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Reporter’s Notebook: Journalists in Israel Continue ‘Essential Work’ amid Pandemic
Journalists staking out a Republican congressional luncheon in Washington last Thursday practice social distancing. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Reporter’s Notebook: Journalists in Israel Continue ‘Essential Work’ amid Pandemic

Media able to get around most restrictions imposed on general population

As Israelis contend with a government-imposed, seven-day home quarantine geared toward curbing an intensifying coronavirus outbreak, journalists continue to work in the field relatively unimpeded.

“Journalism is considered ‘essential work.’ So as long as reporters are acting in their professional capacity, they are permitted to go out and do their job,” Nitzan Chen, head of the Government Press Office (GPO), told The Media Line.

“But first you are a citizen, and [only] then a journalist,” he qualified, “so the exception on movement relates only to being able to perform one’s duties.”

According to updated guidelines that took effect on Sunday, Israeli residents must remain at home unless engaged in what is defined as essential work, stocking up at the supermarket or pharmacy, or seeking medical attention. Notable exceptions include short periods of outdoor physical activity or gathering in groups of up to 10 for prayer, family functions or political demonstrations.

“This isn’t a recommendation but a binding requirement that will be enforced,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said over the weekend when announcing the new regulation.

“The purpose… is to ensure that as few people will be infected and will infect [others],” he added, describing the step as being “unlike any since the founding of the State of Israel” in 1948.

It comes as health officials on Sunday raised the country’s confirmed number of cases of COVID-19 – the illness caused by the pathogen – to at least 945, with some two-dozen people currently in critical condition. The Jewish state on Friday announced its first coronavirus-related death.

The number of infections is expected to spike as testing ramps up.

Journalists representing foreign media organizations are covering the story as closely as those from local outlets.

“The Foreign Press Association recognizes that Israel’s government, as with all governments around the world, has a very difficult task ahead of it,” FPA chairman Andrew Carey wrote in an email to The Media Line. “On the one hand, it must meet the huge public health and security challenge posed by the coronavirus. On the other hand, it needs to maintain as much normalcy as is possible under the circumstances.”

Carey said his group has been “in regular touch” with the GPO since the crisis began.

“In an age of rampant disinformation-spread, getting news and information from trusted sources has never been more vital,” he stated. “The GPO has been very responsive to our concerns.”

The GPO’s Chen notes candidly that certain impediments should, in fact, be expected to prevent the media from operating at full capacity.

Israel has closed down its borders with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, something inhibiting journalists from going back and forth to the Palestinian territories to cover developments. Moreover, Israel-based reporters not holding citizenship or residency permits cannot be sent abroad on assignment and then expect to return, as the Jewish state has closed its frontiers to all foreigners.

In addition, media outlets, as with all places of employment, can operate with no more than 10 employees on-site.

“The first days were difficult, as eight people out of our team of about 40 had to go into quarantine after returning from abroad,” Shai Yakir, director of English-language content at i24news, an international channel broadcasting from Jaffa, told The Media Line.

“I also have a handful of individuals who cannot come to the studios because of various reasons, like if they are living with [someone who is] elderly,” he continued. “Those who can work from home are doing so.”

While i24news is still sending reporters into the field, Yakir emphasizes that precautions need to be taken.

“They have masks and gloves, and there are guidelines, such as cleaning the microphone before and after an interview,” he explained.

Regarding changes to programming, Yakir said the station was “almost exclusively producing lengthy news segments dealing with the coronavirus” rather than feature stories.

“There are also the Israeli and American political situations, but 95% of what we are broadcasting relates to the pandemic,” he said.

Perhaps of most acute relevance is the government’s highly contentious use of retroactively tracking the cellphone movements of those who test positive for coronavirus in order to notify those they crossed paths with.

It is a practice generally reserved for counter-terrorism purposes, and after being petitioned by rights groups, the country’s top court said it would have to stop unless parliamentary oversight is established by mid-week.

“The surveillance issue… jeopardizes the anonymity of journalists’ sources,” Anat Saragusti, who oversees press freedoms for the Union of Journalists in Israel, told The Media Line. “If private data from cell phones can be acquired by authorities, this means, in theory, that reporters’ whereabouts and interactions can be monitored. We have written a letter to the government to clarify the situation.”

Though demand for news coverage generally increases in times of crisis, people working in the media remain susceptible to coronavirus-related layoffs.

Israeli authorities on Sunday revealed that the unemployment rate had jumped from about 4% percent last month to the current 16.5%. Multiple journalists told The Media Line on condition of anonymity that they had been let go, or, in the case of freelancers, that work was drying up.

Saragusti agreed that this could become a problem.

“Being a union, we are… worried about the ability of news organizations to keep their people – not to fire anyone or put them on leave,” she stressed. “Some employers may use the fragile circumstances to ‘get rid’ of staff they otherwise would not be able to.”

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