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Special Interview the Pressure of the Press

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Israeli columnist and author Matti Golan believes that the Israeli press influenced two major decisions of the Israeli government in the last few months: not to invade Beirut while the PLO was still in the western sector of the city, and to establish a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate Israel’s role, if any, in the massacre of Palestinian civilians by units of the Lebanese Christian Phalangists in west Beirut September 16-18.

Golan, a political columnist for Haaretz and author of the bestseller, “The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger,” contended in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that due to constant pressure by the Israeli press in the first stages of the Lebanon war, the IDF declined to invade west Beirut and crush the PLO terrorists, a move the press said would have caused many Israeli casualties and further damage Israel’s image abroad. But the role of the press and its impact an Israeli politics was sharply and clearly demonstrated by the decision of the government of Premier Menachem Begin to establish a commission inquiry after first rejecting that idea. “The Israeli press increased the public notion that there was a possibility that something inappropriate was done by Israel regarding the massacre in Beirut, and this nation created the pressure that brought about the establishment of the commission,” Golan said.

SAYS ISRAEL HAS A FREE PRESS

Golan, who arrived in New York Tuesday to begin a two-week lecture tour and media interviews in the United States and Canada under the sponsorship of the American Zionist Federation, described the Israeli press as “an open, free press and a responsible one.” He noted that there are always those who support the government — any government — charges that the media is irresponsible. “But this is not surprising,” Golan said. “It is in the nature of governments to dislike criticism.”

According to Golan, the Labor government in Israel disliked criticism as much as the Likud government. “The difference between the two is style,” he observed. “The Begin government uses expressions in regard to the press such as ‘blood libel’ and ‘a knife in the back’, which creates a hostile feeling toward the press. The Labor governments did not use this kind of language, although it also used to criticize the press.”

Golan said that the Begin government tightened its control of Israel Radio and TV, which are under state authority, and limited its freedom. This caused many journalists and broadcasters to resign, he noted.

But altogether, Golan said, considering Israel’s unique situation, the country enjoys freedom of the press “more than any other country in the world.” Israeli journalists have no problem writing about any topic they want and criticize whomever they deem a just target of criticism, including the Premier and his Ministers, Golan said.

He noted, however, that Israel faces security problems and there are certain limitations imposed by the military censorship, as well as self-imposed censorship many journalists assume voluntarily. Golan said that sometimes the press defies the military censorship in cases when the censor tries to blue-pencil an article for political rather than military security reasons.

“In that case a paper can ask the censor to reconsider his decision or to publish the information and risk a heavy fine,” Golan said. “My newspaper did it a few times in the past.”

But even military censorship in Israel is not now as tight as it used to be. “Until two or three years ago it was impossible to criticize the Chief of Staff,” Golan said.” Today, the Chief of Staff and the actions of the IDF are topics for legitimate criticism,” he observed. He claimed that Haaretz played a major role in this change.

OFFICIALS ALERTED TO MASSACRE

Golan pointed to the role of two military correspondents, Zeev Schiff of Haaretz and Ron Ben-Yishai of Israel TV, in alerting Israeli government officials that a massacre was taking place in Beirut before the world learned about it. On the morning of Friday, September 17 Schiff told Communications Minister Mordechai Zipori that he heard that a massacre was in progress in west Beirut, as did Ben-Yishai who called Defense Minister Ariel Sharon at his home to tell him what was happening. Sharon reportedly answered that he already knew about it.

“Being an Israeli journalist, your involvement with events goes beyond mere reporting,” Golan said. “You become part of the events whether you like it or not.”

According to Golan, the Israeli press is a fighting press and fulfills its role as a watchdog of democracy. He said the press is not in any danger of losing its freedom under the Begin government nor any other government in the future “because democracy is imbued in Israeli life and freedom of the press is in our blood.”

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