Frontline World

ISRAEL/PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES, In the Line of Fire, March 2003


Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "In the Line of Fire"

INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA NAYLOR
When Journalists Become Targets

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACES FOR JOURNALISTS
Charting Worldwide Risks

THE PALESTINIANS AND THE PRESS
Hazards for Reporters Working in the West Bank and Gaza

STANDING UP FOR THE REPORTERS
Interview with Committee to Protect Journalists

DIVERGENT ISRAELI VIEWS
Danny Seaman and Gideon Levy

LINKS & RESOURCES
Press freedom, slain journalists, background

MAP

REACT TO THIS STORY

   


Standing Up for the Reporters
Joel Campagna works for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as its program coordinator for the Middle East and Africa. The CPJ is an independent organization based in New York that monitors the treatment of reporters -- and intervenes on their behalf -- around the world. FRONTLINE/World's Web editor Douglas Foster interviewed Campagna by email as he was finishing the Israel chapter of the Committee's annual report on press freedoms worldwide. The report will be released on the CPJ Web site on March 31, 2003. Currently on the CPJ site is a report expressing concern about two Palestinian reporters for Reuters who were seriously injured during an Israeli raid in Gaza on March 6, 2003.


What are working conditions like right now for journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

For those who work on the front lines, the West Bank and Gaza are still among the most complicated and potentially dangerous beats in the world. Since the second intifada began, journalists have encountered a variety of obstacles, ranging from bombs to bullets and physical attacks to severe limits on their freedom of movement.

At the moment, one of the most pressing concerns is restrictions on movement of journalists throughout the West Bank. This past summer Israel reoccupied most of the West Bank, increased the number of roadblocks and has regularly imposed curfews on Palestinian cities. This, coupled with tough new government restrictions on press accreditation for Palestinian journalists, has made it exceedingly difficult for journalists, many of whom work for international news organizations, to cover events in the West Bank. Press accreditation, or press cards, facilitate movement through army checkpoints.

Last January, the Government Press Office adopted a hard-line policy to deny accreditation to Palestinian journalists, which has made it even more difficult for news organizations to report from the field. Local Palestinian reporters find it exceedingly difficult to move around the cities and within the West Bank.

While the situation at the moment is perhaps not as dangerous for journalists as it was in the spring, when Israel launched successive military operations into the West Bank, it is still unpredictable and can take a turn for the worse at any given moment.

Have the conditions for journalists covering the conflict gotten better or worse?

If you look at the last 27 months of the intifada, you will notice that press conditions often change with the situation on the ground. In the first three months of the intifada, when clashes were intense, the number of attacks against journalists spiked. In several incidents, journalists were assaulted by troops and security forces or wounded by army gunfire.

The same can be said for this past spring during Israel's large-scale military offensive in the West Bank, when press freedom conditions sharply deteriorated to their worst levels since the intifada began. During the operation the army used threats, intimidation and, in some cases, potentially lethal force to prevent journalists from covering its military operations.

There were several cases in which Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] soldiers fired live rounds at or in the direction of working reporters, detained several journalists, confiscated film or press cards from others, and ransacked the offices of private West Bank television and radio stations.

On the Palestinian side, abuses against the press tend to be a function of events on the ground. Palestinian security forces have confiscated film from photographers and threatened reporters who have covered stories deemed sensitive. So, too, have Palestinian militants and demonstrators. In a highly publicized incident in 2001, Palestinian security forces harassed and prevented several journalists from covering demonstrations of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus who were celebrating the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. In another incident in 2001, a PNA official issued a veiled threat to an Associated Press cameraman who had filmed Palestinians in the West Bank town of Nablus celebrating the September 11 attacks. The official said that the journalist's safety could not be guaranteed if the footage were aired.

What's behind these kinds of restrictions?

In addition to being a conflict involving bombs and bullets, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also a conflict of images. Both sides have attempted to stymie press coverage that they have deemed to affect their causes negatively. The IDF has attempted to do this by using closed military areas and intimidating journalists. The PA [Palestinian Authority] has done this by confiscating film and preventing journalists from covering certain events.

How do conditions in Israel and Palestinian-controlled territory compare with those for reporters operating in zones of conflict in other regions?

Every conflict is unique in terms of dangers they present for reporters. Jerusalem-based reporters have different views about this depending on their respective experiences. Some characterize the West Bank and Gaza as a controlled kind of chaos where there are many risks -- but one in which journalists tend to know where they are and how to avoid to them. In a country like Afghanistan, where eight reporters were murdered in a 16-day period in 2001, there was a greater element of randomness and unpredictability.

At the same time, others note that covering the West Bank and Gaza carries its own share of unpredictability and randomness, with reporters coming under fire and being physically attacked -- especially during volatile periods.

Still, the danger in the West Bank and Gaza is different from a place such as Colombia, for example, where the risk of covering the conflict there entails being hunted down by paramilitary or rebel groups.

What is unique about the West Bank and Gaza is how Israel, in particular, has created a dangerous and difficult situation for the press. During intensive military operations this year, the army clearly sought to thwart journalists from covering events by barring journalists from conflict areas and intimidating those who attempted to enter those areas. Today, reporters still face government-imposed restrictions on freedom of movement such as checkpoints and the denial of press accreditation.

How do these conditions compare with those for reporters in other parts of the Middle East?

In terms of recent conflict reporting, the West Bank has certainly been the most dangerous in the Middle East for reporters. In 2002, three journalists were killed there. Several more were wounded or escaped life-threatening situations. Many regularly face difficulty in simply moving around the West Bank -- confronting the risk of being attacked or having their film confiscated.

