Israeli journalist gives students another taste of the Gulf War

By The Columbia Chronicle

“And so the truth shall set you free,” as one put it so simply, was proven quite intelligibly by Israeli journalist Nachman Shai, who spoke about the role of the media in Israel during the Gulf War.

Director General of the Second Televison and Radio Authority, Nachman Shai held a lecture Nov. 30 before a group of students at Columbia. Shai shared with students about the way Israeli journalists had handled information during post-war Scud missile attacks in 1990 and 1991.

“We wanted to develop a system on how to distribute information to the public,” Shai said. “We needed to inform families on what to do during these attacks.”

Before the attack, neither the public nor the media was prepared for these kinds of emergency situations. Shai claimed that the citizens of Iran were never engaged in such a war. The first missile that was launched by Iraq was detected by an American satellite. The U.S. notified Israeli citizens only minutes before it reached Iran.

Shai described the flow of information in a simple order: overnment, spokesperson, press and media, and then the public. Thanks to the boost of modern technology, television and radio became the number one tools of communication. Satellites were also made available, yet they were very rare and expensive at the time. The country had to adjust to social, cultural, political, and financial changes.

“The media had developed a system overnight to inform the public directly from the underground operation room,” he said. Shai displayed a map that explained how important information was delivered immediately to the public.

Any information from the government was automatically sent to Israeli television and radio, both integrated to air all programs. The underground operation room also had information on when and where the missiles landed. The key to the procedure was not to release any information on targeted sites because it would give Iraq an accurate account as to whereof six million people, journalists created a situation where information became vital. The question was how to convince six million people to follow a procedure that they had never done before. According to Shai, the basic idea was to convince Israelis to remain calm and immediately inform them of evacuation procedures. The Israeli government needed public support, otherwise they would not have maintained such a policy. Military services became mandatory and forced other organizations to take action. Public opinion polls, psychological warfare, military intervention, and the media all became ingredients that changed the public policy.

Shai also provided a video, “Sounds Over Israel,” which portrayed how the media had operated during the Gulf War and how the public handled the situation. There were sounds of sirens while horrified victims told stories of what they had witnessed and experienced. Families wore gas masks and rushed to shelters. Throughout the entire war, only one Israeli citizen had died.

Rose Economou, coordinator of broadcast journalism, was shocked and saddened to watch footage of the Gulf War all over again. She described her view on the works of the Israeli media and government.

“It’s been 20 years since I’ve been to Israel and I have never seen the operation of the civil defense system before,” she said. “It’s important to meet people like Nachman Shai and other foreign officials because we can hear their perspective on what goes on in their own country.”

Curiously, Iraq was losing the war without Israeli intervention. According to Shai, the Israelis were like sitting ducks in the middle of the battlefield.

Lillian Williams, director of broadcast journalism, described her reaction. “I was incredibly amazed on the impact of the organization and the amount of detail and planning that was involved in getting the information out in the open,” said Williams. “I learned a great deal on how they organized the media campaign of the Guion was a complete success. “During the crisis, it was important that we maintain trust and credibility in order to receive that high degree of support and confidence from the public,” he said. Shai’s advice to journalists is to always be reliable and to never mislead the public. “I was instructed by my people to deliver only the truth and we were entitled to enforce this on our government officials because we wanted to survive the war,” he said.