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Journalists Behaving Badly
by Judy Lash Balint
The Forward
May 11, 2001

Ofer Bavly from the Israeli Embassy in Rome and Ali Rashid, PLO representative in Rome sat next to each other exchanging friendly banter.

Things weren't so cordial up on stage where two Israelis journalists, a Palestinian human rights worker and a Jewish New York magazine editor sparred over the state of press freedom in Israel and the Palestine Authority.

The debate took place in Florence last week at a conference celebrating International Press Freedom Day organized by Informazione senze Frontiere (ISF) (Information Without Borders) a non-profit group funded by the Italian government and the Tuscany regional council.

To the surprise of the Europeans, the tension was most pronounced between the two Israelis, Haaretz reporter Gideon Levy and me. Levy, best known for his weekly columns describing the misery of Palestinians living in the territories, took great exception to my description of Palestine Authority corruption and autocracy, accusing me of "patronizing and preaching" to Palestinians and being blind to Israeli shortcomings. Levy maintains that Israel is not a democratic state since it "occupies another people."

Levy's take on IDF actions: "All those guys doing so many cruel actions toward a people who fights for its independence." A slight smile crept over the face of fellow panelist, Bassam Eid, director of the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group, as Levy spoke. Eid's remarks to the small audience gathered in the imposing Florentine hall consisted of an attack on the bias of the media in Israel, and nostalgic recollections of cooperative relations between Palestinians and Israeli journalists during the first intifada.

The three of us had traveled from Tel Aviv together and arrived in Florence after a bizarre journey that involved spending the night parked alongside the autostrada when our bus broke down. That should have been a bonding experience, but I could tell that the two friends were wondering why I had been invited to take part in the conference. In fact, all of us had been suggested by a mutual acquaintance, Riccardo Cristiano, the disgraced Italian journalist who was stripped of his Israeli press credentials after a letter he wrote appeared in a Ramallah daily.

Eid and Levy knew Cristiano from his four-year stint as Jerusalem correspondent for the Italian Government TV channel. As for me, I had interviewed Cristiano in Rome last December for an article on Palestinian intimidation of foreign journalists, and we'd kept in touch since then.

Since his unauthorized letter apologizing for the actions of a rival independent TV station that passed footage of the Ramallah lynchings on to the Israeli Embassy in Rome, Cristiano has been demoted. He now covers the pope for the government radio station. So, he stayed around while we discussed the conference agenda with members of the ISF, but was conspicuously absent from the conference itself where representatives of the Italian Union of Journalists (the body which had censured him) and the Italian deputy minister of information were in attendance. He told us he was off to Athens to cover the pope's visit there, two days early.

Those who were in the audience were largely European journalists together with officials of the various unions and federations that proliferate in countries with socialist tendencies. Did any of them realize that Cristiano had arranged a most unrepresentative group of guests? Levy, an Israeli chronicler of Palestinian suffering; Eid, a Palestinian critical of the PA and myself, an American immigrant writing in English for papers outside Israel.

Most participants seemed likewise unaware of the well-documented repressive attitude of the PA toward their fellow journalists. When I raised this issue using concrete examples from interviews with foreign reporters in Jerusalem, I was met with stony silence. In contrast, Bassam Eid's strange, out of context closing remarks received wide applause.

Eid, who was sweating profusely as he recounted the tale, spoke of the MSNBC poll to determine the picture of the year. One of the pictures was of Muhammad Al Dura, the 12 year old who was killed at Netzarim junction in the early days of the anti-Jewish violence. Eid avers that the Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles started a campaign e mailing and calling everyone he knew to vote against that picture. "I was at Tom Segev's house," Eid noted, relishing mention of the post-Zionist author's name. "We voted, and Segev then put out a letter critical of the LA consul."

Eid and Levy were taken by our hosts for appearances on local TV and radio shows. I was not invited. No doubt Levy repeated comments he made at the conference: "It's not for me to be proud of the Israeli press...." Accusing the Israeli media of self-censorship in writing about the Palestinians, Levy told his European counterparts at the conference, "Most Israelis are concentrated solely on themselves, never seeing the other. Whether it's foreign workers, new immigrants or Palestinians, they don't see them as human beings." With the approving glance of his friend, Bassam, Levy went on to ask rhetorically whether there were only Jewish and Israeli victims of the conflict. "That's the impression you get from our media," he asserted.

After this session there was no eye contact between us, and little conversation, despite the fact that we were staying at the same hotel and traveling back to Israel together.

Levy did break the silence to tell me that the most abusive e-mail he receives is from American Jews.