The Media is Free, and is Everywhere Chained to a Narrative

If there ever was a real line between news and opinion, it stopped being real in 1967. That was the year Israel licked belligerent Arab powers and took whole chunks of territory off them. The West marveled, but not for long. Humanity’s implanted fixation with the “Jewish problem” boiled up from an after-Holocaust slumber like a bubbling sea beast. Millennial antipathies were back at full strength. The media packed them into a narrative that conditions voting blocs and electorates down to this day. What the media passes off as hard news is an aggravated protest over Palestinian rights and Israeli wrongs. Anchors and editors slave away at a narrative garbled by animosity. None bother to hide it anymore. The narrative may have convinced audiences, but even more, opinion formers have convinced themselves that juggernaut Jews make life intolerable for underdog Palestinians who only want sovereignty. A brittle hysteria has settled on the media in every free country.A brittle hysteria has settled on the media in free countries, imparting an aura of menace.

To get the narrative across, to direct fury at Israel for being top dog, the media plays any number of games. I explained media games here and more in the book Hadrian’s Echo. Spiking stories, obscuring facts, reinventing the laws of war -- these are other tricks of the trade. Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains. The media is free, and is everywhere chained to a narrative that beggars belief. The narrative depends a lot on media-imposed censorship. Fear and bias impart the impetus. 

Eason Jordan, a CNN executive, disclosed the fear in a New York Times piece in April 2003. Writing of the Iraqi war that deposed Saddam Hussein, Eason disclosed that CNN routinely canned “dangerous” items of news. Reports of murder and torture, wrote Jordan, were censored by CNN for the sake of the Baghdad bureau. “Awful things could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff… The secret police terrorized Iraqis working for international press services. Some vanished, never to be heard from again. Others disappeared and then surfaced later, with whispered tales of being hauled off and tortured in unimaginable ways. Obviously, other news organizations were in the same bind we were when it came to reporting.” There it is. For the sake of a continued CNN presence in Baghdad, the corporation canned news that could put its bureau at risk. Discretion was the better part of valor.

And so it is further afield. If Gaza and the West Bank are not Baghdad, they’re not havens for the media either. Threats, kidnapping, and occasionally murder are commonplace means of keeping reporters on a tight rein. Ramallah controls what the media may cover. After a double-suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, Palestinian policemen arrested al Jazeera's Gaza correspondent Seif al Din Shahin when he reported Fatah’s claim of responsibility for the atrocity. He was charged with "inflicting damage to the interests and reputation of the Palestinian people and their struggle."

A particularly brazen case of censorship occurred in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. When news of the horror broke, ecstatic Palestinians took to the streets. Yasser Arafat’s men arrived to break up the party before incriminating images could go viral. Photo journalists were trapped inside a Nablus hotel while the carnival in the streets went on. A cameraman for Associated Press Television News was taken to an office and threatened by Arafat's cabinet secretary, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, who hinted darkly that should any footage be broadcast, the PA could not “guarantee his life."

Widespread manipulation and control of the media -- foreign and local -- is amply documented. A 2001 report by The Independent Committee for Protection of Journalists wrote: “In the seven years since the Palestinian Authority took control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, Chairman Yasser Arafat and his security apparatus have muzzled local press critics via arbitrary arrests, threats, physical abuse, and the closure of media outlets. Over the years, the Arafat regime has managed to frighten most Palestinian journalists into self-censorship.” 

Further afield and years later, fear and cowardice stalk corridors in South Africa. Janet Smith, Deputy Editor of mass daily, the Star, phoned me. The paper was due to run my op-ed. Smith explained the bind it put her in. The Star received death threats when they published anything that offended Muslims. There’d also been a threat to burn down the Star’s building. In Smith’s own words, “It would be more than (her) life is worth” to publish the op-ed. As a sop the paper ran the article on the Letters Page. And for extra caution it renamed the letter writer: Steve became Ebrahim.

Then last month the selfsame Janet Smith interviewed the political head of Jihadi terrorist group, Hamas. Meshaal was in South Africa on an official visit -- the first country outside the Muslim world to give the terrorist leader red carpet treatment. Janet Smith, with fear and favour, drooled over Meshaal

Janet Smith: “Hamas has long been in the vanguard of the struggle for the freedom of Palestinians, and armed struggle is familiar to South Africans. It is partly the reason why we have the freedom we have today. Our own president was a leader in that armed struggle. Yours is not very different to the armed struggle of the ANC. Before taking up arms, they had tried other means, but the regime was unmoved. However, you have made it very clear that your armed struggle doesn’t exist ubiquitously. You don’t have militia on a daily basis going into Israel or foreign territory. It exists as part of warfare and on specific targets. Is this correct?”

One thinks of four possibilities why a senior journalist of Christian background would transform an Islamic Jihadist into a noble freedom fighter. One, Smith was paid by Hamas to write the whitewash. Two, the Star’s Muslim employer twisted Smith’s arm; three, it provided outlet for Smith’s kindred anti-Jewish bigotry; or four, the paper was enticed, with dollars, to paint the billionaire international criminal, Meshaal, as white as snow.   

Then came another sequel; and a different newspaper was caught up. A group calling itself South African Friends of Israel paid the Sunday Times to run a full page advert, setting out ugly facts about Hamas. The intention, SA Zionist Federation Chairman Ben Swartz explained, was to educate South Africans and members of the ruling party on what Hamas is about. The paper pulled the ad a day before publication, citing worries about offending some parts of the community. A week later the paper flip-flopped, agreeing to run the advert, albeit without the image of a Jihad-dressed, gun-toting fighter in Hamas colors.

“We received the advert very late last week and is common practice with adverts of this nature, needed to satisfy ourselves that it was within the bounds of the law,” said a spokesman for the Sunday . On why it now wanted the image of a Hamas fighter to be removed, the answer was: “We have a responsibility to ensure that content that is published in our newspapers does not stoke racial tension and discord and have always reserved the right not to accept certain adverts.”

Anton Harber, being a professor of journalism, can be no lover of Israel. Yet Harber was moved to opine that “if the Sunday Times had good reason not to carry (or to amend the advert) then we need to hear it. If they can’t give a good reason, it will look like they are just censoring opinions they are uncomfortable with.” Quite right. The media is free, and is everywhere chained to a mendacious narrative.

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