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Journalists describe constant Palestinian intimidation

How Palestinians intimidate the press into suppressing unfavorable coverage

Editor's note: Despite the increasing violence and terror in the five-month-old "intifada" -- yesterday's suicide bombing by a Palestinian terrorist killed three Israelis and wounded 60 much of the international news coverage throughout this troubled period has displayed an openly pro-Palestinian slant. 

Israel is commonly portrayed by the American and European news media -- and of course the Arab press -- as the brutal "Goliath" in battle with the righteous Palestinian "David." This, despite the fact that Palestinian and especially Islamic leaders frequently and openly call for the indiscriminate murder of Jews and the total annihilation of the Jewish state. 

Judy Lash Balint, a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist whose articles have appeared in many publications worldwide, including the Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem Post and Seattle Times, conducted an in-depth survey of media representatives in preparation of this insightful three-part report. She discovered a complex pattern of intimidation at work that has exerted a profound influence on journalists and what they report. 

This first installment focuses on the aftermath of the filming of the infamous Ramallah lynching last October.

By Judy Lash Balint
© 2001

JERUSALEM -- Journalists and the Palestinian Authority have what might euphemistically be called a strained relationship. 

The independent Committee to Protect 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 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 -- who were notoriously hounded in Beirut 20 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 its resolution. 

Ramallah: never the same

The lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah last October proved to be a watershed in coverage of the new intifada. 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 lynch, 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 have sometimes vented their hostility toward 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, 20-something Arab stringer for ABC-TV, acknowledges that Ramallah was "really dangerous for foreigners," after the lynch. 

According to firsthand reports, a Polish television crew was surrounded by Palestinian security forces, 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 Oct. 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 Canadian Broadcasting Company's Neil Macdonald, asked PA Security chief Jibril Rajoub 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 website 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 up in Jaffa while covering the riots started by Israeli Arabs. Cristiano's nose was broken, his cheek gashed, and he almost lost the use of his right eye. 

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, Oct. 16, 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 Israel Defense Force used freeze-frames of her film to nab six of the perpetrators in undercover raids. 

This reporter traveled to Rome to meet Cristiano last December. The tall, gray-haired and mustachioed, soft-spoken man acknowledges he's a leftist, but in his quest for justice for those whom he perceives as oppressed, he feels he's following in the footsteps of his father, renowned Italian artist Paolo Cristiano. 

The senior Cristiano was a member of the Italian resistance who spent three years in a series of Nazi death camps. He weighed 60 pounds 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 quietly said. Recently, Cristiano met with the head of the Jewish council in Venice to explain his actions and gain his support. 

The Al Hayat letter became a significant political issue in Italy because Cristiano worked for the government station, and his letter was perceived to have endangered the life of a reporter from the independent channel operated by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy's center-right opposition. Berlusconi's party is critical of support for the Palestinians on the part of the government-controlled media. 

Over the course of several interviews, Cristiano was careful to talk only about what has happened to his life in the intervening months, not the details of his controversial letter. Even though he does not have a job, he is technically still employed while he awaits a disciplinary hearing that will determine his future as a journalist. His October letter was unauthorized, and he can't afford to be accused of another unauthorized action such as an interview explaining his actions. 

Interestingly, Orme recalls that in a telephone conversation with Cristiano the day the letter appeared in Al Hayat, the Italian reporter verified and even defended its contents, telling Orme that he was concerned for the safety of his staff. 

Cristiano's plight does provide a certain insight into the journalistic fraternity of those covering the Middle East. Like the other reporters who were beaten up by Palestinians over the past few months, Cristiano has no rage against their violent tactics. Neither does he expect much from the PA. He relates how his crew was filming a bodyguard of PA Jerusalem Affairs minister Faisal Husseini who slapped 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. 

While Cristiano has obvious sympathy for the Palestinian cause, he is not anti-Israel. He speaks of his special interest in the Armenians and views both Israel and the Palestinians as "nations under trauma." 

But until his name is cleared, Cristiano continues to be a fallen man. 

"My friends think I'm in this mood because I lost my job in Jerusalem," he said sadly, "but the reality is that I lost my honor and credibility from myself and my heritage." 

Pro-Palestinian slant price of access, safety in covering Mideast conflict

Editor's note: Shortly after the outbreak of the current Palestinian "intifada" or uprising, National Public Radio's Jennifer Ludden reported: "Today is a repeat of the last three days ... You've got this Goliath of an Israeli army with guns. In some places yesterday they used armored tanks. There were battle helicopters buzzing overhead. At one point in the Gaza strip yesterday, Israeli soldiers fired an anti-tank missile. All this directed at young kids with stones." 

NPR's wildly inflammatory and inaccurate report the weaponry cited hadn't been directed at kids, the tanks were only a deterrent, the helicopters brought in to rescue an Israeli shot by Palestinians, and the anti-tank missile used against Palestinian snipers firing at Israelis from high-rise buildings was only a mild caricature what has been typical news coverage of the escalating conflict. 

Jerusalem-based writer and journalist Judy Lash Balint, whose articles have appeared in many publications worldwide, including the Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem Post and Seattle Times, conducted an in-depth survey of on-the-ground journalists in preparing this insightful three-part report. In Part 1, above Balint traveled to Rome to interview Italian TV reporter Riccardo Cristiano about his controversial response to Italian TV coverage of last fall's grisly Palestinian lynching of two Israeli soldiers. 

In today's installment, Balint quotes many correspondents who face harassment and worse in their pursuit of information and access in the increasingly dangerous region.

By Judy Lash Balint
© 2001

JERUSALEM -- Extensive interviews with correspondents based here, as well as those who have flown in to cover the ever-widening Mideast crisis, reveal a highly complex journalistic reality that is anything but conducive to unbiased reporting. 

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, 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. 

To whom do they turn 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," 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 Israel Defense Force jeep patrolling the volatile Ayosh Junction outside Ramallah. Eyewitness 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 Palestinian Authority residents are in possession of Israel Government Press Office credentials. 

Much of the current conflict is raging in Area A (under full Palestinian Authority control), so it is not surprising that the fixers are generally young U.S.-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 quite well 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 TV crewmembers 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 little 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, which creates another problem. The harassment of Palestinian journalists critical of Yasser Arafat is well documented by Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in an Oct. 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 is 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.) 

Wrote Chafets: "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 organization 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 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 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, the New York Times' William Orme (Sontag's husband) says that he knows of no documented incidents 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 Foreign Press Association doesn't necessarily agree. In an article in Haaretz (Oct. 19), 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," Goller confirms. 

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. A letter signed by the PUJ appeared in the PA daily Al Hayyat, condemning the Jerusalem Associated Press bureau's coverage of the conflict. The letter threatened that if the bureau did not change its coverage, the group would adopt "all necessary measures against AP staffers." Jerusalem AP representatives refuse to discuss 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 the PA. 

Just a few days after the January executions in Nablus (Shechem) 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 where 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 that 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 youths asked Glain if he was Jewish. 

Veteran Canadian Broadcasting Company foreign correspondent Neil Macdonald tells of a recent incident in Nablus (Shechem) 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 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 (a suburb of Hebron) in the IDF." 

Related stories: 

Israel punishes Italian journalist 

Who killed Mohammed al-Dura?

Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist, an associate of the Israel Media Resource Agency and the author of a forthcoming book, "Jerusalem Diaries," to be published by Gefen this summer. She may be reached by e-mail.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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