Ha’aretz: Foreign press angered by government media center cuts

The Government Press Office’s news and information section, which disseminates and translates information to foreign correspondents from a myriad of government sources, shut down for the whole of last week because its one remaining employee was on vacation.

The staff was cut from six a year and a half ago, and the section has effectively been without a director for five months: Former director Moshe Fogel’s resignation formally took effect the day before Rosh Hashana, when the crisis broke out, although he hadn’t been at the job since early summer.

Many foreign correspondents are expressing frustration at the downsizing of the department and are especially perturbed that this has happened during a major political crisis.

Danny Seaman, director of the GPO’s Foreign Press Department, which aids correspondents with logistics, says he has received numerous complaints from correspondents. He says that the near-extinction of the news section comes as little surprise because it has been diminishing gradually from what was a staff of six when Prime Minister Ehud Barak came into office in May, 1999. The process of downsizing began during the tenure of the previous prime minister; last January, the GPO’s Tel Aviv office shut down. The continued downsizing since Barak’s election, Seaman says, reflects the prime minister’s intention to consolidate Israel’s public relations efforts within his own office. Barak brought some GPO news staff into his own press office and laid off others.

The result, Seaman says, has been that many issues which are not related to the prime minister, diplomacy, or the peace process, aren’t brought to the attention of the foreign media, and Andy Luterman, the one employee left in the GPO, simply can’t handle translating and disseminating the large volume of information that comes through on his own.

Currently, 350 press organizations have permanent representatives in Israel. Since the crisis began, close to 1,300 other correspondents have arrived, and about 400 of those are still here. “I wouldn’t be surprised if [the downsizing] is a reason Israel hasn’t had good PR during the crisis,” says Seaman. “We have two hands and a foot tied behind our backs. We were made non-existent.” Seaman says that for the GPO to function properly it needs at least two more people immediately, as it stands to shut down for an entire month in January when Luterman goes on army reserve duty. In addition, the office must prepare for the arrival of another large group of visiting journalists, expected to cover the elections in May.

Eva Zitterbart, correspondent for Austrian national radio and TV, ORS, and reporter for the Austrian national daily newspaper Veiner Zeitung, has been in Israel for four years and relies on the GPO email list for translated news and information. She says she noticed a a drop in the amount of material the GPO disseminates about a month ago, and last week didn’t receive any information at all. Meanwhile, she says the Palestinian press office is far more proactive.

“There is no reliable information from the GPO. Sometimes they send emails and sometimes they don’t, and what they do send is not substantial,” she says. “If I want more than a schedule, like if the president makes a statement on an important issue, I will [not learn about it] from the GPO.”

Since the GPO director is a political appointee, those occupying the post have the authority to speak for the government. Now, however, this role has fallen to the coordinator of the PM’s press campaign, Nahman Shai, but he has another job and is soon leaving both posts for a new appointment.

Foreign Press Association (FPA) chair Howard Goller, head of the Reuters news agency in Israel, says the Prime Minister’s Office is dragging its feet in replacing the GPO director, despite promises since September to make an appointment. Without a GPO director, Goller says, the foreign press no longer has a representative to fight for its needs and interests. “Now, we don’t know who to turn to and our needs are not being met,” he says.

Yet some correspondents say that the ability to locate information in Israel is so easy that they don’t need the GPO anyway. “The GPO is helpful, but there are so many other sources of information that it’s not a necessity,” says Washington Post correspondent Lee Hockstader.