Palestinian Harassment of Journalists by Judy Lash Balint World Net Daily and Emunah Magazine
February 25, 2001
The Palestinian Authority has an uneasy relationship with journalists. The independent Committee for the Protection of Journalists which monitors abuses against the press and promotes press freedom around the world reports: “In the nearly seven years since the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) assumed control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, Chairman Yasser Arafat and his multi-layered security apparatus have muzzled local press critics via arbitrary arrests, threats, physical abuse, and the closure of media outlets. Over the years, the Arafat regime has managed to frighten most Palestinian journalists into self-censorship.”
There’s no reason to suspect that foreign correspondents, notoriously hounded in Beirut twenty years ago by the PNA’s forerunner, the PLO, are not exercising the same kind of self-censorship today, compromising fair and objective coverage of the current situation.
Still, the most effective clamp on the truth is the peer group; the homogenized ideology of the press corps where independent thinking continues to require courage and fortitude. In a region where the media has in many ways shaped the conflict, the combination of fear and lockstep thinking on the part of its protagonists does not bode well for a resolution.
Ramallah: Things Would Never be the Same:
The lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah last October proved to be a watershed in western coverage of the current Palestinian uprising. Up until that point, most western journalists traveled wherever they wanted to in their quest to convey the essence of Arab violence and Israeli reaction.
Sky TV News reporter Chris Roberts says that at the outset of the violence, the PA welcomed reporters with open arms. “They wanted us to show 12 year olds being killed,” he explains. But after the lynching, when PA operatives did their best to confiscate and destroy tape of the grisly event, and Israel Defense Forces used the images to target and arrest the perpetrators, Palestinians sometimes vented their hostility to the U.S by harassing and intimidating western correspondents. “Post Ramallah where all goodwill was lost, I’m a lot more sensitive about going places,” Roberts admits.
Even people like Ahmed Budeiri, a bright, twenty-something Arab stringer for ABC TV, acknowledges that Ramallah was “really dangerous for foreigners,” after the lynching.
According to first hand reports, Palestinian security forces surrounded a Polish television crew who were beaten and relieved of their film of the lynching. But most of the TV cameramen were Palestinians. Given PA intimidation of Palestinian journalists, it’s not surprising that almost all of them, except for one working for the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera, and another shooter for the independent Italian station, RTI, meekly handed over their film.
Nasser Atta, a Palestinian producer with the ABC News network, was outside the Ramallah police station with a camera crew as the bloody scene unfolded. Appearing the next day on ABC's "Nightline," he told host Ted Koppel that crowd members had assaulted his team to stop them from filming the action. "I saw how the youth tried to prevented [sic]---prevented my crew from shooting this footage. My cameraman was beaten," Atta said.
A British photographer, Mark Seager wrote in London’s Sunday Telegraph (October 22) : "I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face by a Palestinian. Another Palestinian pointed right at me shouting ‘no picture, no pictures, ’ while another guy hit me in the face and said ‘give me your film.’ One guy just pulled the camera from me and smashed it to the floor."
Most reporters acknowledge that the PA openly confiscated TV footage and still photos of the lynching. But some, like CBC’s Neil Macdonald, asked PA Security chief Jibril Rajoub's about the matter and were told that no tape was seized.
Others like the New York Times’ William Orme came to their own conclusion that while the mob that attacked journalists did include some uniformed Palestinian police officers, “no one is suggesting that it was PA policy. It was not an official order.”
The film that did escape the clutches of the PA police made its way to TV screens around the world in an unorthodox way. According to Gideon Meir, deputy director general for public affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Embassy in Rome was able to secure the video from the independent Italian RTI TV station and within six hours of the gruesome event, the images were received in Jerusalem. The Italians released it without charge, said Meir.
TVNewsweb, a web site for TV editors and correspondents reported the transmission of the footage a little differently. “Two tapes are spirited away and reappear in Jerusalem one hour later. Al-Jazeera's tape is offered for sale at US$1,000 per minute, but it's shot shakily from far away and lacks impact. The RTI tape is extremely graphic.
“RTI's Israeli tape editor, who was at the scene, gives her eyewitness account at a Jerusalem press conference organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Government Press Office. RTI eventually makes the tape available to the agencies in Italy and the gruesome pictures lead most evening newscasts.”
Meanwhile, veteran Italian TV reporter Riccardo Cristiano had just been released from the hospital where he spent more than a week recovering from injuries he received when he was beaten in Jaffa while covering the riots started there by Israeli Arabs.
