Com­ment is free, but it can go too far

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - ALEX BRUMMER

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

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