Israel is reported to be ready to expel an award-winning Australian journalist and writer, Antony Loewenstein, after he asked a too-probing question of an Israeli politician at a media event last week. Government officials have said they are investigating how they can deny him his work visa when it comes up for renewal in March.
It is unsurprising to learn that Israel has no serious regard for press freedom. But more depressing has been the lack of solidarity shown by journalistic colleagues, most especially the Guardian newspaper, for which he has regularly worked as a freelancer since 2013. Not only has the paper failed to offer him any support, but its management and staff reporters have hurried to distance themselves from him.
A deferential foreign press
Loewenstein has been under fire since he attended the event in Jerusalem, hosted by the Foreign Press Association (FPA), on December 12. According to the Israeli media, he asked former government minister Yair Lapid: “Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, 10 years, when you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?”
Israeli politicians are not used to hearing such difficult questions from members of the FPA, a professional association for journalists working in Israel. The reason for their deference to Israeli officials was explained to me a few years ago by an FPA insider. He revealed that not only are most of these correspondents Jewish – as Loewenstein himself is – but, unlike Loewenstein, they deeply identify with Israel. They live in Israel, not the occupied territories, they speak Hebrew, send their children to Israeli schools and expect them to serve in the Israeli army. Some of the reporters have served in the army themselves.
Perhaps most famously, former New York Times bureau chief Ethan Bronner was embarrassed in 2010 by the disclosure that he and the NYT had not divulged that his son was serving in the Israeli army while Bronner reported from the region. There was nothing exceptional about Bronner’s professional conflict of interest. My confidant told me: “I can think of a dozen foreign bureau chiefs, responsible for covering both Israel and the Palestinians, who have served in the Israeli army, and another dozen who like Bronner have kids in the Israeli army.”
He added: “The degree to which Bronner’s personal life, like that of most lead journalists here, is integrated into Israeli society, makes him an excellent candidate to cover Israeli political life, cultural shifts and intellectual life. The problem is that Bronner is also expected to be his paper’s lead voice on Palestinian political life, cultural shifts and intellectual life, all in a society he has almost no connection to, deep knowledge of or even the ability to directly communicate with.”
Most publications appear to believe that the benefits of employing openly partisan reporters – and all of them partisan towards the same party in the conflict – outweighs any potential damage to claims that they are neutral and impartial. The outlets hope their partisanship will offer them an advantage: gaining unfettered access to the corridors of power, whether in the Israeli government or army.
With this background in mind, it is possible to understand why Loewenstein described the tenor of the FPA event in the following terms: “With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of journalists in attendance were deferential to Lapid and asked him bland questions.”
No support from the FPA
Loewenstein’s failure to follow the standard FPA rules of politesse when addressing an Israeli politician triggered a campaign against him by Honest Reporting. The group is one of several US-based media lobby organizations whose job is to intimidate foreign media organizations on behalf of the Israeli government. In this way, they have been successful in limiting critical coverage of Israel even further. Staff reporters tend to self-censor, while freelance journalists are pressured to leave the region.
In a transparent maneuver, Honest Reporting sought to paint Loewenstein as politically extreme for his past support for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), and as an activist rather than a journalist. That is no easy task. In addition to the Guardian, he has written for many leading publications in Europe, Australia and the US, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, the Huffington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and many more.
He has also written several books covering a diverse range of topics, including his best-seller My Israel Question, in which he considers his own Jewish identity and relates it to issues of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. (Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter to a 2012 volume, After Zionism, he edited with Ahmed Moor.) He is currently working on a documentary based on his book Disaster Capitalism.
In other words, Loewenstein is not only a journalist; he is the gold-standard for serious independent, critical-thinking journalists. Which, of course, is precisely the reason Israel would want him gone.
Ignoring the deep, but entirely acceptable partisanship of the vast majority of reporters in Jerusalem, Honest Reporting has accused Loewenstein of partiality: “Loewenstein is clearly incapable of reporting on Israel in a fair and objective manner. Yet Honest Reporting has learned that he happens to be a paid up associate member of Israel’s Foreign Press Association.”
It is the traditional and self-defined responsibility of journalists to hold power to account, yet, sadly, the FPA has failed to come to Loewenstein’s defense. In response to Honest Reporting, it said it had accepted him as a non-voting associate member “based on his career as a freelance journalist”. But then added only: “While we do not endorse his views, we also do not screen our members for their opinions.”
So no words of support from the FPA for Loewenstein as he faces being stripped of the right to report from the region (and not just from Israel, as Honest Reporting dishonestly claims, but also from the occupied territories, since Israel controls all access to Palestinian areas). Not a word of condemnation of Israel from the FPA for crushing press freedom. Just a shrug of the shoulders.
Loewenstein should not be surprised. The FPA has barely bothered to raise its voice in solidarity with journalistic colleagues in the region whose rights are being trampled on a systematic basis. Palestinian journalists have been regularly killed, wounded, beaten up or jailed, earning Israel a ranking of 101 out of 180 countries this year in the Reporters without Borders index. That places it below Liberia, Bhutan, East Timor and Gabon, and a nudge ahead of Uganda, Kuwait, and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Honest Reporting saw its chance to set a trap for Loewenstein to get him out of the region. More than a decade ago, Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) introduced new rules that tightly controlled coverage in its favor. In a non-transparent procedure, independent journalists have to persuade the GPO that they deserve to be issued with a work visa.
