Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 June 2002
If anyone was in any doubt about who was going to emerge victorious from the public relations battle between an American billionaire media mogul and the Israeli government, the answer was reliably delivered by Cable News Network (CNN).
The American 24-hour television channel filled the screen with a short message brought to the viewers in big red type: “Ted Turner’s views are his own and they do not in any way reflect the views of CNN.”
The row that followed CNN founder Ted Turner’s comparison last week of Israel’s military actions in the occupied territories with Palestinian suicide attacks — saying both were forms of terrorism — was an object lesson in the intimidatory practices now routinely employed by the Jewish lobby and the Israeli government against the foreign media.
The only difference on this occasion was that the target of the criticism was a television channel whose Middle East coverage is widely seen as taking an overly sympathetic line towards Israel. Palestinians sometimes sarcastically refer to CNN as ZNN, or the “Zionist News Network”.
Turner’s comments to the London-based The Guardian newspaper, although extreme by the standards of political opinion in the United States and Israel, were a fair reflection of the views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict prevalent in the rest of the world.
But as CNN officials hurriedly and repeatedly pointed out, Turner had absolutely no editorial control over the channel.
It is a sign of how far the Israeli consensus has moved to the right in the past 21 months of the Intifada that the Israeli government chose to use Turner’s unguarded comments as a pretext for mounting an assault on the channel and a more predictable whipping-boy, the BBC.
The charge was led by Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party, who announced that CNN news reports were “evil, biased and unbalanced”. He added ominously: “We are considering what to
do with the network’s correspondents.”
CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, responded by dashing to Israel to meet Rivlin and try to damp down the fire. He apologised for “errors” such as the decision to give more air time to the family of suicide bomber than the mother of the child he killed.
Yet, it was left-wing Israeli media commentator, Aviv Lavie, who pointed out that the decision to give priority to the killer’s family satisfied all normal journalistic criteria.
In an interview with the right-wing English-language daily newspaper The Jerusalem Post, Jordan also promised that the families of suicide bombers would no longer be shown on the channel “unless there is a compelling reason to do so”.
This was followed by an apparently unrelated decision to begin a five-part series called “Victims of Terror” which will examine the way Israelis deal with the fear of suicide attacks.
Jordan was too late, however, to stop the Yes satellite company from adding Fox news to its channel list, in what was widely interpreted as a punishment. Rupert Murdoch, a staunch friend of Israel, is known for interfering editorially.
Rivlin also indicated that he would approve any decision by Yes and the consortium of three cable channels to remove CNN from their packages. The channels said they were not planning to ban CNN or the BBC, although some board members very publicly pressured for a boycott. The Israeli government meanwhile appeared happy to leave the threat of a ban hanging in the air.
An editorial in Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper opined: “It is difficult to avoid the impression that the meeting between Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin and CNN’s director of news was meant to prepare the groundwork for closing the channel in Israel, whether now or in the future.”
It is a view shared by Filastin Ismael, director of the Ilam Centre in Haifa which monitors the behaviour of the Israeli media. “It is absurd that CNN has been pushed on to the defensive over its coverage of the conflict when the whole Arab world, and much of the rest of the world, sees it as sycophantically pro-Israel.
“Israel has been very quick to condemn Arab regimes for cracking down on dissenting opinion and boast about its own democratic credentials. But which Arab countries are threatening to ban major international news channels like CNN and the BBC?”
The Israeli government, points out Ismael and others, has not only been trying to threaten foreign news providers. Its own journalists have been feeling the heavy hand of government intimidation in recent months.
For example, the new director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Yosef Barel, an appointment personally approved by Sharon, has banned the use of the terms “settlement” or “settlers” on radio and television broadcasts.
The instruction came shortly after Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi objected to the frequent use of the terms in broadcasts.
Camelia Suleiman, an assistant professor of communications at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, is highly critical of Barel and the government mindset he represents. Barel, she says, was a key figure in Israeli television and radio’s Arabic broadcasting, which was directed at the Arab minority, from the 1960s.
“What Arab citizens were offered was a diet of Zionist propaganda. Now that he is in charge of Hebrew programming, one could say he is inflicting on Israel’s Jewish journalists what its Arab journalists have had to endure for decades.”
Suleiman resigned in January from the committee overseeing the development of Israel’s first Arabic satellite channel, which was launched this week. As the only Arab member of the committee she was outspoken in her criticisms of the channel’s programmers, who she says had no respect for Arab culture.
She added: “The atmosphere in Israel now is one of intolerance of different arguments. Television is becoming more and more closed — there is just a single view of the conflict presented right across the media. The attack on CNN is just a small part of a bigger picture about what can and cannot be said in Israel at the moment.”
Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 June 2002