The Italian government TV channel reporter went back to work the day before the lynching. According to CBC’s Macdonald, Cristiano, “a very pacifist guy” was traumatized by the Jaffa attack. When he received death threats the day after the Ramallah events, presumably from Palestinians who mistakenly associated his TV channel with the damning lynching footage, Macdonald says Cristiano penned a letter in English to a Palestinian journalist friend at Al Hayat Al Jedida newspaper assuring the colleague that his station had nothing to do with the filming nor would he ever violate journalistic ethics by transmitting film to an embassy or government office.
On Monday, October 16, 2000 a version of the letter appeared in Arabic on the front page of the paper. Cristiano lost his Israeli press credentials and was recalled to Rome. The RTI correspondent was spirited out of the country for her own safety after the IDF used freeze frames of her film to nab six of the perpetrators in undercover raids.
I traveled to Rome to meet Riccardo Cristiano last December. The tall, gray haired, mustachioed, soft-spoken Cristiano acknowledges he’s a leftist, following in the footsteps of his father renowned Italian artist Paolo Cristiano, in his quest for justice for those whom he perceives as oppressed.
The senior Cristiano was a member of the Italian resistance who spent three years in a series of Nazi death camps. He weighed 60 lbs when he returned home. Riccardo says his father is mortified by those who accuse his son of being anti-Semitic. “The only thing he wanted to do when he came to visit me in Israel was visit Yad Vashem,” Riccardo says quietly. Recently, Cristiano met with the head of the Jewish council in Venice to explain his actions and solicit his support.
Cristiano’s plight does provide a certain insight into the journalistic fraternity of those covering the Middle East. Like other reporters who were beaten up by Palestinians over the past few months, Cristiano expresses no rage over their violent tactics. Neither does he expect much from the PA. He relates how his crew once filmed a bodyguard of PA Jerusalem Affairs minister Faisal Husseini, slapping someone at a garden party at Orient House, the PA Jerusalem headquarters. Another guard came over and erased the film. Cristiano, the deputy bureau chief, complained. The next day Husseini sent an apology and all was forgiven.
* * * *
Extensive interviews in Jerusalem with correspondents based here as well as those who have flown in for the crisis, indicate a highly complex journalistic reality. Within the Jerusalem- based press corps of several hundred reporters, there are varying degrees of knowledge and understanding of the situation. After the first week of the violence, many media outlets reassigned journalists from other posts to assist their colleagues in Jerusalem. In some cases these people did have previous experience covering the Middle East before, but in most instances, the journalists landed in their bureaus at Jerusalem Capital Studios with little background on the history, geography or political landscape of the area.
Whom do they turn to for a crash course on the Israel-Arab conflict? By and large it’s other journalists who provide them with an overview of the lay of the land. Georges Malbrunot, correspondent for France’s Le Matin daily paper, for example, calls the BBC his “living Bible.” Thus, as Fiamma Nirenstein, the Israel correspondent for Italy’s La Stampa newspaper points out, “the extraordinary informal power of the media--iconoclastic, sporty, ironic, virtually all of one mind,” (Commentary, January 2001) comes into play.
In fact, the best factual reporting from the new intifada has come from the few correspondents with background in the area who jetted in for a few weeks and left before they became tainted with the political correctness required of the resident media set.
Jack Kelley of USA Today, for example, filed a couple of outstanding stories during his limited days in Jerusalem. In one piece he described his experience riding along in an IDF jeep patrolling the volatile Ayosh Junction outside Ramallah. Eye-witness accounts of the violent provocation by Arab youth and the decision making of the equally youthful IDF troops provided an accurate insight into the challenging situation.
But for most of the American Colony Hotel based western correspondents there are certain “given” assumptions that provide the backdrop for all their coverage. Topping the list is the notion that Palestinians are engaged in a noble struggle for independence and Israeli oppressors are using their might and muscle to stand in their way.
Journalists arrive at this view based both on experiences in their own native lands as standard bearers for minority rights and other liberal causes, but also as a result of their reliance on local assistance here in Israel. Since very few of the foreign correspondents in Israel are fluent in Hebrew or Arabic, they rely on a network of local sources as well as the service of “fixers,” locals who can “fix” situations for them. Currently some 400 PA residents are in possession of Israel Government Press Office credentials.
Much of the current conflict is raging in Area A ( under full Palestinian Authority (PA) control) so it is not surprising that the fixers are generally young US educated Palestinians who know how to operate in PA territory and who introduce the journalists to their circle of acquaintances. Most of these Palestinian "fixers" also know Hebrew, and their GPO credentials generally enable them to navigate throughout Israel without security intimidation.
