News Item: Jerusalem – May 29, 2001

Members of the PA-affiliated Fatah Hawks kidnapped two Newsweek correspondents today. Jerusalem bureau chief Joshua Hammer had just concluded an interview with Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip, and was informed by the interviewees that they were now prisoners. Hammer and photographer Gary Knight were held captive for about four hours. Newsweek chairman and editor-in-chief Richard Smith said: “[We are] outraged that two journalists who were doing their job were subjected to this kind of treatment."

News Item: Ramallah – October 12, 2000

Journalist Ricardo Cristiano, from the Italian state television network RAI, published a letter of apology in Arabic over the filming of the lynching of two Israelis in Ramallah. Cristiano promised to "respect" the "rules" laid down by the Palestinian Authority, and pledged to prevent similar images being shown in the future. Cristiano apparently feared being associated with another Italian TV crew whose footage of the lynching was broadcast worldwide. The apology was published in the official Palestinian daily, Al Hayat.

News Item: Jerusalem – November 2, 2000

The Palestinian Journalists' Union published a letter in the PA daily Al Hayat, condemning the Associated Press for its portrayal of the “struggle of the Palestinians.” The letter threatened that if AP did not change its coverage, the Palestinian Journalists' Union would adopt "all necessary measures against AP staffers."

The media war is being fought on an uneven battlefield. On one side is Israeli democracy with freedom of the press. On the other side is the Palestinian Authority (PA), which practices policies of intimidation, harassment and restriction of the press. Since September 2000:

British photographer Mark Seager told how he was punched in the face by a Palestinian and had his camera smashed to the floor when he tried to photograph Palestinians engaged in violent activities.

 

Aguirre Bertrand of France's TF1 says that Palestinian police took a videotape of from his crew at gunpoint.

Chicago Tribune reporter Hugh Dellios was severely beaten by Palestinians in Jerusalem's Old City while covering Palestinian riots.

Canadian Broadcasting Company foreign correspondent Neil Macdonald was threatened by a group of Arab rioters in Nablus.

 

How can a journalist report honestly if his life is being threatened?

As Stephanie Gutmann wrote in the Weekly Standard: “Take the photos the militiamen want and you are generally fine, even helpfully ushered around; take pictures that show Palestinians in roles other than victim, and things can get nasty quite fast.”

Perhaps even more insidious is that the media, fearing Palestinian reprisals, have imposed a self-censorship that severely curtails their reporting of Palestinian abuses.

Non-partisan sources, such as the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and even Palestinian rights groups report that the Palestinian Authority routinely harasses, arrests, beats and tortures journalists who print or report items critical of the PA or Arafat.

U.S. State Department - Annual Human Rights Report for 1999

"In a number of instances during the year, the PA took steps to limit free expression, particularly in regards to human rights issues and allegations of corruption. Press freedom in PA controlled areas is subject to a 1995 press law that does not adequately protect the press. PA security services further stifle the independence of the press by shutting down media outlets, banning publication or broadcast of material, and periodically harassing or detaining media members. Palestinian commentators and human rights groups say that as a result, the practice of self-censorship by journalists is widespread."

Freedom House - 2000 Report on Freedom of the Press

"Under a 1995 Palestinian press law, journalists may be fined and jailed and newspapers closed for publishing 'secret information' on Palestinian security forces or news that might harm national unity or incite violence. Several small private radio and television stations are pressured by authorities to provide favorable coverage of Arafat and the PNA. Official Palestinian radio and television are government mouthpieces. In May, Palestinian security forces arrested three journalists working for an Islamic weekly who reported on instances of alleged torture by the Palestinian police. In September, Palestinian police arrested Maher Dasuki, a television talk-show host at a Ramallah-based television station, for hosting a guest who criticized Yassir Arafat. Upon his release 20 days later, Dasuki charged his jailers had tortured him...

"The Palestine National Authority is slow in relaxing controls that imply that news media are part of the PNA structure and answerable to it. While censorship is unpredictable, intimidation and harassment of journalists leads to pervasive self-censorship...”

Amnesty International - Annual Report 2000

"Since its establishment in 1994, the PA has progressively restricted the right to freedom of expression through a variety of means, including arrest and detention by various security forces... Many detainees have been held incommunicado and some have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment...

"Those arrested are rarely shown an arrest warrant or informed of the reason for their arrest. Nevertheless the fact that their arrest took place hours or days after they delivered a controversial speech or wrote a critical article, for example, leaves little room for doubt as to the reason for their detention. Critics of the PA may find themselves invited to have a short meeting over a cup of coffee with one or other of the security services, only for them to emerge from detention days, weeks, or even months later...

"Those arrested have included journalists, academics, political activists, lawyers, government officials, trade unionists, and religious figures. Many human rights defenders were detained in the early years...

"The PA has infringed the right to freedom of expression in other ways. Many journalists have reported being subjected to ill-treatment at the hands of the security forces while they were going about their duties...

"To avoid the kinds of abuses described above, some Palestinian journalists now admit that they practice self-censorship, either by modifying the manner in which they report a story or not reporting or commenting on certain topics at all. Even if a journalist is prepared to take risks, his or her editor may not be willing to carry the responsibility of authorizing publication of a critical article..."

Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group - Annual Report 2000

"...A journalist in Palestine faces external censorship that restricts his freedom of opinion and expression. He or she faces self-censorship that limits the initiative to think on issues that he or she believes may surpass the drawn red lines. This fact made the local press only look like parrots that repeat what is expected from them without asking or criticizing anything.

"Self-censorship is considered more serious that external censorship because it not only prevents the journalist from publishing what he writes, but it also hinders his writing, thinking or analyzing. He or she would not think of wasting time writing material that will surely not be published... Self-censorship also takes hold when journalists hear of colleagues getting abused by the security services when they exceed the red lines."

Palestinian Tradition of Press Intimidation

During the PLO's reign of terror in Lebanon (1976-82), Lebanese and foreign journalists were harassed and in several cases murdered by the PLO. For example, Edouard Saeb, editor of L'Orient le Jour and correspondent to Le Monde, was shot down by PLO gunmen in September 1976.

Journalist Edouard George, then senior editor of Beirut's French-language daily L'Orient le Jour, compiled a list of seven foreign journalists who were killed by the PLO between 1976-81:

  • Larry Buchman, correspondent for ABC Television
  • Mark Tryon, Free Belgium Radio
  • Jean Lougeau, correspondent for French TF-1
  • Tony Italo, Italian journalist
  • Graciella Difaco, Italian journalist
  • Sean Toolan, correspondent for ABC
  • Robert Pfeffer, correspondent for Der Spiegel

Commenting on the abduction last week of the Newsweek reporter and photographer, one foreign correspondent told the Jerusalem Post: "This is a really bad omen for journalists who work in the territories. These sorts of things tend to be infectious, and others may surely get ideas. We have all been thinking lately of Lebanon in the 1980s, and wondering if it could happen here.”

There are many elements to the ongoing media war. The Palestinian intimidation of journalists is surely one major factor in skewing media coverage against the Israeli side.

Research by Lenny Ben-David of I-Consult