JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel's usually unforgiving media has had to fend off accusations that it has practised self-censorship and muzzled dissent with its overtly patriotic coverage of the army's offensive in Gaza.
As the first jets began pounding the Hamas-ruled enclave on December 27 and rockets slammed into southern Israel, radio and television channels launched round-the-clock coverage of the fighting with a distinctly patriotic tinge.
While international networks tagged the conflict "War in Gaza" and led with images of Palestinian casualties, Israeli channels called it "War in the South" and despatched their anchors to towns which have been hit by Hamas rockets.
The following day, Israel's major newspapers hailed the surprise air strikes with front-page headlines such as "Better Late Than Never" in the largest circulation Yediot Aharonot and "Fighting Back" in the rival Maariv.
"The media's coverage of the first days of the fighting was characterised by feelings of self-righteousness and a sense of catharsis following what was felt to be undue restraint in the face of attacks by the enemy, along with support for the military action and few expressions of criticism," said Yizhar Be'er, head of Keshev, an Israeli media watchdog.
A senior editor of the privately owned Channel 10 News, admitted, asking not to be identified: "There is a patriotic coverage of the war, but not as a result of conscious decision."
Reports of the devastation inside Gaza were given little attention by the Israeli outlets other than the liberal Haaretz daily, a Keshev report said.
For example, much of the media gave scant coverage to the killing of nearly 50 people in strikes on three UN schools on January 6, which the army initially said were used as militant hide-outs but later admitted were mistakenly hit.
"There was no independent investigation of the facts by the media, which relied on the army's version and not on facts from the ground, even though even the army spokesman was uncertain about the facts," Be'er told AFP.
The Israeli media played a pivotal role in criticising and exposing failures of military top brass and the government during the 2006 war against Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, which led to public uproar and a national inquiry that accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government of severe shortcomings.
But in Operation Cast Lead, little criticism has been voiced, critics say.
"Opinions criticising the decision to launch the offensive or the army's conduct during the war are hardly heard," eight Israeli human rights groups wrote in a letter to newspaper editors, broadcasters and websites.
The news editor for Channel 10 said his outlet does report on "massive killing incidents in Gaza, but there is little criticism over these incidents" due to the army's tight control over information coming out of Gaza.
Israel's refusal to allow any journalists into the Hamas enclave for months and the army's tight control on information coming off the battlefields has further hampered access to independent information, he said.
"There are no means to develop criticism because we receive very few details from the army on the fighting inside Gaza... When there is no criticism there is more room for patriotism."
While the death of some 120 soldiers in the Lebanon war fuelled criticism of the conflict, only 10 have been killed this time around.
Senior Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar said the bulk of Israel's media paints the country's recent wars as a battle for the Jewish state's survival.
"Since the outbreak of the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 2000, the media has said that the Palestinians brought it upon themselves," Eldar said.
"The second Israeli civilians are hurt in attacks inside the country, the media presents Israel's response as a 'battle for our home' and 'a defensive war of no choice'."
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