Dances With Durban, Tangos With Tutu – Confronting Anti-Israel Media Bias in South Africa

Odious comparisons of Israel to Apartheid South Africa have become more than a source of fascination for journalists, broadcasters and readers. These comparisons have become the fodder for headlines, late-night radio shows and skewed documentaries. Since the end of Apartheid, South Africa has been seen as the benchmark by which any fight against racism is measured and Israel’s image is significantly tarnished when icons of the Apartheid struggle like Archbishop Desmond Tutu use the media as their own personal soap box against the Jewish State.

Continuous calls by Tutu for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel dominate South African headlines but sadly there is little more than a squeak for the victims of genocide in Darfur. The stigmatization of Israel by Tutu is extremely newsworthy. After all, if the voice of the “Boycott South Africa” campaign that reigned supreme in the 1980’s says Israel is a pariah state and must be treated as such is on every front page he must be a respected authority.

Negative press coverage against Israel only gained greater trajectory post Operation Cast Lead. A noticeable change in attitude by the South African government towards Israel has occurred and as a result, more hostile media coverage. While emphatically declaring that they support a two state solution, both the government and media have firmly aligned themselves behind the Palestinians. In fact, any opposition to the Israeli “Goliath” to the Palestinian “David” has the press hounds salivating like dogs with a nice, juicy steak.

This was very evident during the 2010 Mavi Marmara Flotilla. South Africa was the only country apart from Turkey to recall its Ambassador. Very curious and worrying when ambassadors were not recalled during Lebanon 2 or the Intifada or Cast Lead. Many wondered what a journalist from the Islamic radio station; Radio 786’s Ghadija Davids was doing aboard the ship. Tales of her woes in supposed capture were feted in all mediums. The Goldstone Report issued by famed South African Justice Richard Goldstone and its subsequent repeal received coverage worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille epic movie plot.

It is extremely difficult to separate government and editorial policy in South Africa. If the proposed laws that restrict the criticism of the government by the media come into effect, what would it mean for activists dedicated to making the case for Israel which necessitates the questioning of South African foreign policy? There is no clear answer and the staunch effort made by those arguing against the proposed laws are certainly valiant and should be applauded.

There have been victories over the years. Efforts by the Media Team Israel as well as certain leadership and individuals in the community have ensured that the Israeli narrative is heard. Opinion editorials that are biased do not go unanswered and criticism of Israel on radio and television are not without counter-arguments.

South Africa is a fascinating case study for those wanting to understand media bias. Sometimes it seems as though all roads lead back to South Africa because some of Israel’s most vocal critics such as Tutu, Navi Pillay who heads up the UN Human Rights Council as well as proponents of the BDS movement originate from that country. Pay attention to this African country because some of the greatest battles that Israel will face in the media in the near future in other countries have already been fought in South Africa.