If “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” as Winston Churchill astutely observed, then secondhand journalism is buying the untruth its airfare.
A few years ago, I reported on a talk I attended here in Zurich, delivered to the Swiss-Israel Chamber of Commerce. The speaker, Sacha Wigdorovits, spoke of the danger of recycled or secondhand stories. As newspaper budgets get tighter and tighter (not to mention disappear altogether) more and more ‘news’ stories are recycled. There’s shrinking investment in developing journalistic skills and instead reliance on news agencies. This is particularly acute when it comes to international news, since most newspapers cannot afford to have field correspondents across the globe and a vast majority of international news is taken directly from wires.
(In the world of Jewish media we’re lucky that the news agencies are top notch and have a mandate: focus on Jewish-related stories worldwide. This clarity of focus enables an excellent job done!)
The small size of the Swiss market compounds this problem. Many of the country’s newspapers are owned by a single media conglomerate called Tamedia, which also happens to own an online news agency. This news agency runs the online platforms of several major newspapers, some of which are outside the conglomerate, so the end result is that the websites of various newspapers are mirror images of each other, from the design to the content. In other words, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to read something different. (A major exception to this is the renowned Neue Zürcher Zeitung, better known as the NZZ.)
What does this mean for Israel? Well, if there’s one anti-Israel story out there, it will be broadly disseminated and reprinted ad infinitum. And it becomes that much more difficult to debunk.
A case in point is the current (re)branding of Hamas as a “freedom” movement in mainstream Swiss media.
The spa town of Baden — about 30 kilometres west of Zurich — recently held mayoral elections. The Green Party candidate, Geri Müller, has become infamous for his anti-Israel/Hamas friendly stance. Local Israel activists worked hard to get the story of Müller’s unsavoury relationships with Islamic terrorists heard — and they were successful. Müller’s past with Hamas and Iran, and his hateful statements on Israel has been discussed in all the major German-language Swiss newspapers. Despite these efforts, Müller won the election, albeit by razor thin margin of 34 votes. Naturally, in analysing Müller’s victory, media outlets recounted the conflict that had preceded the election.
Here’s where it gets problematic. When discussing the new mayor-elect’s controversial relations with Hamas, the story produced by Switzerland’s major news agency, SDA, refers to the terrorist organization housed in the Gaza Strip as a “freedom movement”. This was picked up by numerous newspapers and websites, including the publicly funded Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) and Blick, a tabloid style paper that has the highest paid circulation figures in Switzerland.
Freedom fighters is a term typically used by those who use violence to achieve their desired result of independence, whether it be those fighting for Irish nationalism, Basques in Northern Spain, or Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Those outside of these movements tend to refer to these groups as terrorists because they target civilians. While Switzerland does not officially classify Hamas as a terrorist organization – though its supranational neighbour the European Union does – when questioned in the past, the Swiss Foreign Ministry says that it keeps no such comparable list of organisations; for some reason their definition of Al-Qaeda as a terrorist group is an exception to this rule. As such, how Switzerland views Hamas remains unclear, and why SDA choose to define the group as freedom fighters stems likely more from ignorance than intent.
But this isn’t just a question of semantics.
In Switzerland, there has been a push recently by the likes of Geri Müller to treat Hamas as an official representative of the Palestinian people as well as a dialogue partner in peace negotiations with Israel – keeping in mind that Hamas is responsible for regular rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilians and has to date never explicitly revoked its charter which aims to establish a Palestinian state on the territory of Israel.
This careless choice of terminology is dangerous. In the current environment of secondhand journalism, this danger is exponentially expanded. Media outlets have reprinted the story, and set this distortion on its journey of transforming into unvarnished, accepted truth.