22 May 2011

Director of Israeli Government Press Office: “I Want to Sell Israel as a Democracy”

AIC | By Connie Hackbarth | 22.05.2011

Oran Helman, Director of the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) plans to “sell Israel as a democracy…an economic miracle”. Helman hopes that government supplied information about “interesting stories”, together with a new perception of international journalists as “clients” will result in positive coverage of Israel.

Oran Helman, newly appointed Director of Israel’s Government Press Office, recently gave an interview to the Israeli economic newspaper TheMarker, in which he outlined his plans to market Israel, using international journalists as the “display window” of Israel.

Oran Helman was first introduced to the foreign press corps on 11 January 2011, at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s annual new year press conference with the international press. Helman told the gathered journalists that the GPO was there to serve them and that the journalists were their clients. This appeared an effort to begin a new era following the ten year reign of Daniel Seaman as head of the GPO, during which numerous complaints were registered of discriminatory treatment against Arab journalists and obstacles in obtaining press cards. However, just before Helman took the podium, Israeli security officials would not allow Al Jazeera reporter Najwan Simri Diab in unless she removed her bra for a security search, and she subsequently left the event. While the GPO issued a statement saying it “regretted the incident,” it added that the “issue of security checks is not the GPOs responsibility.”

Israel’s Government Press Office, recently moved from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, is responsible for accreditation of the thousands of international journalists and coordinating media coverage for official visits by international leaders and state events.

One of Helman’s first changes in the GPO, decided together with the Minister of Public Diplomacy Yuli Eidelstein, was to establish a sub-unit of the GPO Photography and Video Department which will focus on documenting attacks defined by Israel as “terrorist”. The GPO issued gruesome photos of the Fogel family children killed in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, photos which were not used by international press due to their late availability. Creation of this sub-unit is meant to ensure that photos such as this will be used in the future for according to Helman, “these are things that must reach the world – and in the most true form.”

“We don’t do enough public relations,” Helman told TheMarker. “Very often we react instead of initiating, and are pushed to the corner of the conflict instead of marketing other things. My goal is to move to a situation in which I initiate a media event, tours and briefings and expose the journalists to the Israeli reality – which is not only the conflict. “ Helman understands that the journalists are here because of what he dubs “the security situation,” but notes that “my goal is to turn the spotlight on other corners.”

“I developed a programme called “There is More to Israel,” added Helman. “There are many interesting economic stories here, in which Israel is a cornerstone or precedent-setting in the world. For example, joining the OECD, the amazing development…I am establishing an economic-civil department in the GPO, which will focus on public relations in economic fields: tourism, Dead Sea, Eilat – these are the beautiful things that Israel has to offer, and if we won’t assist the foreign journalists in covering them it’s clear they will only focus on the conflict.”

The GPO is taking an active interest in internet-based social networks, opening its own facebook profile and twitter account. “We are beginning to do a mapping of bloggers in cooperation with the Prime Minister’s office and the IDF Spokesperson Unit,” Helman notes. “There are hundreds of media outlets in the world that turn to Jews. I intend to conduct a mapping of all these media outlets in order to make contact with them and pass them the messages of official Israel, so they will be equipped with the correct and reliable information.”

“I want to sell Israel as a democracy, as a country that is an economic miracle,” states Helman. “It is possible to argue as much as you want, but the growth that was here, joining the OECD, the multi-year budget…these are things that very much interest the world.”

Israeli political economist Shir Hever was shocked when reading this quote, declaring that “Under the macroeconomic indicators that speak of prosperity, Israel poverty rate has peaked, unregistered unemployment has skyrocketed and the social gaps in Israeli society are higher than they ever were. Also, all of Israel’s public services: health, education, transportation, are in a state of crisis. The prosperity is skin deep – not felt by the majority of the population.”

“I don’t intend to completely hide the conflict and the military,” Helman tells TheMarker, “but to also give space to the other beautiful and interesting things that occur here. The conflict also has additional perspectives beyond the militarism. Perhaps I won’t succeed, but I want to change approach, to change thinking.”

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