What doesn’t belong in this group: Israel, Trump, Freedom of the Press?
Rather than do some soul-searching with regard to his disastrous decision to interfere with the status quo at the al-Aqsa Mosque, Binyamin Netanyahu has been busy condemning others over the explosive situation. After predictably laying blame for violence on the Palestinian worshippers, who resisted these unilateral changes, Netanyahu has now identified a new enemy—al-Jazeera, which, he claims, “stirred violence.” And the Israeli government has moved swiftly to place a ban on the network based on the Prime Minister’s threat, revoking its reporters’ accreditation and jamming its transmissions on cable and satellite broadcasts.
Of course, al-Jazeera has been targeted for its balanced reporting before. In 2014, Egypt arrested and imprisoned three of its employees, accused of “falsifying the news,” and closed down its offices. Most recently, the demand (since dropped) to close the network was included in the ultimatum of the Gulf countries and other Arab nations that decided to cut their ties with Qatar.
When it was first raised, I took the demand to close the network as a sign of despair, a tacit acknowledgement on the part of the political propaganda machine that it was unable to complete with serious journalism on a level playing field. In a world where public opinion plays an increasingly important role, given the choice, readers and listeners will turn to channels with even-handed reporting and in-depth analyses, rather than to propaganda outlets.
As soon as political authorities feel that they are losing the battle of ideas, they classically resort to force, so as to silence their opponents, to stem out critical views, and to undercut efforts at making the events in their country more transparent. In this sense, Netanyahu’s promise to change the existing legislation so as to expel al-Jazeera is on par with the brutal ultimatum issued to Qatar, as well as the intimidation and jailing of journalists: all of these interventions use force, including the force of law turned into a weapon, drafted to intervene in a particular situation.
At the same time, al-Jazeera is by far not alone in bearing the brunt of the powers that be for shedding light on political events. According to the findings of Freedom House, “global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.”
If the organization’s report is tellingly titled “Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon,” that is because we can expect this decline to be even sharper in the near future, with the global state of press freedom continuing to worsen. For instance, if the Knesset passes the legislation Netanyahu has threatened with, how many points will be added to Israel’s current score of 33, which puts it in a category of countries with “limited press freedom”? (In Freedom House’s ranking, the higher the score, the less free the press in a given country. For comparison’s sake, Norway’s score in 2016 was 8, while that of Saudi Arabia was 86.)
And Netanyahu, too, is not alone in his onslaught on the press: US President Donald Trump has persistently attacked what he calls “fake media” whenever he deemed the reports to be casting either him or those in his inner circle in negative light. In the twentieth century, dictatorships relied on tight information controls by means of censorship; twenty-first century authoritarianism waivers between attempts to discredit journalistic work and to impede it by force, whether legal or extralegal. Since the US has strong constitutional and other safeguards to protect press freedom, Trump has no other alternative but to wage an information war on the media in his speeches and through his Twitter account. Formally, however, his attack on CNN or The New York Times is identical to the charges Netanyahu has leveled against al-Jazeera.
On the one hand, Trump asserts that the leading news outlets in the US are “fake news”; on the other hand, Netanyahu lambastes al-Jazeera for inciting violence in the occupied East Jerusalem. Each imputes to the press the very behavior he indulges in. The US president, after all, is the most reliable source of fake news, as in the case of the unsubstantiated claims that his predecessor wiretapped his Trump Tower offices. In turn, Netanyahu stoked up a fire in the current round of violence around al-Aqsa only to pass the blame onto a news channel reporting on that violence. Both indulge in what psychologists term projection—denying the existence of taboo wishes and forbidden desires in oneself, externalizing these unconscious elements, and ascribing them to others.
Besides being incapable of competing with serious journalism, the likes of Trump and Netanyahu unbeknownst to themselves run into a set of philosophical problems (similar to the ones I have discussed with regard to the 2016 Elections in the US) that did not matter to the dictatorships of old. In the latter, the question of truth was not really raised: politically speaking, the regime implicitly defined the truth as whatever its officials uttered or stood for. But when disputes start revolving around what is fake and what isn’t, staple philosophical questions become unavoidable, first and foremost: What is truth? What is the general nature of truth that allows us to qualify one statement as true and another as false? The knee-jerk response, rampant in the 2016 US presidential campaign, had to do with facts and fact-checking, which is unsatisfactory because it presupposes a very particular (empirical) definition of truth. The work of interrogating the notion of truth, in politics and outside its sphere, is still cut out for us.
The same logic applies to Netanyahu’s clownish denouncement of al-Jazeera for inciting violence. The question to be raised here is: What is the meaning of violence? How does the violence of decades-long occupation compare to an act of stone throwing by a youth born under such an oppressive regime? And where is the violence in recording acts of resistance on camera and beaming them around the world? In addition to freedom of the press, we are more than ever in need of freedom of thought, not in the sense of infinitely proliferating opinions but of patient interpretation that, by making explicit the hidden premises of political statements, takes away their sting and reveals them for what they are.