more difficult to cover the story and to get it out.” Still, Israel has not refused access to foreign reporters—and since last December alone more than 1,000 journalists have gained entry to the country. By contrast, South Africa has barred hundreds of journalists during the past two years—and deported 13 foreign correspondents who had been based in the country.
Clearly, some prominent Israelis favor the adoption of such measures. The minister of justice, Avraham Sharir, for one, last month said that foreign journalists should “depict Israel’s political problems in the correct dimensions” or face expulsion. And Sharir and other proponents of media control point to recent South African government claims that incidents of violent unrest have dropped by more than 80 per cent since journalists were banned from reporting disturbances—an official assessment that independent reports tend to confirm.
In response, Israeli opponents of censorship argue that news suppression poses a threat to the country’s 40year-old democracy. Without accurate information on which to base political choices, noted Moshe Negbe, an Israeli radio commentator, “the whole notion of democratic elections becomes meaningless.” Negbe and other Israelis who share his views say that the proof of that assertion is starkly evident in South Africa.
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