Israeli media outlets demand Facebook, Twitter tackle anti-press incitement

Letters to CEOs of social media behemoths cite tweets and posts in which journalists threatened or verbally assaulted, amid troubling rise in attacks on reporters

A Facebook post depicting Channel 12 anchors Yonit Levy (left) and Rina Matsliah as Muslim women. (Facebook screenshot)
A Facebook post depicting Channel 12 anchors Yonit Levy (left) and Rina Matsliah as Muslim women. (Facebook screenshot)

Over a dozen Israeli media outlets have petitioned the heads of Facebook and Twitter to crack down on posts that they say have helped fuel a rash of attacks and death threats against journalists in the country.

In letters sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the newspapers, websites, TV outlets and radio stations warned that the last few weeks have seen journalists “become a target for incitement, which has put them in clear and present danger.”

“There have been countless [posts] calling for physical harm to Israeli journalists or labelling them as traitors or enemies of the state in a manner that encourages or justifies violent actions against them. In a number of cases, the incitement even resulted in deliberate attacks on journalists and their staff while reporting from different events,” the letters read.

The letters were backed by most of Israel’s major media outlets, including The Times of Israel.

Since the start of the month, Israeli and foreign journalists have come under fire as they reported on police crackdowns against Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem, mob violence between Jews and Arabs throughout the country, and the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Since the Gaza conflict erupted on May 10, the Union of Journalists in Israel said it documented at least 20 cases of verbal and physical attacks on journalists. At least two people have been charged for assaulting reporters from the Kan public broadcaster in Tel Aviv.

 In Jerusalem, police beat up journalists or blocked access. Bystanders attacked reporters covering the unrest in Israeli cities, and news anchors and reporters covering the fighting in Gaza faced intense verbal attacks and death threats online.

The letters to the social media giants included examples of offending posts and tweets, which included calls for sexual assault and murder against reporters, as well as accusations of treason.

Veteran Channel 12 reporter Rina Matsliah said in a televised monologue this month that while press criticism is necessary, “what’s happening now isn’t criticism… What’s happening now is an assassination attempt.”

The station hired bodyguards to protect Matsliah and several other journalists after they were threatened.

Last week, the journalists’ union and Israel Democracy Institute issued a similar appeal for action to the country’s attorney general and Facebook. They said violent calls that started on social networks have progressed to messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and private Facebook groups, leading to physical attacks on journalists.

In one post shared on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, ultranationalists were called on to gather at Neve Ilan, the Jerusalem suburb where Channel 12 is based, with firebombs and other weapons.

“Today we burn Neve Ilan. Today we show the traitors what we really think of them,” the message read.

Israeli journalist Rina Matsliah pictured at a conference at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Facebook and Twitter said they were both committed to cracking down on incitement.

“While we allow criticism of public figures, such as journalists, we don’t allow people to threaten or harass them, and we remove this content whenever we become aware of it,” Facebook said.

Twitter said it has a “clear policy in place which prohibits people from issuing violent threats against others on the service.”

“Where we identify clear violations, we will take robust enforcement action,” it said. “This work is constantly evolving as new challenges emerge and we recognize we have to work hard to stay ahead of those who intend to undermine the public conversation.”

Dozens of far-right Jewish activists in Israel, including the wife of lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, said Tuesday that they had been blocked from using Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app.

Opponents of Ben-Gvir accuse him and his allies of inciting followers to violence.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of a far-right party, stands with police guarding a Palestinian home claimed by right-wing Jews in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, May 6, 2021 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

In its 2020 report, advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said that journalists in Israel “are exposed to open hostility” by politicians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on trial for corruption charges, routinely accuses the media of being on a “witch hunt” against him. Critics say he has done little to stop supporters from harassing or threatening journalists.

His son Yair, known for his abrasive social media presence, regularly accuses leading media outlets of acting against the interests of the country.

Anat Saragusti, a union official in charge of press freedom, told the Associated Press that there has been a precipitous rise in online hate speech directed at journalists in Israel.

She said that much of the atmosphere that enables hostility toward reporters is “generated by politicians,” including Netanyahu.

While Netanyahu has not explicitly encouraged violence against reporters, the longtime Israeli leader has repeatedly blasted what he calls a biased media that distorts facts.

Among the outlets to back the petitions to Twitter and Facebook is Channel 20, a right-wing news channel seen as close to Netanyahu. Shimon Riklin, an anchor for the channel, recently went on Twitter to call out Israeli media as “terror supporters” and as the “root cause for anarchy and riots all over Israel.”

Communications Minister Eitan Ginzburg has asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to consider opening an investigation into Riklin for inciting against the media.

Tal Schneider contributed to this report.

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