In preparing this article for publication, I went online looking for photos of missiles being launched by Hamas. I flipped through a slideshow at the Los Angeles Times, which features 99 images from the current conflict.
Incredibly, there was not a single photo of Hamas fighters, nor of the 3,000 Hamas rockets fired in the past month. Not even a single caption mentions the word "Hamas"!
How about the "newspaper of record," the New York Times?
Here we are, in the midst of a major international conflict being covered by thousands of media personnel. Hamas is launching 100 missiles a day, and there are 15,000 Hamas fighters roaming the Gaza Strip. How can it be there are no photos of Palestinian rocket crews or missiles being fired?
Simple. Hamas tightly controls the flow of information out of Gaza, and as NBC’s Martin Fletcher once explained: Hamas “simply threatens to kill anybody who films them” firing missiles.
This policy of threat and intimidation is actually written into the Palestinian legal code, where journalists may be fined and jailed for publishing “news that might harm national unity.”
These threats and intimidation play out in daily coverage of the Gaza conflict.
Last week, when the French newspaper Liberation reported that Hamas headquarters are embedded at Shifa hospital in Gaza, the article was quickly deleted from the online record.
Journalist Gabriel Barbati reported that a Hamas rocket hit the Al-Shati hospital and killed Palestinian children. Yet Barbati only did so after he was – in his words – “Out of Gaza, far from Hamas retaliation.”
When Wall Street Journal correspondent Tamer El-Ghobashy tweeted that a strike on a Gaza hospital was likely the result of a Hamas missile, the tweet was – you guessed it – promptly deleted.
Imagine you’re on assignment in Gaza City. You witness some Palestinians committing a heinous act of violence and manage to surreptitiously snap some photos. You now have an exclusive story that will make the front page. But you hesitate. Since the information portrays Palestinians in a negative light, you consider the consequences: Will my house be raided and my camera smashed? Will this jeopardize my access to future stories and eventually cost me my job? Will I be kidnapped and not see my family for months? Why take the chance?
These fearful thoughts play in a journalist’s head, resulting in a form of self-censorship. With stories of Palestinian thuggery and violence deemed off-limits, a reporter’s perspective undergoes a subconscious shift, which then plays out in everyday reporting – or more significantly, systematic “non”-reporting – of important news. As the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group explained:
Self-censorship is considered more serious than 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...
The insidious part of self-censorship is that consumers never know it’s being practiced. When a journalist sits down to write a story, the part you’ll never see is the hesitation and the “pause,” given the consequences of telling the truth about Palestinians. One journalist put it this way: “The worst the Israelis can do is take away our press cards. But if we irritate… Hamas, you don’t know who might be waiting in your kitchen when you come home at night.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman described the problem a bit more bluntly: Upon learning that Palestinian officials wanted to see him “immediately” to discuss the stories he’d been writing for the New York Times, he “lay awake in my bed the whole night worrying that someone was going to burst in and blow my brains all over the wall.”
This has been going on for years. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, Time magazine contributor Christopher Allbritton described it like this: “Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God (Hezbollah) has a copy of every journalist’s passport...”
So this is what media coverage of the Mideast conflict boils down to: “A copy of every journalist’s passport.” Time and again, through the force of intimidation, news stories that would tilt public opinion against Palestinians are being erased from the record. And media consumers are none the wiser.
Beyond the threat of physical abuse, another insidious reason why journalists are loathe to criticize Hamas is that doing so cuts off their access to sources of information and interviews. Like any business, the news media needs to keep supply lines open, otherwise their product – in this case, the storyline – will dry up. So in order to preserve access, journalists are willing to go along with a degree of manipulation and blackmail.
As Amnesty International has reported:
[Journalists in Palestinian areas] 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...
At many levels, this is a massive cover-up.
These bullying tactics extend even beyond the realm of hard news. When London’s Independent published a grotesque cartoon depicting Israel’s prime minister eagerly devouring a Palestinian baby, the cartoon was so vile that it was later adopted by radical Islamic groups as an icon of their anti-Israel campaign. So imagine my shock when the British Political Cartoon Society awarded this first prize in its annual “Cartoon of the Year” competition.
I contacted Dr. Tim Benson, director of the Cartoon Society, to question not only the inaccuracy of portraying “Israeli-style infanticide,” but also the ethics of giving an award to such a biased cartoon. Benson responded by taking the moral high road:
You have all taken this award completely out of perspective and context. Shame on you! We do so much good. If only you looked at our website properly you would have noticed that in fact we promote anti-fascism and educate about the dangers of extremism.
I always try to take criticism seriously, so when he said, “Shame on you,” I reasoned that I must have misjudged this one, unfairly accusing him of anti-Israel bias.
That theory was shot to pieces a few months later when filmmaker Martin Himel interviewed Benson and asked him to explain why political cartoonists frequently portray Israelis as Nazis, devils and cannibals – while Palestinian leaders are not depicted in similarly vile ways. In a moment of candor, Benson was caught on camera saying:
Well, if you upset an Islamic or Muslim group, as you know, fatwas can be issued by Ayatollahs and such, and maybe it’s at the back of each cartoonist’s mind, that they could be in trouble if they do so.
Now we get it. Israelis are vilified because Jews don’t issue death fatwas. And Western journalists, the supposed standard-bearers of objectivity and ethics, are kowtowing to Hamas intimidation, practicing self-censorship out of fear and violating their most basic duty to report the facts.
Last week in Gaza, when Wall Street Journal correspondent Nick Casey tweeted a photo of a Hamas official stationed at Shifa hospital, the tweet was deleted the next day.
Meanwhile, democratic Israel vigilantly guards its freedom of the press, where journalists eagerly air their criticisms of Israeli policy. The result is that new coverage is skewed in favor of the Palestinians, leaving Israel to fight the battle for public opinion with one hand tied behind its back.
That is the dirty little secret of Mideast journalism.