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 WorldNetDaily.com
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
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
Sky TV News reporter Chris Roberts says
that at the outset of the violence, the PA welcomed reporters with open
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
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
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
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
"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
"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."
punishes Italian journalist
killed Mohammed al-Dura?
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
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