In February, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ executive director, Robert Mahoney, criticised Israel for this patronage system. “It is virtually impossible to work as a reporter in Israel and the occupied territories without a press card,” he said. “The threat of withdrawing accreditation is a heavy handed approach at stifling unwelcome coverage.”
The Guardian distances itself
Honest Reporting has created a phony controversy about how Loewenstein received his work visa in a bid to discredit him. In fact, Loewenstein should easily meet the formal requirements for a freelance visa, as he has written far more than seven articles for major publications in the last year. But Honest Reporting is seeking to confect a row to justify the GPO refusing to renew his visa in March.
It did so by questioning the Guardian about his connection to the paper, hoping that it could get the paper to dissociate itself from him. Without a shred of evidence, it suggested that Loewenstein might have lied to the GPO, claiming he was a Guardian accredited journalist, to get his visa.
How did the Guardian respond? According to Honest Reporting, its head of international news, Jamie Wilson, told them that “Loewenstein was contracted to write comment pieces for Guardian Australia and remains an occasional comment contributor but he ‘is not a news correspondent for the Guardian in Israel’. It was also relayed to us that Loewenstein has now been told to in future make sure he does not reference The Guardian at press conferences unless he is working on a direct commission.”
Further, their Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont emailed the group to deny any knowledge of Loewenstein. And its former Jerusalem correspondent and now religious affairs reporter Harriet Sherwood entered the fray on Facebook: “Why is this guy claiming to be a Guardian writer when all I can find in our archive is occasional opinion pieces and nothing since August?” For the record, Loewenstein has written more than 90 articles for the Guardian since 2013.
One might wonder how it is that neither Beaumont nor Sherwood appear to have heard of Loewenstein when he has written several books on Israel and Palestine, and writes for their own paper and other leading publications on a range of issues, including Israel and Palestine. But then I suspect they may have a rather narrow range of reference points for their coverage – most of them doubtless FPA regulars.
But what is more significant is that none of the relevant actors at the Guardian has shown an ounce of solidarity with Loewenstein, as the Israeli lobby seeks to get him kicked out of the country for doing proper journalism. They have also inadvertently conspired with Honesty Reporting in misrepresenting him.
Despite Honest Reporting’s accusations, Loewenstein says he stated clearly in his GPO application that he was a freelance journalist. And it is simply inconceivable that he could have professed to be a Guardian reporter to the GPO without being found out. The GPO knows precisely who represents all the big media outlets In Jerusalem.
Further, according to a source at the FPA event, Loewenstein was clear about his status when he addressed Lapid. He said he was freelance journalist who had contributed to various publications including the Guardian.
Predictably, Honest Reporting’s managing editor, Simon Plosker, was delighted by the Guardian’s response: “The Guardian’s distancing itself from Loewenstein is a welcome development.”
So far the Guardian appears to have issued no criticism of Honest Reporting for its deceptions in this matter, or retracted its own misguided comments.
The Guardian — far from the fearless watchdog
Loewenstein may have hoped that the Guardian would stand by him. But my own early experiences in Israel with the paper suggest this is part of a pattern of cowardly behavior when it is under attack from Israeli officials or the Israel lobby.
I had an established relationship with the Guardian when I arrived in Israel as a freelancer early in the second intifada, in September 2001. I had previously worked on staff in its foreign department in London for several years. I used those contacts to begin pitching stories, and a few of the less controversial ones were commissioned by the paper.
It is standard journalistic practice when writing articles to give parties that come in for criticism a chance to respond. Therefore, in a piece on the Israeli army, I called the army spokesperson’s office for a comment. As is also standard practice, I introduced myself and cited where the piece would be published.
Less than an hour after the conversation, I was surprised to receive a furious phone call from the Guardian foreign desk in London. The Israeli army spokesperson had called the paper’s then-correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, to ask who I was and why I was writing for the paper. Goldenberg called the desk and threw a tantrum about my referring to the Guardian.
Then I had the most bizarre exchange in my journalistic career – and I have had a few. The foreign desk banned me from mentioning the Guardian in calls to any Israeli officials.
“But if I am commissioned by the Guardian to write a piece, like this one, and an official asks me who I am writing for, what am I supposed to say?” I asked incredulous.
I was told: “We don’t care – just don’t mention the Guardian. Things are difficult for us and Suzanne right now, and we don’t need you making more trouble for us.”
It was a revealing moment. Far from the fearless watchdog of popular imagination, the Guardian showed its true colors. It was petrified of actually doing its self-professed job of monitoring the centers of power. And the Guardian is one of the most critical publications on Israel. Imagine how much more feeble the rest are, if Guardian staff are so fearful of incurring the wrath of Israeli officials.
Time for the Guardian to step up
The Guardian now needs to make amends to Loewenstein, rather than allowing itself to be implicated in Israel’s ugly McCarthyism. It could stand in journalistic solidarity with him. It would not take much, just a simple act of journalistic courage and refusal to allow Israel to control who gets to report on the region.
The Guardian could do it by giving Loewenstein official accreditation. That would remove the GPO’s pretext for expelling him. It would not mean he was the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent. It would simply be a declaration by the paper that it believes in a free press and does not wants to see him silenced. Or is that too much to expect from the Guardian?