Commentary Magazine


One Academic’s Breathtakingly Dishonest Attack on Israel’s Press Freedoms

It’s easy to find examples of anti-Israel partisans, having run out of actual Israeli imperfections over which to obsess, literally inventing Israeli behavior to condemn. Last January, U.K. diplomats attacked Israel over an East Jerusalem construction announcement that they made up. The most generous interpretation is that they made a genuine albeit revelatory mistake: already suspecting the worst about Israel, they had their suspicions confirmed.

This week’s example of anti-Israel partisanship in search of a pretext doesn’t have that excuse. University of Maine journalism professor Justin D. Martin posted an article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) asserting that it “is a powerful statement” to note that Israel is second only to Eritrea in “per capita” jailed reporters. He defined “per capita” as the number of imprisoned journalists per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), divided by a country’s size in millions (for Israel, 4 divided by 7). The attack collapses so quickly, and is such a transparent hatchet job, that it raises legitimate questions of intellectual and academic integrity.

Martin avails himself of obviously bad numbers. He relies on an artificial, self-serving, and meaningless definition of “per capita.” And he equates twilight totalitarian roundups with open Israeli jurisprudence. For a scholar to publish something like this in an academic outlet is disgraceful, and any CJR editor who touched the post is complicit in nakedly politicizing their journal.

(1) The CPJ numbers are straightforwardly wrong. They have eight journalists listed for Turkey, which is off by more than 1000%. Even where the numbers might have been right in the past they’re obviously wrong now. Martin writes that the Palestinian Authority jails “zero” journalists, which wasn’t true as of last month or last week or even Sunday.

(2) The “per capita” calculation is so obviously misleading as to strain whatever benefit of the doubt Martin might request. The Elder of Ziyon blog has an extended takedown so there’s no reason to belabor the details here. If you want a “per capita” number describing which countries disproportionately target journalists, you divide the jailed journalists in each country by the total number of journalists in each country, not by the total number of people.

Otherwise you end up nonsensically insisting that a huge country with three journalists and two in jail is freer than a tiny country with 2,000 journalists and one in jail. That misses not just the actual proportion of imprisoned journalists but even the absolute number of reporters on the ground. Worse, it rewards closed societies with few journalists and punishes open democracies that are crawling with them, because in the democracies, the larger group increases the odds that one will commit a crime. This is the stuff of high school statistics.

(3) Any comparison between Israel and totalitarian regimes is morally vacuous. Israel is one of the few places in the world where journalists “go native” during wartime and start actively aiding one side. When they’re caught, they’re given an open trial guided by the rule of law. Even CPJ notes that one of the journalists was detained by Israel due to “terrorist activity.” To compare that to what happens in Iran is simply untenable.

Martin tips his hand when he compares Israel to Palestinian groups, noting that “Israel jails more journalists than… [the] militant group Hamas (three).” That’s the only place where he uses absolute numbers rather than his per capita statistic. Had he been consistent, he would have had to acknowledge that Hamas’s three imprisoned journalists divided by Gaza’s 1.5 million people swamps the Israeli per capita number.

This is at least the second CJR post by Martin denigrating Israel’s democratic institutions, so the editors there know how they’re being used. As for any journalist who passed around Martin’s hackjob as if it was solid work, they should be asked to explain whether they just didn’t read the post, or if they didn’t recognize his transparent mistakes, or if they didn’t care.

I don’t believe Martin is sloppy enough to have missed that the CPJ numbers were bad; or statistically ignorant enough to think scaling by total population was meaningful; or ethically shallow enough to think it’s “powerful” to compare Israeli and Iranian press treatment; or careless enough to accidentally slip into absolute figures only when talking about Hamas.

I believe he’s just pretending that he is.