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Speak Truth to Power, but Not in Arab Lands
As Anthony Lewis, columnist for The New York Times, penned in 1989, "Journalism's high purpose is not to get close to power, but to speak truth to power." A search of Times archives back to 1981 of "truth to power" produced 90 "hits," most dealing with journalists and public figures who spoke out in one way or another against U.S. government officials.
No doubt, the Times and The Washington Post believed they were talking "truth to power" when they published reports on National Security Agency surveillance of overseas telephone calls and classified information about CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. No journalist has been prosecuted or incarcerated for those disclosures.
Contrast that with the fate of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered after he was kidnapped in Pakistan on his way to meet a terrorist leader. His forced confession was captured on videotape, along with his throat being cut by his killers.
Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and his cameraman, Olaf Wiig, were kidnapped by members of the Holy Jihad Brigades, a previously unknown Palestinian terrorist group in Gaza. Fox has distinguished itself among sources of broadcast news by its refusal to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon. In 2002, when most of the mainstream media was headlining what subsequently proved to be bogus Palestinian claims of an Israeli massacre in Jenin, Fox anchors withheld their judgment, pointing out that proof was lacking to support the Arabs' charges.
But even Fox is not immune to real threats to life and limb. Forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint, Centanni and Wiig were released after two weeks of captivity. Shortly after being freed, they spoke to reporters while still in Gaza and under Palestinian security-force control. Centanni, in remarks carried worldwide, observed, "I hope that this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover the story because the Palestinian people are very beautiful and kindhearted. The world needs to know more about them. Don't be discouraged."
His praise of the Palestinians' kindness still appears on the Fox Web site.
In August, CBS aired veteran newsman Mike Wallace's interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Wallace was criticized for his softball questions and the praise he heaped on the Iranian president, whose government is actively seeking nuclear weapons, and has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
As a column last year in the Times observed, Iranian reporters "don't harbor fantasies of speaking truth to power."
Some 100 newspapers have been shut down by Iran's "clergy-influenced judiciary." Neither the clergy nor the nation's leader are subject to criticism.
Threats of violence against journalists are not exceptional in the Middle East, other than, of course, in Israel.
In another act of irony, the BBC moved its reporters from Haifa to Beirut after the first week of the summer war, even though Israelis have an unblemished record of nonviolent dissent toward a critical press.
Could it be that BBC staff still felt safer in the Lebanese capital -- despite charges of massive and indiscriminate Israeli bombing -- than they did from Hezbollah's Katyushas in Haifa?
And the self-censorship of so many U.S. newspapers surrounding Danish political cartoons containing images of Mohammed -- after death threats against European journalists, backed by violent and deadly protests -- is a story in and of itself.
Certain Mideast correspondents avoid the Palestinian-controlled territories out of a well-founded fear for their lives, while those who go there cannot help but recognize the very real risk of harm if they are too critical. Even Fox cameramen complied with Hezbollah orders not to photograph rockets being fired from Tyre and other civilian areas.
For too many journalists, fearlessly speaking truth to power is something best left home when they cover the Middle East.
This column was written for the Israel Advocacy Task Force of the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.