In contrast to this informal networking on the Palestinian side, correspondents generally get the Israeli point of view from official sources. The Government Press Office (currently a one man operation) is charged with informing journalists of briefings with government officials and coordinating coverage of the comings and goings of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The Foreign Ministry and the IDF Spokesman’s office provide access to IDF commanders and other top officials.
“We suffer from a deluge of information,” notes Washington Post bureau chief Lee Hockstader. Others like Phil Reeves of London’s Independent newspaper acknowledge that Israel provides excellent entree to senior officials in contrast to more limited and guarded access to PA higher ups. Chris Roberts of the UK based Sky TV News service calls the Israeli official PR effort “a well oiled machine.” But there is little Israeli effort to establish personal relationships with journalists to provide them with a non-propagandistic, man-on-the-street view of events.
The effects of this vacuum are easy to discern. When Ted Koppel taped a Nightline show at the East Jerusalem YMCA in the early days of this intifada, several smartly dressed, attractive, young English speaking Arabs made sure they saved a chair for New York Times bureau chief Deborah Sontag. When Sontag arrived she was greeted with kisses by one of the young women in the group. In contrast, an older Israeli audience member who went over to introduce himself was given a cursory nod by Sontag, absorbed in conversation with her chic friends.
The influence of Arab crew members is obvious even in the offices of some news outlets. At the ABC TV studio for instance, the only map hanging in the office is dated March 2000 and displays the title “Palestine.”
A reporter for a Canadian paper explains how knowledge of Arabic can be a very useful thing. In Beit Jalla last December, the IDF sent a missile into the Church of St. Nicholas causing superficial damage. The PA called a news conference there. In English the local clergy said, “Oh, this is so terrible, see what the Israelis are doing.” In Arabic they were overheard saying to each other: “That m ____ f____ Arafat. Why can’t he keep his guns away. He’ll get us all killed.”
But most journalists speak very little Arabic, so they use Palestinian crews, creating another problem. The harassment of Palestinian journalists critical of Yasser Arafat is well documented by Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists wrote in an October 20, 2000 report:
“ Major newspapers routinely avoid coverage of issues such as high-level PA corruption and mismanagement, human rights abuses by security forces, and any reporting that might cast Arafat in a negative light. Moreover, the major Palestinian dailies all enjoy cozy relations with the PA, further blunting their editorial edge.”
Coercion, abduction and violence by PA security chief Jibril Rijoub’s forces are a fact of life for east Jerusalem Arabs. Who knows under what pressure Palestinians working for western news organizations operate, or to whom they report? In effect, little seems to have changed since Zev Chafets wrote in his book ‘Double Vision’ about Western journalists coverage of the Lebanese war of the early 1980s. (Just substitute American Colony for Commodore, and Jerusalem for Beirut.)
“In conformity with the PLO-dependent security system, Western reporters ghettoized themselves and became, in effect accomplices to their own isolation and supervision. They clustered around the Palestinian-run Commodore (Hotel) where they knew their movements, contacts, and outgoing communications would be monitored. Some of those with separate offices in the city found that they needed local Palestinian employees in order to establish contacts and guide them through the complexities of life in Beirut. These assistants were, in many cases, subject to the discipline of the PLO; and if the organizations was circumspect in its dealing with most of the foreign reporters, it could afford to be far less so in its demands on its fellow Palestinians or Lebanese Moslems. Even reporters aware of the fact that their local employees might be a conduit to PLO intelligence were loath to give them up; in many cases such people were an invaluable buffer.”
One of those reporters detained by the PLO in Beirut in 1981 left Lebanon in a hurry, a short while later after publishing an article confirming the harassment of journalists in Beirut. John Kifner is still a New York Times correspondent. Kifner arrived in Jerusalem for a short stint in December covering the current intifada. Despite his extensive experience with the PLO, Kifner declined to be interviewed for this article citing “touchy personnel issues” with Times bureau chief Deborah Sontag who happened to be out of the country at the time of the request.
Some journalists simply dismiss concern over PA attempts at censorship. Acknowledging “famous incidents to suppress stories,” here, The Independent’s Phil Reeves nevertheless notes that: “Everyone does this. The Brits did it in Northern Ireland....”
Others categorically deny that intimidation by the PA takes place at all. Speaking for the Foreign Press Association (FPA) , New York Times reporter William Orme (husband of bureau chief Deborah Sontag) says that he knows of no documented incidence of official PA harassment or intimidation. The physical attacks against journalists were all street violence perpetrated by individuals who are acting out their feelings against Americans, Orme states.
