The Tongue has the Power of Life and Death

We said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies! Genesis 42:31 (The Israel Bible™)

Journalists in Israel, the US and around the world are under pressure. With unfair competition from social media (in which anyone who knows how to type thinks he’s a reporter), accusations by politicians and national leaders of spreading “fake news,” and shrinking newspaper subscribers and advertisers, principled journalists are threatened with extinction.

But, at least some of these threats are brewing a welcome counteroffensive, says Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions and head of the Media Reform Program and Democracy in the Information Age at the Israel Democracy Institute. The public, who in the past few decades have rated journalists’ credibility as low, have so little faith in politicians’ statements and Facebook claims that they now seem to give more credence to trained and accredited journalists.

A board member of Israel’s National Press Council and lecturer at the Federmann School of Public Policy and Government at the Hebrew University, Altshuler spoke at the end of February at a discussion on “Journalistic Scoop [Exclusive News] at Any Price?” A panel of veteran Israel Tv, radio and newspaper journalists joined her on the subject at the Jerusalem Ethics Center at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.

The two-hour panel discussion, attended by more than 100 journalists, was held to mark the publication of a Hebrew novel written by Zvi Li-Dar, a retired Israel Radio broadcaster and editor. The book, called Kadar Hamilim (A Tinker of Words), dates back to Operation Moses of four decades ago in which thousands of Ethiopian Jews trekked through Sudan – many being attacked, raped and dying along the way – so as to escape to Israel.

Li-Dar served as the Israeli radio and television correspondent in Europe, taught students in the Hebrew University’s department of African studies and wrote his master’s degree thesis on the roots of Ethiopian Jewry. His new novel presents the dilemma of two journalists who know about the secret plan to bring the Jews to Israel – and endanger their lives – and whether to publish the news. While the story is fictional, it is based on a genuine moral question and authentic history.

The scene is the vibrant newsroom of Kol Israel in Jerusalem in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Obsessive love, abysmal jealousy, crashing societies and limitless ambition sweep the two journalists – childhood friends – into a whirlpool of conspiracies and intrigues. A young Jewish woman who chose to leave her husband and her eldest son in Ethiopia to embark on an arduous and dangerous journey to Jerusalem was also caught up in this conflict.

Li-Dar noted that the novel is the first book he has written, based on his experience. “I warn about the damage that words can pose. Who hasn’t heard of shaming on social media. And fake news is meant to do evil with words. Today, anybody can produce and distribute words without editing. More than ever, the tongue has the power of life and death.”

Rina Matzliach, a veteran radio and now Channel 12 TV news journalist, recalled her quandary when she covered the period of right-wing incitement in 1995 against then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. She was at the mass Likud-based demonstration held at Jerusalem’s Zion Square that opposed the Oslo Agreement. “The atmosphere was explosive,” she recalled. “I covered settlements, and every night, TV gave coverage to the most extreme settlers. Followers of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane were there. As a journalist, was I given the right to give power and strength to them? The extremists were not so large in number. Benjamin Netanyahu was on the balcony of one building attacking Oslo.”

She was suddenly given a poster by 15-year-old Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Kahane follower who is now running for the Knesset as part of the Likud’s extreme partner, the Otzma Party. The poster showed Rabin in a Nazi officer’s SS uniform. “I learned that maybe there were only five copies of this post that Ben-Gvir gave only to journalists. If I reported it, it would make it seem as if this was the view of all the demonstrators,” recalled Matzliach. “My editor was about to close the broadcast I decided to show the poster at the last moment.”

A year after the 1994 massacre in which Dr. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 innocent Muslims in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Matzliach saw a journalist tell a Kiryat Arba child to go and dress up as the murderer for a Purim costume. “Other TV channels said settler children had Goldstein costumes. We thought we were doing an excellent job showing the most extreme people. But we were wrong. Somebody should have stopped us, because if you broadcast such things every night, it gives them justification. Maybe [Rabin’s murder] Yigal Amir got the guts to murder him because he thought many more people supported such an despicable act?”

She was once sent to the Cinematheque, where she asked then-Jerusalem mayor (and later prime minister) Ehud Olmert (who was imprisoned for bribery) a political question he didn’t like. He slapped his hand over the camera lens. She and her newsroom decided to broadcast the event, which infuriated Olmert. “It was good for the public to see this,” Matzliah said.

Arie Golan, a veteran Israel Radio journalist, recalled being Washington correspondent when Rabin was prime minister and negotiating with Syria over peace talks. He was leaked information that the Israeli government was willing to consider giving up part of the Golan Heights. He checked it and broadcast it; the story made headlines around the world. “The next day, the Israeli delegation to the talks said I destroyed the negotiations… We journalists are historians of the moment and have to publish, unless it directly endangers lives.”

Golan was a radio reporter during the First Lebanon War in 1982 and was told that the Lebanese city of Tyre was destroyed by Israeli bombing and that people were sleeping on the beach because their homes were gone. The then-IDF chief of Staff. Rafael Eitan, told a closed Knesset committee that the report was totally exaggerated, that just 6,000 people were homeless and not 60,000. “But the Censor refused to allow me to publish the truth, because one must not publicize such a senior officer’s words in a closed session. It took me an hour to persuade the Censor, even though publishing the truth was good for Israel.”

Akiva Eldar, a longtime journalist with Ha’aretz, was Washington correspondent, recalled looking into a leak that the Syrian delegation to talks had behind closed doors condemned a terror attack in which many Israelis were murdered. His paper published it, but it turned out that the Syrians were in fact condemning “Israeli terrorism” against Palestinians. “I regard peace as life and death too. If I caused harm to the peace process, I would feel bad. If a published leak of information can hurt chances for peace, that peace will not hold.

Longtime radio and TV journalist Gadi Sukenik recalled that Channel 2 TV sent him to speak to Netanyahu a couple of days after Rabin’s murder. “I came with my team for a reaction from him. But instead of saying he mourned Rabin’s death, he attacked the Left for ‘incitement.’ I told him: ‘You haven’t said a word about the prime minister being murdered. You didn’t denounce it!’ It didn’t interest him. He was interested in his own political survival. It was 1995. The standards were different. I didn’t publicize it. Today, I would have publicized it, as is.”  

Sukenik remembered with amusement that he had once worked as a security guard at the Bank of Israel that holds the country’s currency. One day, he learned that the national currency would be changed from the inflated lira to a stronger shekel. Later, he became Israel Radio economic reporter, but even though there was no censorship on such a story, he kept it secret for a year because he had been trusted at the bank to keep quiet, even though knowing about such an impending switch could have made many people rich.

Altshuler concluded the session by saying that trust in media has been dropping terribly in Israel and all over world. “But in 2016, it has risen again due to President Donald Trump and the social media. Despite the flood of information, journalists are trusted more to tell the real story. We have the responsibility to tell the truth. That is ethics.”



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