Was the SA media coverage of Israel's bombardment of Gaza unbalanced and riddled with blindly reported inaccuracies?
The first day of a three-week visit to South Africa in August began badly: I read an article in the New Age by Jane Duncan, professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg, in which she sneered at what she called “the Israeli line” that the country was “acting in self-defence” against Hamas rockets and tunnels.
Fresh from an overnight flight from an Israel at war, I wondered how else to describe a country’s response to barrages of up to 200 missiles a day, landing indiscriminately, and to uncovering 32 tunnels burrowed up to 3km under its territory for terrorists to invade and commit mass murders and kidnappings.
I marvelled too at her claim that Israel “was founded on the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians”. Can she really know so little about the tangled events of 1948 after the United Nations decision to partition the then Palestine, the Jews’ acceptance of it, the Arab rejection and the war they waged (unsuccessfully) to destroy the new Jewish state? How can a journalism professor offer such a simplistic and inaccurate rendering of well-known history?
Worse followed. The point of her article was to urge journalists to forget about “objectivity” in reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ignore “balance”, she said. Instead, “truth” must dominate. That’s nice-sounding. But who defines “truth”? What if you believe in a different “truth”?
Duncan’s view is not new. It was the hallmark of the former Soviet Union. Those who did not accept Stalin-decreed “truth” were murdered or shipped to labour camps. The same hobbling of free, dispassionate journalism was attempted during the 1980s by developing countries in what they ominously termed the “new world information order”. The West also rejected and beat that one back. But, in South Africa in 2014, it’s what a professor of journalism preaches.
My anxiety about the media was reinforced by the Institute for Advanced Journalism in Johannesburg: it “postponed” (that is, cancelled) a meeting for me to speak about my new book on Israel and apartheid. I was told that this was because emotions were “running so high” over Gaza.
But if journalists cannot meet to discuss contentious issues, who can? I have spent more than 55 years of my life as a journalist; for me, the institute’s verkrampte, frightened attitude was tantamount to spelling the end of inquiry. I replied: What sort of journalism are you teaching your students? No answer came.
Then it was Steven Friedman, “an academic and political commentator”, in the Mail & Guardian. He said: “There weren’t any rockets being fired before Israel invaded Gaza. How many people in Israeli cities have actually been under threat? Zero.” He had missed reports about the nonstop rain of rockets that has terrorised Israel: about 450 from January 1 to June 30.
He went further: “The Israeli government blows sirens and forces people into bomb shelters, so that they have a real sense of terror and feeling besieged.” This was disconnected from reality – nutcase stuff. It was also insulting to Hamas. What did Friedman think was in its thousands of thousands of 75kg to 154kg warheads? Confetti?
In the Cape Argus, Kieran Legg interviewed a Palestinian diplomat, Tamer Almassri, about Gaza. Under a gory headline, “Playing in our blood”, he managed to avoid any reference to Hamas missiles; it was as if Israel was cruelly attacking Gaza for no reason.
He also left unquestioned Almassri’s statement that “we will not let 66 years of bloodshed come to nothing … We will not give up until we have our historical land again.” Legg presumably did not realise Almassri was harking back to 1948 and calling for Israel’s destruction.
Then, in Business Day, there was Allister Sparks, a veteran commentator who should know that a two-state solution has been the Israeli government’s policy, in word if not always in deed, for the past three years. But, according to Sparks: “Netanyahu has never recognised the right of a Palestinian state to exist.”
Sparks is eager to sanitise Hamas, undemocratic and hate-filled though it is. He tries to link Margaret Thatcher’s rejection of the ANC as a terrorist organisation to Israel’s labelling of Hamas as terrorist.
But he fails to tell his readers that the Thatcher slur was factually inaccurate, whereas Hamas is a genuine, thoroughly murderous terrorist organisation – in the judgment not only of Israel and the United States but also the European Union, Canada and Japan. He also needs to ask Saudi Arabia and other Arab states about their fear of Hamas’s Islamist extremism.
In complaining that the Pentagon gave Israel a further $225-million in military aid, he did not mention that this was chiefly for self-defence – for “Iron Dome”, the anti-missile system developed by Israeli scientists with US taxpayer money. Each battery costs $50-million and each Hamas rocket is brought down at a cost of $50 000.
Nor did he display much understanding of labyrinthine Middle East politics – of the fact that, although only Turkey and Qatar, and possibly Iran, are Hamas’s friends, no other states in the region will speak to them. So Egypt landed up as the mediator, despite Sparks’s denial that it can do the job.
I blinked, again, at an emotional indictment of Israel in the New Age. Laeeka Edries, “a second-year student at the Durban University of Technology”, wrote about the deaths of Gazan children in a piece filled with wild inaccuracies. Is Edries qualified to write an “analysis” of a life-and-death struggle thousands of kilometres away?
So it went on. Day after day I read reports heavy with factual errors or loaded against Israel – not only the repeated omission of reference to the Hamas missiles and tunnels but also the consistent criticisms of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. I happen to be among the many Israelis who believe the siege should end, but what upset me about the South African reporting was the scant mention of the fact that Egypt has also been laying siege to Hamas and in some ways is even tougher than Israel: it left hundreds of Palestinians stranded for days in no-man’s-land, refusing to allow them to enter either Egypt or Gaza; it destroyed more than 1 300 tunnels used for taking anything from goats to medical supplies and missiles into Gaza.
I was surprised by the lack of questioning by journalists. Why didn’t anyone challenge Friedman about his obvious nonsense? Why is he given a platform? Why didn’t anyone question Cosatu’s spokesperson Patrick Craven when he said in the Times: “We’re going to put pressure on businesses to prevent anything that comes from Israel being sold in this country”?
Why wasn’t he asked: Does that mean you will throw away your cellphones and computers, because they wouldn’t exist without Israeli technology and components? Will you check whether you and your millions of members are taking lower-cost drugs made by Israel’s Teva, the world’s biggest generic drugmaker? Meanwhile, because of Cosatu, the health ministry has put on hold the purchase of the Israeli-made PrePex device for male circumcisions, denying its mass use to combat Aids.
Nor are the faults only South African. Kim Sengupta of the London Independent, in a full-page article carried in the Star, managed only a glancing reference to missiles fired at Israel. And he perpetuated a glaring failure in media reporting from Gaza: the unquestioning acceptance of the casualty figures issued by Hamas and local UN officials. They say two-thirds of casualties were civilians, many of them women and children. But that doesn’t make sense.
What about Hamas fighters who in the later stages were engaged in almost hand-to-hand combat with Israeli soldiers? Did any newspaper carry a picture of a Hamas fighter, dead or alive?
Sengupta’s cop-out was this: “My colleagues and I were not in a position to analyse the exact make-up of the maimed and the dead with any degree of certainty. It was not possible amid the maelstrom of bombs and missiles [and] buildings crumbling around us.”
Did any editor in South Africa ask him: Then why do you blindly report the casualty figures fed to you and write so emotionally about them? Did anyone respond to accusations by journalists after they left Gaza of intimidation by Hamas if they reported anything except dead children and destroyed buildings?
Of course, not all journalism on Israel is poor. South Africa has thinking journalists who are true to their calling, who question and assess the facts. But three weeks of a mass of low-quality, unthinking reports left me alarmed about the country’s media. No wonder there is so much anger against Israel.
Benjamin Pogrund’s book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, is published by Rowman & Littlefield, New York, and distributed in Southern Africa by Juta.