US says envoy right to criticize Gaza reporting, entitled to free speech

US says envoy right to criticize Gaza reporting, entitled to free speech

State Department spokesperson backs David Friedman comments in which he told reporters to 'keep your mouths shut'; says he and ambassador to Germany can make partisan comments

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman arrives at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman arrives at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

WASHINGTON — The US State Department backed its envoy to Israel on Tuesday over controversial comments made recently, indicating that envoys are entitled to free speech, but that reporters should be silenced in some cases.

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said Ambassador David Friedman was correct to criticize media coverage of the Gaza protests and tell reporters to “keep your mouths shut,” but also said there was no problem with him and another envoy backing baldly partisan claims, in the wake of the new US ambassador to Germany saying he wanted to empower the right wing there.

On Monday, Friedman blasted reporting on deadly violence on the Gaza border, saying journalists should explain how Israel could have defended itself with less-than-deadly force or withhold criticism. Those comments were apparently directed at The New York Times.

“Just keep your mouths shut until you figure it out. Because otherwise, all you’re doing is creating impressions that have no basis in fact. They fit a narrative. They fit an opinion. They fit an agenda. But it’s not reporting, because it’s not based on hard, factual analysis,” he said.

When asked about the comments, Nauert told reporters: “He said something pretty clearly, and that is the media can do a better job of talking to both sides, talking to various representatives. And so I think he was clear in his statements about that.”

Then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

“You want to report a story, you want to get the facts, you talk to all sides and you come back and you present your story,” she continued. “The ambassador was explaining his opinion that some in the media – not all, but some in media organizations – have not done that balanced job of reporting.”

Pressed over whether Friedman’s comments reflect the Trump administration’s position, Nauert essentially doubled down on his contention that media outlets were pinning the blame for the crisis in Gaza on Israel and not holding Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the strip, accountable.

“I’m not singling out any of you, but in general, when you look at the situation in Gaza, let’s look at the misery there and what has brought on that misery,” Nauert said. “Has it been brought on by the United States Government? No. Has it been brought on by Israel? We would assert no. Has it been brought upon the people of Gaza by Hamas? Yes, it certainly does. And Hamas has a responsibility to take care of its people, and it does not.”

Nauert also refused to offer comment on the shooting death of Gazan medic Razan al-Najjar on Friday. On Tuesday, the IDF said it had not targeted Najjar.

Razan al-Najjar (R), a 21-year-old Palestinian paramedic, tends to an injured colleague during clashes near the border with Israel, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 15, 2018. (AFP/ SAID KHATIB)

Friedman, who was Trump’s longtime friend and attorney before his diplomatic appointment, has deep ties to Israeli settlements, and has been criticized by some as a right-wing hawk echoing Israeli government positions. Last week he told The Times of Israel that Republicans were more pro-Israel than their Democratic counterparts.

Those comments have been thrust back into the spotlight after new US envoy to Germany Richard Grenell told right-wing news website Breitbart of his ambition to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders.”

Nauert said Friedman and Grenell were both merely exercising free speech rights.

“Ambassadors have a right to express their opinion,” she said. “They’re representatives of the White House, whether it’s this administration or other administrations, and we hear them voicing their opinions. And they’re sometimes opinions that people may or may not like.”

But, she added, “there is a right to free speech as well, so I want to highlight that. Regardless of whether or not you all like it, sometimes these things are what ambassadors say.”

Friedman, who has sparred with Democrats over their apparent exclusion from a ceremony to open the US embassy in Jerusalem, said Friday he was committed to bipartisan support for Israel.

“Observing overwhelming Republican support for Israel is not a ‘partisan shot’ as some have described,” Friedman tweeted.

“I firmly believe that American support for Israel needs to be bipartisan and I will continue to welcome any Democratic legislators who wish to visit Israel — and I hope they do!” he said.

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