There is one thing that all the sides involved in the matter agree on: the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry agree with the Al-Jazeera TV station only as to the very high rating that the satellite channel enjoys throughout the Arab world.
Al-Jazeera, which launched its broadcasts six years ago in Doha, the capital of Qatar in the Persian Gulf and was given the title “the CNN of the Arab world” thanks to its around-the-clock news broadcasts – has long since overtaken CNN’s ratings. And it is in fact its very success that has led the sides to the present confrontation, centering on the TV’s crew in the territories.
The Al-Jazeera crew contends: we have hundreds of millions of viewers, Israel should treat us fairly. Israel agrees: Al-Jazeera is a very important and influential media outlet but its influence is mainly negative, its reports are one-sided and its insistence on airing heart-rending photographs of Palestinian children’s bodies, among others, makes Al-Jazeera into an “inciting and dangerous station.”
The complaint made in Jerusalem is that the pictures of the bombing of the PA offices in Gaza – that were aired every hour on the hour on Al-Jazeera at the beginning of the Intifada – are what caused millions to go out and demonstrate angrily against Israel, and led to a high state of alert in Israeli diplomatic missions in the Arab world. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak explicitly stated that he made the decision to recall the veteran ambassador Mohammed Bassiouny as a result of the pictures that caused him to lose sleep. These pictures were shown exclusively on Al-Jazeera.
On the other hand, Al-Jazeera openly defied the boycott of the Arab world’s Journalists Association: Israeli figures – ministers, MKs, intellectuals, right wing and left wing activists, and mainly official spokespeople – are invited even today to present the Israeli angle after every incident in the territories. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem even trained a special spokesman, Ophir Gendelman, to comment live, in spirited Arabic, on questions put to him in an earphone from the newsroom in Qatar.
Soldiers Boycotted Film
However, the curfew in the territories, the IDF’s entry into the West Bank cities and the roadblocks have paralyzed, either partially or completely, Al-Jazeera’s 19-strong crew from covering events. A reporter sent, for example, to cover an incident in Nablus, is not certain he will be able to get back to the Ramallah studio. Somebody stopped at a sudden IDF roadblock will be forced to be stuck there if he cannot show an official and valid document issued by the GPO in Jerusalem.
Of the 19 journalists and production crew employed by Al-Jazeera, only three hold such a card today: the chief correspondent, Walid el-Omari, an Israeli citizen from the Galilee, photographer Majid Safdi, also an Israeli citizen, from the Golan Heights, and Jawara Budeiri from Jerusalem. In a few weeks her press card will expire.
Walid el-Omari, whose round-the-clock reports open almost every news broadcast, describes events of the last few days: I went with my photographer to prepare an item in the Ramallah area. When we got back we were stopped by soldiers who claimed that we were breaking the curfew. I showed my press card, but the soldiers confiscated the film, and three house later I got them back scratched and unusable.”
Because of prohibitions on traveling, el-Omari is the only one of the team who can go out into the field and be sure that he will be able to broadcast from there. “I am worried all the time, what will happen if my photographer gets sick, or if I collapse from exhaustion. If this happens, there will be nobody to do Al-Jazeera’s work. I suspect this is the intention of those who set policy in Jerusalem,” he says. Last week, after the terror attack at Hebrew University, el-Omari decided not to try and reach the site of the attack. He stayed in Ramallah because of the curfew, had a special hour-long broadcast, but the pictures shown on screen were those provided by foreign agencies. Sorry, a Delay at the Roadblock
Al-Jazeera’s legal adviser in Israel, Zaki Kamal from Haifa, sent a long letter of complaint (53 items) to the director of the GPO, Danny Seaman, a month and a half ago. He demanded, in the name of free speech and democracy, that the press cards of the Al-Jazeera’s crew be renewed, as is the case with other foreign media teams. “There is no need to overstate the great importance of conveying the news and the link between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the other Arab countries in the world, created in the wake of Al-Jazeera’s activity in Israel,” Kamal wrote.
“Despite the heavy pressure applied by many Arab states, Qatar allowed the State of Israel to open an office in its capital and it treats Israeli reporters equally and fairly. For that we want reciprocity,” Kamal wrote.
“Precisely at this time, when tension between the different peoples is facing an abyss, the importance of Al-Jazeera’s work as an Arab media outlet, for authentic coverage of events in those areas under Israel’s and the PA’s control and inside the State of Israel, increases.”
The long letter, which describes Al-Jazeera’s uniqueness and its advantages, reviews the activities of its reporters since it opened offices in the territories six years ago: “They were allowed to do their journalism work faithfully, move about freely, and reach the sites of various incidents just like the other journalists, Israeli and foreign.” Kamal notes the loss of livelihood to the workers, and says the Israeli security officials themselves have no objection to their being given permits.
“In January,” el-Omari relates, “I asked to renew the press cards of Al-Jazeera’s 19 workers in Israel. Unfortunately, we were told that ‘there is a new policy.’ Some of our people continued to work, until their card expired. Only a few managed to work without cards. Most are forced to stay home.
“I hear it said that our reports are not balanced, that they are biased, that we don’t show the Israeli angle, don’t report terror attacks. How do they want us to cover events on the Israeli side if we’re not allowed to travel? We are forced to use material filmed by foreign agencies, and I know that if we could go to the place itself, our filmed material would look different. But we are not given access. Every time I go out, I don’t know how long my broadcast will have to wait because of delays at a roadblock.”
