Monday, April 9, 2012

What the Günter Grass controversy says about censorship in Europe

The furore over Günter Grass’s poem on Israel has got me thinking about how much journalists are subject to censorship in Europe.

In an opinion piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy recalls how journalists working for the German media group Axel Springer were for many years required to sign a pledge not to write anything that questioned Israel’s “right to exist.”

Not only does Axel Springer own some of this continent’s largest-circulation newspapers (such as Die Welt and Bild), it has played an important role in talks on strengthening Israel’s political and economic ties with the European Union.

In 2007, a “business dialogue” between the EU and Israel was established, providing an annual forum where leading entrepreneurs could brainstorm on removing any obstacles that stood between them and profit maximization. Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of Axel Springer, was chosen as the European chairman of the forum.

Special responsibility?

Two years later, Döpfner told The Jerusalem Post "it is very important that we never forget about Germany history and what Germany has done, and because of that we have a special responsibility to support Israel and this is something we have to continue from generation to generation to make sure that it will never be forgotten.”

Apparently, this special responsibility involves keeping your mouth shut about the crimes committed by your partners in “dialogue” – or worse, actively supporting their crimes. Israeli participants in the forum – which has the full blessing of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission – include Elbit, the weapons manufacturer whose products are regularly used to murder and maim Palestinians. Bank Leumi and the booksellers Steimatsky, both of which have branches or stores in illegal settlements in the West Bank, are also involved, along with the Saban Capital Group.

Haim Saban, who runs the latter firm, is a major shareholder in Bezeq, which provides telecommunications services to the Israeli army. As a media proprietor, Saban was invited to join the board of the French television channel TF1 in 2003. TF1 was founded by Bouygues, which acquired a 23 percent stake in the energy and transport firm Alstom in 2006. Along with Veolia, Alstom has been developing a tramway reserved almost exclusively for Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem.

Zionists and their sympathizers control vast chunks of the mainstream media in the EU’s three largest countries: Germany, France and Britain.

Murdoch doesn’t get Palestine

One of the few valuable services that Alastair Campbell, the chief propagandist during Tony Blair’s stint as UK prime minister, has performed for mankind was how he explained in accessible terms the blind devotion of Rupert Murdoch to Israel. In his published diaries, Campbell recalls how Murdoch told Blair in 2002 that he could not see why the Palestinians had any grievances. In response, Murdoch’s son James pointed out that Palestinians had been “kicked out of their fucking homes and had nowhere to fucking live.” (There is scant evidence, it should be emphasized, that James Murdoch has sought to educate the pundits on Fox News or other outlets in his family’s empire about Middle Eastern realities).

The problem, in my experience, isn’t confined to one of ownership. Journalists working in the mainstream media tend to be biased on the side of the powerful.

The bias of journalists

When I began writing about the Middle East for the newspaper European Voice (part of The Economist group) in 2001, my editor told me that “we mustn’t take sides” between Israelis and Palestinians. The same editor was a reservist in the British army, who went on to take part in the occupation of Iraq. In my very first editorial meeting, he made a joke about how as an Irishman I would be familiar with the weapons used by “terrorists.” Though he apologized for that quip, it clearly reflected his mindset: Palestinians were “terrorists,” in his view (I recall him labelling Yasser Arafat with the “t” word).

As it happened, this editor was actually slightly more open-minded than other British journalists I have encountered. He was, at least, willing to hire and work with reporters from different nationalities and classes. One of his successors as European Voice editor, in contrast, introduced a de facto policy of only recruiting graduates from Cambridge. As these bright young men and women came from a highly privileged background, the idea that journalists had a duty to champion the underprivileged seemed alien to them. Like its sister paper Roll Call in Washington, European Voice is one of the most widely read publications among the Brussels elite.

For too long, most journalists and intellectuals in Europe have accepted that you cannot call out Israel as a racist endeavor. While there are some good people working in the mainstream media, I don’t believe it can be changed from within. Fortunately, the internet offers many possibilities to develop alternatives. Seizing the opportunities offered by the internet is vital if justice is ever to be achieved.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 April 2012.

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