The head of the FPA doesn’t necessarily agree. In an article in Haaretz (October 19, 2000) FPA chair Howard Goller says that, speaking generally, one could say that there are many pressures
on foreign journalists. "On certain occasions, Israeli soldiers or PA representatives have tried to stop us from filming certain events."
Orme's remark is eerily reminiscent of NBC editorialist John Chancellor, who observed at the height of the Lebanon War in 1982: "There is no censorship in Beirut..." This despite the murder by the PLO of seven foreign journalists in West Beirut between 1976-1981, according to Edouard George, then senior editor of Beirut's French language daily L'Orion Du Jour, and the departure from the city of several western journalists because of PLO threats.
The wire services that provide reporting to papers around the world have not been immune from PA heat either. A few months ago the Palestinian Union of Journalists jumped into the act sending a formal complaint to the Jerusalem based Associated Press condemning the wire service agency’s coverage of the conflict. The incident came to light only when the Israel Government Press Office publicized the matter. According to one member of the Jerusalem press corps, the Reuters bureau in Gaza, staffed largely by Palestinian journalists, was closed down briefly. It seems that PA attempts to stifle media criticism are successful due to the intertwining of western news gathering organizations with Palestinians subject to the long hand of PA lawlessness.
Just a few days after the January 2001 executions in Nablus of two Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel, Palestinian security service agents arrested a photographer who filmed one of the two grisly events without PA authorization. Only three photographers working for the PA were allowed to cover the execution. Other reporters and cameramen were barred from the police station were the execution took place. The detained photographer, Majadi el-Arabid, works with both foreign and Israeli news agencies.
Despite these tactics, Orme rejects out of hand the comparison with PLO tactics in Beirut, calling that period “a completely irrelevant episode.” Equating the PLO in Beirut with the PA today is “inaccurate,” Orme claims. “There they were a guerrilla army fighting a war and might have had reason to block access to the press. Here we’re talking about certain areas under Israeli military control and other areas under PA control, so there are formal government entities.” Palestinian threats against journalists are analogous to settlers who threaten TV crews too, he argues.
It is misleading to suggest that there is a PA policy of intimidation, Orme concludes, citing the “hundreds of complaints” his organization has received about Israeli government handling of the press. Everything from limited access to shooting of reporters, to the restrictions against Israeli nationals being allowed into certain areas. In contrast, “only a handful” of journalists have filed complaints against the PA.
“There is no self-censorship” either, Orme states categorically.
In contrast, one Hebrew speaking British newspaper correspondent who requested anonymity noted that the self censorship exercised by reporters in the Middle East today is understood and tacitly accepted by the home offices of their news bureaus. “They turn a blind eye to it because they know they couldn’t function at all without the help of the locals,” he said.
The British journalist cited a November incident illustrating his point. Western TV crews who filmed West Bank protests against Egyptian President Mubarak were forced to turn over their film to Palestinian security forces at a checkpoint while Egyptian intelligence officials looked on. According to the British source, the incident went unreported. This same reporter claims Palestinian police have confiscated BBC footage in Bethlehem, and explains that many western TV reporters exercise self censorship in PA controlled areas in order not to run into confiscation problems.
Journalists who have been physically attacked by Arabs are obviously even more acutely attuned to where they go and what they say. Chicago Tribune reporter Hugh Dellios suffered a severe beating in Jerusalem’s Old City on the eighth day of the riots. Dellios and a colleague from the Toronto Star who was with him that day now “think good and hard about where we’re going.”
Dellios reckons that the treatment he received was because he was singled out as a westerner in the angry crowd milling about looking for targets. “Some women started screaming, ‘He’s an American,’” Dellios recalls. “They knew we were journalists, but they suspected that I was an Israeli provocateur.”
This same suspicion was directed at Wall Street Journal Middle East correspondent Steven Glain. Twice, while covering the riots from the rooftops of Jerusalem’s Old City, Arab youth asked Glain if he was Jewish.
Veteran Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) foreign correspondent Neil Macdonald tells of a recent incident in Nablus where he was surrounded by a group of young Arab rioters who suspected the journalist and his crew were Israeli undercover forces. “I’m a 6’6” WASP,” Macdonald says. But the gang persisted even after his Palestinian fixer vouched for his journalistic credentials. Demonstrating his close ties with local Arab leaders, Macdonald called a Nablus politician who sent someone from his office “to make them disappear.” A similar event occurred a few weeks later in El Khader, a known Hamas stronghold, where “10,000 very angry people” were attending a funeral. “The Fatah activists were getting pretty nervous and aggressive and kept on asking ‘who are you?” Macdonald recounts.
