Comment is free, but it can go too far
ONE OF THE great challenges for newspapers with widely used websites is how to police the comments by readers. Each publication has its own rules. The Guardian’s Comment is Free website aims to take down unacceptable material as soon as possible after it is posted. The Jerusalem Post has a policy of pre-vetting material using a team of monitors.
Last month, The Jerusalem Post published an article by Edwin Bennatan criticising a contribution by Seth Freedman to The Guardian’s CiF website.
Freedman, a British-born stockbroker now turned Israeli writer, is a frequent Guardian contributor both to the website and paper. He has recently been fleshing out his reporting and comment on the Middle East for a book due to be published next year.
The Bennatan article was critical of Freedman for allegedly equating Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV — a station which uses cartoons to encourage young people to become suicide-bombers — with the BBC and Sky News. This is a charge which Freedman rejects, believing that his CiF posting was taken out of context by the JPost writer.
What disturbed Freedman was not, however, the rebuttal of his Guardian comments, but the strings which followed on the JPost websites. One named writer (pseudonyms are not used on the JPost site) declared that he would “kick Seth Freedman in the nuts if I see him”. Freedman interpreted this as a death threat, especially as its author lived in the same city.
Freedman, who formerly worked as an intern on the JPost monitoring team, not unreasonably rang up the paper, made a complaint to the monitor concerned and received what can at best be described as an offhand response. Nothing happened for 24 hours, then, without any explanation, the Bennatan article, strings and the offending comment disappeared.
The JPost recognised it had made a mistake, apologised and offered a donation to charity. Freedman pointedly insisted this went to the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem, which is committed to changing Israeli human-rights policy in the territories.
As far as Freedman is concerned, the case is closed. But he is understood to be puzzled as to how the monitors ever allowed a threat of violence on to the site and why it took so long to remove.
Much of what Freedman writes would not appeal to the Israeli right or pro-Zionists. A lengthy and disturbing article in the Guardian Weekend magazine (September 27) recorded his experiences in the Israeli Defence Forces. The highly descriptive contribution focuses on the personal challenge of being part of an occupying force.
He recounts how, for instance, his commander would order that an Arab house be commandeered for the night for the use of the soldiers. The Arab inhabitants would be herded into the cellar while the Israeli troops would make themselves at home upstairs. “It felt as if we were taking liberties.” But he also recognised that if the troops had slept outside, they would have been sitting targets.
What appeared to disturb Freedman most was a raid in Tulkarm, where a father was wrestled to the ground in front of his children. In the writer’s view, such actions guaranteed that the next generation of Palestinians would end up hating Israel.
It is understandable that the writings of Seth Freedman, a Zionist disillusioned by his experiences, raise hackles. But no one would question his right to have his say without violent threats. Media outlets have a duty to make sure that websites do not become hate sites. There already are enough of these in cyberspace.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail