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Date posted: August 24, 2004
By Husam S. Madhoun for MIFTAH

“Winning this struggle is 80-90% dependent on the media’s effectiveness.” Israeli PM Ariel Sharon

Israel, supposedly the only “democracy” in the Middle East, is very often referred to by the West as a country that upholds Press Freedom. Even more so, it is said to be the only country in the Middle East that has a Free Press a la Western style. Not to say that the state of Press Freedom in the Middle East is not miserable, however, to single out Israel as having a free press is everything but fair and factual. Numerous studies conducted by Press Freedom Organisations as the likes of: Reporters Sans Fronteirs (RSF), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI), explicitly prove the opposite.

According to IFJ (www.ifj.org), Press Freedom is defined as: “the guarantee by a government of free public speech often through a state constitution for its citizens, and associations of individuals extended to members of news gathering organizations, and their published reporting. It also extends to news gathering, and processes involved in obtaining information for the public consumption.” Furthermore press freedom is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th 1948. The article stipulates that, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

To begin with, in all fairness, to claim that Israel does not have any degree of press freedom is close to absurdity. Israeli 'Basic Law' has a clause stipulating the right to free flow of information through all media outlets. In theory this is very true, but in practice this is hardly the case. In Israel the government respects the free flow of information with respect to its local media alone, while possessing a vibrant media, consisting of numerous TV, radio and satellite stations. Moreover there seems to be a healthy ratio of private to publicly owned media. However, these reasons alone do not constitute a free press.

Press Freedom also means, the flow and exchange of information without any interference and censorship, or even by a government issuing press cards along ethnic guidelines. In the case of Israel, this is where its record lacks severely. For the past four years, Israel has been engaged in trying to suppress a Palestinian civil uprising (Intifada) with all means possible, including suppressing the Palestinian and International media in all its forms. According to the Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said, “Never have the media been so influential in determining the course of war as during the Al-Aqsa Intifada…Israel has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into what in Hebrew is called hasbara, or information for the outside world (hence, propaganda). This has included: …lunches and free trips for influential journalists…bombarding congressmen and -women with invitations and visits; pamphlets and, most important, money for election campaigns; directing (or, as the case requires, harassing) photographers and writers of the current Intifada into producing certain images and not others…training commentators to make frequent references to the Holocaust and Israel’s predicament today; many advertisements in the newspapers attacking Arabs and praising Israel... Because so many powerful people in the media and publishing business are strong supporters of Israel, the task is made vastly easier.” Because Israel occupies Palestinian land, it has the obligation under International Law to uphold press freedom. This is stated in the Geneva conventions, Hague regulations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Funnily enough according to RSF’s(www.rsf.org) Press Freedom index, it ranks Israel 92nd putting it 10 ranks below the Palestinian National Authority, giving the reason that, “the political weakening of the Palestinian Authority (82nd) means it has made few assaults on press freedom. However, Islamic fundamentalist opposition media have been closed, several attempts made to intimidate and attack local and foreign journalists and many subjects remain taboo. The aim is to convey a united image of the Palestinian people and to conceal aspects such as; demonstrations of support for attacks on Israel.” In the case of Israel the report had this to say, “The attitude of Israel (92nd) towards press freedom is ambivalent. Despite strong pressure on state-owned TV and radio, the government respects the local media's freedom of expression. However, in the West Bank and Gaza, Reporters Sans Frontiers has recorded a large number of violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees press freedom and which Israel has signed. Since the start of the Israeli army's incursions into Palestinian towns and cities in March 2002, many journalists have been roughed up, threatened, arrested, banned from moving around, targeted by gunfire, wounded or injured, had their press cards withdrawn or been deported.”

Furthermore, a report published by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (www.freemedia.at), has some interesting observations to make. The report is a compilation of all press freedom violations committed in this ongoing conflict. The study states that, till May 20th 2003 an estimated 310 press freedom violations have been committed. According to IPI, a press freedom violation includes journalists being subject to targeted shootings, beatings, harassment, censorship, threats and obstruction in carrying out their profession. In addition to media outlets being targeted and destroyed, broadcasting equipment being seized and/or confiscated. Statistically seen 77.4% of all press freedom violations have been committed on behalf of Israeli authorities, 4.5% committed by settlers and 1% by Israeli civilians, which amount to a total of 82.9%. On the other hand, a mere 7.7% of all press freedom violations have been committed by the PNA, 2.3% by Palestinian civilians and 2.6% by Palestinian paramilitaries. Amounting to 12.5%. “Of the 4.5% of the incidents whose perpetrators are unknown, it remains very likely that the initiative lay with the Israeli army in most of the incidents.” Moreover 10 journalists or media workers have been killed in this conflict, with again Israel killing 9 of these journalists, of which 7 are Palestinian (Azziz Al Teneh, Mohammad Bishawi, Othman Ibrahim Qatatani, Issam Al Tilawi, Imad Abu Zahra, Amjad Al-Alami and Nazeeh Darwazeh), one British (James Miller) and one Italian (Rafaello Ciriello). Palestinians are to be blamed for killing one journalist (Hisham Mekki). In Numerous letters of protest IPI has stated that there seems to be a frightening trend, that media workers are being targeted on purpose by Israel. In the Years 2000, ‘01, ‘02 and ‘03 the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been placed as the 6th worst place for Journalists to be working.

As if it were not enough, the saga continues. Israel has made it virtually impossible for Palestinian media workers on contract by foreign media agencies such as Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press to obtain press cards form the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). Addressing this problem, IPI took on the issue and sent a delegation headed by AP’s bureau chief Dan Perry on the 1st March 2003 to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Officials to discuss the matter. In a Letter of Protest IPI had this to say, “We repeat our fervent call on Israel to accredit Palestinian journalists working for the foreign press out of the Palestinian territories. The current operation in Areas A only shows, yet again, why these professionals need, for their safety, to be able to identify themselves to Israeli soldiers as journalists. The government promised to issue "territories-only" accreditations two months ago, and the promise has not been implemented. We call on the government to make good on this pledge without any further delay.” Although this matter has finally been dealt with, on the 5th April 2004, Israel's government lost an appeal against a High Court ruling, that it was illegal to bar Palestinians from getting Israeli press cards.

Ironically, Israel has claimed on numerous occasions that Palestinian media promotes violence and even more so “Terrorist Attacks.” Under this pretext Israel gives itself the right to either shut down Palestinian media stations on an ad hoc basis, or has the audacity to demolish entire buildings housing media outlets. To mention a few incidents: On October 12th 2000 Israeli soldiers fired rockets at two transmission towers and other facilities used by the official radio broadcasting channel Voice of Palestine which stand as a landmark in the city of Ramallah, dating back to the mandate period. According to Israeli forces, Voice of Palestine was targeted because “it played a key role in incitement.” On February 8th 2001, the offices of the official Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida, located in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh, was hit during a barrage of gunfire that lasted from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. No one was injured, but the building was heavily damaged. The staff took cover in the basement during the shooting. On January 19th 2002, Israeli troops blew up the Voice of Palestine Radio and Television station offices and studios in Ramallah. Arriving with tanks and bulldozers, the soldiers evacuated all employees and proceeded to place explosive charges on the upper floors of the building. The charges were detonated and half of the five-storey complex was reportedly destroyed. In 2002 on April 8th, IFJ reported that “Israeli troops in the West Bank arrested a reporter and destroyed the independent broadcasting station at Al-Quds University. Eyewitnesses reported that Israeli forces raided and ransacked the offices of several news organizations in Ramallah, using gunfire and explosives to enter the buildings. Equipment was destroyed and journalists in the building were harassed and intimidated. No one was injured, and Israeli military officials claimed the searches were part of their broader effort to find terrorists. Media affected by the raid were CNN, Abu Dhabi TV, Nile TV, Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), and the Arab News Network (ANN).” There have been many more cases where Palestinian media was targeted; however, these remain the most outstanding cases.

According to CPJ’s (www.cpj.org) World Press Freedom Review Israel’s targeting of Palestinian and foreign media is seen as counter productive and excessive in its use of force, furthermore, following thorough analysis of the content being broadcasted by Palestinian media, there seems to be no indication that Palestinian media promote ‘Terrorist Attacks.’ The fact that some Palestinian and Arab Media refer to suicide bombers and suicide attacks as Martyrs or Martyrdom operations is by no means incitement to violence. If anything, Palestinian and Arab Media emphasize the right to resistance against Israeli soldiers and settlers, which is a right given to people living under occupation, by the Fourth Geneva Conventions, Hague Regulations, numerous General Assembly resolutions and the Charter of the United Nations itself (Article 51).

Israel’s war on the media does not end here. On several occasions the Israeli army attacked and targeted famous foreign media workers. For example on the October 31st 2001, CNN’s Cairo chief correspondent Ben Wedemann was shot in the back by Israeli troops, while caught in the middle of clashes at the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel. Or on April 1st 2002, BBC’s Orla Guerin and her television crew came under Israeli machine-gun fire while covering peaceful protesters walking through the streets of Bethlehem. The crew took cover behind a car that was clearly marked “Press”. Furthermore according to Reuters, Israeli troops threw stun grenades to turn back foreign journalists on their way to cover US envoy Anthony Zinni's meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank on April 5th 2002. One stun grenade exploded under the foot of CNN correspondent Michael Holmes.

Adding insult to injury, CNN’s blatant biased reporting with respect to the Arab World and more specifically with concerns to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is very clear, even to the most uninformed of people. However, in the Year 2002 the Israeli government threatened to expel CNN and BBC from Israel and threatened to take legal action against the network, because of their supposed ‘biased’ reporting and anti Israeli sentiment in their coverage. BBC was actually banned in 2003 for airing a documentary on Israels Dimona Nuclear Reactor. How Ridiculous? If CNN is to be considered pro-Palestinian in their reporting, it would mean that FOX NEWS is fair and balanced in its coverage of the Middle East.

The importance of the media in this conflict is an imperative to who will ultimately benefit the most from this uprising. In an interview published by Reuters on July 6th 2001, Yehudith Orbach, head of the journalism and communications department at Bar-Ilan University, said Palestinians and Israelis fully understood the importance of the image. "In war...television is a battlefield," Orbach said to Reuters. "The picture is worth more than 1,000 words... The fact that it is a cliché does not mean that it is any less true". The Palestinian PLC member and Secretary General of (The Palestinian Initiative for Global Dialogue and Democracy) Dr. Hanan Ashrawi told Reuters Israel knew the importance of the media, and she quoted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying that “winning the struggle was 80-90% dependent on the media’s effectiveness.”

If Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and more so a country that upholds press freedom, one important question arises: Why does Israel posses such a miserable record with concerns to Press Freedom? The answer to this question is very simple; similar to the lie that permeates much of the international community, that ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.’ It is another lie that ‘Israel is a country that upholds press freedom.’ Israel’s war on the media in this conflict can only be compared to the USA’s record in the recent Iraq War, were the US Army had a similar record with concerns to targeting the international media and hindering journalists from doing their job. There seems to be a clear and evident pattern that countries engaged in conflict have something to hide. In the case of Israel, that is exactly the case, the pictures of Mohammad Al-Durra and Iman Hejou did their fair share of swaying public opinion. Hence, Israel’s all out war on the media.

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