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Press freedom — Israeli style

Al-Ahram Weekly – 24 January 2002

The principle of press freedom was reformulated by Israel last week when it announced to international news organisations that the Palestinian journalists they employ are to be refused both press accreditation and entry into Israel.
The tough line was officially admitted only after media groups, including news agencies Reuters and the Associated Press and leading European and American television companies such as the BBC and CNN, protested to the authorities that their Palestinian staff were being denied press cards.
The row erupted shortly before the Israeli army’s attempt to silence Voice of Palestine radio by bombing its five-storey building in Ramallah. The station was back on the air a few hours later, transmitting from a secret location.
Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) said the new press card policy had been in force since 31 December, when the old cards expired. Apart from exceptional cases, the GPO would not be reissuing Palestinians with passes.
Instead, the 450 or so Palestinians working in the foreign media will be given an orange card valid only in the occupied territories and which designates them as “escorts” to journalists.
Daniel Seaman, the recently appointed director of the GPO, justified the new policy on security grounds, saying it simply extended to journalists the government restriction on Palestinians entering Israel. He also claimed that Palestinian employees had been “passing around” the cards.
But the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world’s biggest journalist organisation, and the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) accused Israel of victimisation.
“The measure constitutes clear discrimination,” said Robert Menard, secretary- general of RSF. “It is not only the Palestinian media which is being targeted but also the international media.”
During the Intifada, news organisations have come to rely heavily on Palestinian journalists in their coverage of the West Bank and Gaza. After the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by an angry mob in Ramallah in October 2000, many Israeli journalists felt they were not safe on the other side of the Green Line.
The Israeli army also made things more difficult for journalists by ordering all Israeli citizens to stay out of Palestinian-controlled areas. With rare exceptions such as Amira Hass and Gideon Levy of the daily Haaretz newspaper, reporters have followed those instructions.
The local knowledge of Palestinian staff is crucial in helping foreign news organisations gain access to information and negotiate the complex restrictions on movement in the occupied territories imposed by Israel’s closure policy.
Palestinian journalists already have to run the gauntlet in the territories, caught between unsympathetic Israeli soldiers and their own security services that put a low price on freedom of expression. Incidents of harassment and violence are reported to have risen.
Without press cards, the lives of Palestinian journalists are likely to be put in greater danger: they will not be able to prove their press credentials when operating close to Israeli army positions and the orange cards could make them a target for rogue soldiers.
According to a recent report by the IFJ, three journalists were killed last year in the occupied territories, all of them Palestinian; and of 43 journalists injured, the majority were Palestinian. The IFJ blamed the actions of the Israeli army for most of the casualties.
The hostile attitude of individual Israeli soldiers to journalists, including foreign ones, is well documented. The Israeli Defence Forces apologised to an Egyptian TV reporter and cameraman, Tarek Abdel-Jabber and Abdel- Nasser Abdoun, in August after the pair captured on film a soldier beating them at Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank.
In an even more controversial incident last May, international camera crews filmed a French TV reporter, Bertrand Aguirre, being shot by an Israeli soldier at close range near Ramallah.
The loss of their press cards will make it virtually impossible for Palestinian staff to pass through military checkpoints to reach Jerusalem, where most of the foreign press corps are based.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post newspaper in November, before the introduction of the new policy, the GPO’s Seaman admitted that there was pressure from Israeli journalists for Palestinians to be refused press cards on economic grounds. Israeli workers complained that lower-paid Palestinians, particularly technicians, were taking jobs from them.
Critics say the withdrawal of press cards is part of a much wider government assault on the Palestinian press both inside Israel and in the occupied territories.
Earlier this month a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Arab newspaper editors in Israel that the government was on the point of withdrawing advertising from their papers unless they ended their hostile coverage.
Ori Borovsky told the country’s seven Arab newspapers that official notices, which represent five per cent of their advertising revenue, might no longer be sent to them. By law, official notices must be published in all the biggest circulation papers as a public service.
A week after the warning, the three most important newspapers — As-Sinnara, Al- Ittihad and Kull Al-Arab — all reported a sharp drop in the notices they received.

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