The Palestinian Authority has a thing about 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, who were 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 on 12 October 2000 proved to be a watershed in western coverage of the new intifada. Up until that point, most western journalists traveled wherever they wanted to.
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 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.
Ahmed Budeiri, a bright, twenty-something Arab stringer for ABC TV, acknowledges that Ramallah was “really dangerous for foreian 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 (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 lynch. 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 Bill Orme of the New York Times, came to their own conclusion that while the mob which 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.
TV Newsweb, 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, gave 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 were 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 lynch. 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 lynch 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 that 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 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 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 Italy’s government-sponsored media.
Over the course of several interviews, Cristiano is 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 by RAI while he awaits a disciplinary hearing which 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, Bill Orme, as an FPA (Foreign Press Association) board member, 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 the FPA 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 other reporters who were beaten up by Palestinians over the past few months, Cristiano felt no rage against their violence. 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 destroyed 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 says sadly, “but the reality is that I lost my honor and credibility from myself and my heritage.”
Extensive interviews in Jerusalem with correspondents based here as well as those who were 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, 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 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. 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 which provide the backdrop for all their coverage. Topping the list is the notion that Palestinians are engaged in a struggle for independence and Israeli oppressors are using their might 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. Some 400 PA residents are currently in possession of Israel Government Press Office credentials. Most of these Palestinian “fixers” also know Hebrew, and their GPO credentials generally enable them to navigate quite well throughout Israel without security intimidation.
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, western-educated Palestinians who know how to operate in PA territory and who introduce the journalists to their circle of acquaintances.
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.
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 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 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 is a fact of life for East Jerusalem Arabs, as Nadav Shragai documented in the Israeli newspaper HaAretz in June, 2000.
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’ (Willam Morrow, 1984) 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 themse