The CBC correspondent has completed two and a half years of a four year stint here. He claims that the threats don’t impact much on his coverage, but he relates several anecdotes of physical violence against other journalists. He’s learned a little Arabic, not much Hebrew. Asked what he is the greatest constraint on full coverage of the intifada, Macdonald says it’s the danger of being caught in the crossfire. “I don’t trust that the IDF won’t shoot me because I’m a reporter,” he declares. “I think of the IDF as a democratic institution but that’s not to say there aren’t people from Kiryat Arba (ed. a suburb of Hebron) in the IDF.”
While most correspondents are reticent about PA constraints on their reporting, they are quite vocal about Israeli policy and attempts to restrict access to sensitive areas. Charles Enderlin, a reporter for Frances Channel 2 TV station with dual French/Israeli citizenship states categorically that he has no problems at all with the PA. (It was his cameramen who shot the footage of the murder of 12 year old Muhammad Al-Dura at Netzarim.) Enderlin then launches into a lengthy verbal attack against Israeli policy. “I can tell you the shooting is totally unjustified,” Enderlin states definitively.
Washington Post reporter Lee Hockstader explains that he’s been stopped going in and out of Tulkarm recently together with his Palestinian translator. Last week in Hebron the pair had to try three different back roads, moving aside boulders in order to get into the city. Hugh Dellios of the Chicago Tribune concurs and describes incidents where he was with a Palestinian photographer who was not permitted across the checkpoint at Ramallah or Gaza.
Bill Orme, the FPA board member, cites “settler anger” against various camera crews as a problem. “We’ve faced settler guns,” he says. Orme adds that two Washington Post vehicles were “blown up certainly by right wing Israelis.”
In November, 2000 the FPA sent a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Barak asking for an investigation into seven instances of shooting injuries sustained by journalists in the West Bank and Gaza. “In some cases, not limited to those listed here, photographers believe that they may have been shot at in an attempt to stop the taking of photographs,” the letter states. FPA officials confirm that no similar communication took place between the association and any Palestinian officials.
In some cases journalists understand the restrictions and even compare Israel favorably with other conflict situations where they’ve worked. CBC’s Macdonald acknowledges that there were far more limitations on journalists covering Canada’s Mohawk uprising.
For others, like the Wall St. Journal’s Glain, the scrutiny is too overwhelming. Glain says the humiliation he suffered from Israeli border control at the Allenby Bridge crossing made him move to Amman. Glain recounts how he was traveling from Jordan to Jerusalem in the company of three Palestinian businessmen. The Jordanians waved them through, but the Israelis detained the group for three hours, checking their car and every piece of luggage three times. Ignoring obvious Israeli security concerns, Glain states: “ They knew I was a journalist. I felt harassed. The incident left a deep impression on me,” Glain says noting that his passengers had every legitimate reason to be in Nablus.
For some correspondents, Jewish community pressure is a perceived constraint on their reporting. Everyone admits that both sides want to use the media, but most reporters feel that the pro-Israel lobby is far more sophisticated and efficient. Neil Macdonald of CBC says that “Jewish groups in North America are very well organized--the Arab groups are hopeless.” Macdonald sees Arabs sending e-mails protesting perceived bias, whereas Jews will go straight to the president of the company. “I consider it advocacy--I don’t take it personally,” he explains.
“Plenty of reporters will tell you that e mail from the Jewish lobby is a form of intimidation,” claims Phil Reeves of The Independent. “Israeli officials are pretty good at meeting with senior media staff back in the UK,” if there’s a piece of reporting they find problematic.
Hockstader of the Washington Post sees the scrutiny as a plus. “The effect is to make you an extra bit more careful and accurate. I take extra pains to be fastidious,” he says. “If you make a mistake, you hear about it.” But Hockstader acknowledges that there are no better critics of Israeli policy than Israelis themselves. “I’ll speak to a lieutenant somewhere and he’ll tell me everything that’s wrong with what they’re doing.” This is an experience he does not have on the Palestinian side.
As Nirenstein notes: “The culture of the press is almost entirely Left. These are people who feel the weakness of democratic values, their own values; who enjoy the frisson of sidling up to a threatening civilization that coddles them even while holding in disdain the system they represent.”