The intense coverage of the uprising in Egypt – covered by nearly every journalist in the region – has revealed a significant double standard in the media’s coverage of Israel. The relative decline in coverage of Israel draws attention to the vastly disproprtionate amount of attention Israel receives in the world press, at the expense of coverage of other parts of the Middle East. As a result, relatively minor events in Israel are reported, discussed and analyzed well beyond their importance, while entire movements in places like Egypt are ignored entirely.
The question needs to be asked – is the mainstream media giving its readers the best coverage of the region?
At any one time there are some 450 foreign journalists permanently resident in Israel, not to mention the hundreds of support staff such as photographers, researchers, producers, freelancers and stringers. Over the past couple of weeks, there has been something of an exodus as many journalists have left Jerusalem and headed to Cairo.
Indeed, many of those Jerusalem-based journalists are responsible not only for covering Israel but also the neighboring Arab countries of the Middle East, including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. This is particularly the case as news organizations seek to cut back on costs and reduce the numbers of foreign bureaus or expand the geographical reaches of existing ones.
Compared to her neighbors, Israel is a paragon of democracy, human rights and virtue. Paradoxically, however, these are just the things that Israel finds herself attacked over in the media and elsewhere. Of course, when so many journalists are stationed in such a small country, any indiscretions are likely to be magnified and turned into international news.
Indeed, an Israeli misdemeanor can make headlines while comparable or far worse incidents from Arab states will go completely unreported. So why is it that the mainstream media has only just discovered that a real human rights abuser in the form of Egyptian President Mubarak has been oppressing his people for nearly three decades?
There is certainly a double standard at play when it comes to the reporting in the Middle East. Why is it, for example, an international news story concerning Israeli measures to stem a wave of African migrants crossing the Egyptian-Israeli border? Could it be that such a story fits a narrative that portrays Israel as a racist, apartheid regime more concerned with Jewish particularism than caring for black Africans? Could it be that those who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis are no longer prepared to save those who are persecuted today?
Sadly, this is a potential angle in the back of the minds of some who file such a story despite the fact that the issue of immigration is a sensitive one in both the US and Europe and is certainly not unique to Israel. What the media has failed to highlight, however, is the treatment that these migrants receive en route to Israel through Egypt, where tales of theft, murder, torture and rape abound. Where is the outrage that women and children are being shot by Egyptian border patrols as they run towards the one country that they believe offers them a better future? Where are the stories of how IDF soldiers actively rescue these people from certain death, physically pulling them over the border and out of reach of Egyptian guns?
Stories are emerging from Egypt of foreign journalists being harrassed and even physically attacked, so much so that this has prompted protests from Western governments, including the US administration. A list of incidents so far compiled by media analyst Tom Gross makes for shocking reading for those of us concerned with press freedom.
Yet why is this news? After all, even in the “moderate” authoritarian regimes of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, journalists are regularly threatened, harassed, beaten, arrested and even murdered. But you won’t hear about such incidents. After all, one of the most important things for a journalist is access. So it doesn’t pay to complain to the regime or to publish the story lest such access is withdrawn.
In Israel however, a recent incident made news in a number of media outlets and prompted a complaint from the Foreign Press Association after an al-Jazeera reporter was asked to take off her bra to go through a security check at a journalist event hosted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Putting aside the rights or wrongs of the incident, consider the following:
While the undoubted humiliation and inconvenience of an Al-Jazeera reporter makes headlines, the many stories of foreign journalists inconvenienced, detained, threatened and sometimes worse, are never reported simply because the foreign press is unprepared to publicly take on autocratic regimes that may impose sanctions that may negatively affect the ability of journalists to gather news.
Consider also the example of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari station that has proven its politicized agenda with its reporting of the Egyptian crisis and the recent Palileaks papers. Its offices attacked in Cairo and Ramallah while it is still free to operate in Israel of all places where the worst that can happen is the humiliation of one of its reporters at a security check.
Only now as the Mubarak regime starts to crumble do the journalists make a story out of their treatment in an Arab country, not to mention the revelations that Egypt, despite being a Western oriented ally in the region, is not a liberal or virtuous place for its citizens to live. Thus, thanks to the disproportionate coverage given to it, Israel can be perceived as a major violator of human rights, while her neighbors who are actually engaged in very real human rights violations and misdemeanors are able to carry on free from press scrutiny. Such is the double standard in reporting from the Middle East.
The Egyptian story offers us a case study in media double standards when it comes to coverage of Israel as part of the Middle East. Israel’s neighbors are not held to account as it doesn’t suit the journalists to do so. Instead, Israel, by virtue of her freedom of expression and access becomes the villain of the region while Western publics fail to appreciate Israeli security concerns in what has proven to be in the past few weeks, an illiberal, unstable and dangerous neighborhood.
Will the foreign press reflect on what they have seen upon their return to the relative idylls of Israel? It’s high time that journalists stationed in Israel stop abusing the comforts of their home base to disproportionately focus on Israel at the expense of neighboring Arab states, which truly deserve to have the spotlight focused on decades of human rights abuses, corruption and mismanagement.