Kamal says: The GPO must act to uphold freedom of the press, “which is not the situation today, which discriminates against the Al-Jazeera crew in Israel.”
GPO Director Danny Seaman took his time getting back to Kamal. Prime Minister’s Office officials (responsible for the GPO) gave the legal adviser, Yael Cohen, authorization to reply in a laconic letter: “Your letter was conveyed to our office’s legal department, and I hereby confirm that it was received. After examining the matter with the relevant authorities, we will reply to your letter.”
Kamal’s patience ran out ten days ago. After not receiving any reply, he made a precedent-setting petition to the High Court of Justice, in the name of Al-Jazeera and its workers in the territories and in Israel: Al-Jazeera is demanding of the Prime Minister’s Office (which is responsible for the GPO), the Defense Ministry (responsible from traveling in the territories) and the GPO director to explain why Israel is hounding the Al-Jazeera workers and not letting them do their work and why it was decided to suspend their press cards. If We Don’t Respect Ourselves
The GPO, so it turns out, has complaints of its own. Seaman: “When a new reporter comes to Israel, from the New York Times for example, I get an official letter from the newspaper’s editors in which they inform me that he/she is their representative and asking that they be given a press card.
But the Al-Jazeera office in Qatar has never, to this day, sent such a letter, on official stationery.”
Kamal: “This is disingenuous, in the past they received such letters and as soon as they ask, they will receive more.”
El-Omari: “we’ve sent in requests for each of the workers, on official Al-Jazeera stationery, and until Seaman became director, we were also given press cards without any problems. The GPO cooperated with us and helped us quite a bit. But the moment Seaman became director, a year and a half ago, things became complicated. He informed us, ‘you are working for the Palestinian Authority.’ That got me angry. I told him, we try to reach places on the Israeli side, but we have problems because we don’t have cards.
“I went to the Knesset, and me and my photographer were stripped. When we tried to go the Prime Minister’s Office, we were checked for an hour and a half. When we reached the site of a terror attack, the IDF was forced to rescue us from being beaten. You have to decide: if you want us to present the Israeli side, you have to help us. You have to treat us like any other foreign journalist who works in Israel.”
El-Omari and the head of Al-Jazeera office in the territories, Weil Abu-Daka, tell of a meeting with Seaman. “Seaman invited us, and when Weil extended his hand to shake, Seaman asked him: do you have a permit to be here? Weil said, ‘I have no permit, that is what I’ve come here to talk to you about.’ Seaman, in response, threatened to call the police and have him arrested for being in Israel illegally. Then Weil took out his press card, which was still valid at the time.”
Seaman: “I remember the incident, but it wasn’t very serious. It’s important for me to stress that I obey the laws of the State of Israel, and demand of those who come and see me that they also obey the law. My threat to call the police was meant to show them that I demand from them exactly what I demand from all the other media outlets of Arab states that work here.”
Question: Al-Jazeera reporters need a press card to go from place to place.
Seaman: “I have a problem with Arab satellite stations that exploit our openness. If we don’t respect ourselves, we won’t be respected. Sometimes you have to give a little slap on the hand, like we did in the case of Abu Dhabi television that smeared us and reported untrue information. We expelled their correspondent, and then things worked out more or less. I hope that now, after Al-Jazeera has submitted its petition to the High Court, we will start instating order in the mess and clear rules will be determined as to who is eligible for a press card and who isn’t.” Question: Al-Jazeera claims that you won’t give them press cards on the grounds that they are hostile, that they broadcast harsh pictures that agitate the Arab world.
“I don’t care what they say about me. I am a professional, not a political appointment. As far as Al-Jazeera goes, I found complete anarchy, and I want to instate order. I don’t set policy and I don’t expect them to be pro-Israeli, but that they work professionally. I know who they are, I know their importance, but I want this to get to the High Court, which will decide in the matter of granting press cards.”
“Israel should be interested in having a media outlet so widespread in the Arab world tell its story,” says Kamal, “I think that because of Al-Jazeera’s importance, it should be respected.”
Question: It is said that Al-Jazeera’s broadcasts are hostile.
Kamal: “What other kind of pictures can you show from the territories? Even on the Israeli side they know that the situation in the territories is terrible. The easiest thing to do is stick your head in the sand and blame Al-Jazeera.”
Intriguing Relations with Qatar
The Jerusalem Foreign Ministry is now preparing a position paper presenting and analyzing the weight of Israeli PR contrasted with the media, mainly the TV stations in the Arab world. The conclusions, the emphases on Al-Jazeera’s weight compared to ANN, for example, owned by Rifat Assad (the Syrian president’s exiled uncle), which has also been found to be employing a crew in the territories without a permit – will be used by the High Court judges in their ruling on Al-Jazeera’s petition against Prime Minister Sharon.
A senior Foreign Ministry said, “we are now in a state of war against the Palestinians, and with this being the situation, it is natural for each side to withdraw unto itself and stress its angle of vision. But the State of Israel, which boasts of being the only real democracy in the region, cannot restrict the Palestinian journalists, and on the other hand, complain of inciteful and biased coverage. We also have unique and intriguing relations with the Qatar emirate, which runs this important station.”
This article ran in Yediot Ahronot on August 2, 2002