January 22, 2019

In Jerusalem, examining global press freedom

As governments increase restrictions and casualties mount for journalists worldwide, the relatively new Jerusalem Press Club hosted the city’s first International Conference of Freedom of the Press, with participants demanding protection for reporters in war zones, authoritarian states and in the developing world.

The conference is the brainchild of Uri Dromi, known in the United States for his frequent television appearances as the confident spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments in the years Israel negotiated agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Kingdom of Jordan. (Dromi is also an occasional contributor to the Journal.)

Despite a difficult media environment for today’s Israeli government, Dromi has marshaled an independent effort to establish a vibrant international press club in Jerusalem. The conference attracted journalists from Africa, Latin America and Asia and demonstrated the Jerusalem Press Club’s global reach just two years after inception (see sidebar). 

“There are similar conferences on the issues of press freedom, but it struck me that too frequently Europeans and Americans are talking about the problems in the rest of the world,” Dromi told the Journal.

“Only 14 percent of the population of the world lives in societies which enjoy freedom of the press. We want to put the spotlight on the other 86 percent,” Dromi said.

Indian-born Muslim journalist Asra Nomani shared vignettes about her friend Daniel Pearl at the opening-night remembrance ceremony for the slain Wall Street Journal reporter. Muslim terrorists kidnapped Pearl shortly after he left Nomani’s home in Karachi, Pakistan.

“We carry as our own responsibility the fact that journalists are being kidnapped, harassed and persecuted,” Nomani said. “Particularly since Danny’s murder, a new reality has emerged where journalists are considered combatants and we are even more at risk.” Nomani now coordinates reporter-training courses for the Daniel Pearl International Journalism Institute, founded in 2013 by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. 

At the conference, African reporters including Lungu M’theo of Malawi, Emile Toruray of Ivory Coast and Kenya’s William Oloo met for the first time with collegues such as Alexey Simonov and Yavuz Baydar, who have run up against the increasingly authoritarian governments in Moscow and Istanbul. 

“Everybody is going to have the time to present their case and report from their country,” said Dromi, who succeeded in convincing American funders, including the recently deceased Los Angeles philanthropist Gil Glazer, to support his initiative to bring Third World journalists to the Jerusalem Press Club conference. “We’re giving these people whose voices were not heard in international forums a chance to speak up.”

Firsthand testimonies of press repression were backed by research data presented by Robert Ruby, a veteran foreign correspondent now serving as communications director for Freedom House. Ruby briefed participants on this year’s Press Freedom Index.  

Global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years. And it is the largest one-year drop in a decade,” Ruby said.

The Freedom House report concludes that the deteriorating environment has been caused by a surge in restrictive laws against the press — frequently justified as “security measures” — and the increased effort by governments to make conflict areas and protest sites inaccessible to journalists.

Israel, the host country, did not escape its own share of scrutiny. 

“In our most recent report, Israel hovers just on the better side of free versus not free. We consider it to have a free press because there is pluralistic media. It is privately owned. It is not shy about reporting on official corruption. There are good protections for journalists against libel, and journalists have strong labor rights,” Ruby said.

“On the other side of the ledger, the military censor became more active in [the] 2014 war with Hamas,” he continued. “Israel Hayom’s business model of free distribution puts a lot of pressure on other newspapers. It’s forcing them to lower their advertising rates, and Freedom House does not think that is a plus.” 

Israel fares much better in the Freedom House report than in the Reporters Without Borders ranking, where it fell by five places this year, largely because of the deaths of 15 journalists and media workers during Operation Protective Edge.

“While we’re talking about Russia and Turkey and Argentina, we should also look at what’s going on in Israel,” said Dromi, who has taken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to task for reserving control over the Communications Ministry. “One of the worst things in the coalition agreement is the clause insisting every party joining this government is pledged to approve whatever legislation is proposed by the minister of communications.

“It’s obvious that Netanyahu has made up his mind that when it comes to the so-called hostile media, he’s going to either shut them up, shut them down, buy them or regulate them in a way that he will be able to rule without a watchdog,” Dromi said. “I am worried.”