Other governments in the region attempted to limit conflict reporting too. In Algeria, where civil war has raged since 1991, the government has limited the movement of foreign reporters, who are required to travel with government "minders." In Jordan this past year, the army barred journalists from entering the southern town of Maan, where troops battled with militants.

One of the paradoxes of covering Israel and the occupied territories is that you have a situation where there is a good degree of press access overall. In the last year, thousands of journalists have passed through Jerusalem and the territories to cover the intifada and report on its violent twists and turns. It is one of the most covered international stories today. Yet at the same time, journalists have faced numerous restrictions in the field -- some overt and others more subtle.

Has the committee investigated the claims presented in Patricia Naylor's report?

Over the years, CPJ has documented a number of cases of journalists wounded by Israeli gunfire where the available evidence suggests that they may have been deliberately targeted by Israeli soldiers or that, at the very least, soldiers behaved recklessly. In the first year and a half of the intifada, there were cases of journalists who were shot in the legs, head or even hands as they held cameras. In one case, a bullet hit a journalist's camera lens. In many cases, reporters hit by gunfire were far removed from clashes and easily recognizable as journalists because of their conspicuous camera equipment.

Last year, in March and April, it was quite clear in a number of cases that the army fired at or in the direction of reporters trying to cover the IDF's offensive in the West Bank. One of the most serious cases took place on April 1, when NBC correspondent Dana Lewis and his two-man camera crew came under IDF fire in Ramallah while driving in an armored car marked clearly as press. A soldier fired two rounds at their car and then a third, even as the journalists stopped their car, turned on an interior light to make themselves visible and placed their hands on the windshield. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Have journalists been detained or jailed solely for their work as reporters?

Since the intifada began, several Palestinian journalists have been detained by Israeli forces, some while in the line of duty, others from their homes as part of what appeared to be larger dragnets. Palestinian journalists have also been questioned or detained by the Palestinian Authority.

Three of the longest-held journalists were Hossam Abu Alan, a veteran photographer for Agence France-Presse; Youssry al-Jamal, a soundman for Reuters news agency; and Kamel Jbeil, a reporter for the Palestinian daily Al-Quds. They were detained by Israeli troops in April and held for several months in administrative detention without charge. The government accused them of having contacts with militant groups, but never provided details or evidence to support their allegations. All three were released in September and October last year without any charges being brought. During their detention, CPJ issued several letters of protest to the Israeli government, and representatives of our organization met with government officials in Israel to express concern about their incarceration and to press for their release.

How does the committee evaluate conflicting reports from a war zone like this?

We approach our work the same way any good journalist would -- by verifying our information through as many credible sources as possible. Most of our documentation entails firsthand reporting, interviews with victims, eyewitnesses and government officials. In some cases we have corroborated our information through the use of video footage.

How does the organization weigh competing claims of the reporters themselves and the governments accused of these abuses?

When investigating a particular abuse, such as the shooting of a journalist, we try to obtain all sides of the story, including those of the journalists, eyewitnesses and government officials. In a story as explosive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is essential to rigorously document and weigh the credibility of our information as carefully as possible. As an international organization, our credibility rests on our ability to accurately report information.

Danny Seaman, the spokesman for Israel's Government Press Office, claims that Palestinian stringers working for European and North American press outlets are really under the thumb of the Palestinian Authority. Does the committee take such claims into account when it conducts an investigation?

Since its founding, the Palestinian Authority's record on press freedom has been consistently poor. Officials have harassed, censored and intimidated both local and foreign journalists. As a result, Palestinian journalists who live and work in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority operate under especially tough conditions.

However, the assertion that Palestinian stringers are being controlled by the Palestinian Authority is one that foreign bureau chiefs categorically dismiss. CPJ would be concerned about any allegation of a journalist being coerced by the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian militants in their reporting and will investigate any such allegation that comes to our attention.

As far as documenting cases goes, we apply the same rigorous scrutiny to all cases, whether they involve Israeli or Palestinian journalists. Our aim is to apply the most rigorous journalistic standards to ensure the credibility of our information.

It goes without saying that anywhere in the world there are examples of both professional and unprofessional journalism. From my personal experience I can say that there are a great many Israeli and Palestinian journalists working for foreign news outlets who demonstrate exceptional professionalism.

Seaman also says that given the ferocity of the conflict, it's remarkable to note how few journalists have been killed, wounded or obstructed in their work.

This is not something the Israeli authorities can claim any credit for. Three journalists were killed in the West Bank in 2002, with several more wounded. In fact, it is remarkable that more have not been killed. Yola Monakhov, a photographer for Associated Press, was gravely wounded in the stomach by IDF gunfire in 2000 in a case of excessive force in which the IDF acknowledged responsibility. French reporter Bertrand Aguirre was saved by his bulletproof vest in 2001 when a border policeman inexplicably opened fire in his direction. And Dana Lewis of NBC was no doubt saved from injury by his armored car in April. There have been several other close calls.

What's the committee's experience in getting a response from the Israeli government when you make queries, pursue investigations, issue findings?

In 2001, a delegation of CPJ representatives met with Israel's ambassador to the U.S., David Ivry, to express our organization's concern about several cases in which journalists were wounded by IDF gunfire. At the (meeting), we pointed out that unless concrete steps were taken to ensure the safety of reporters, it was only a matter of time before someone would be killed.

The ambassador took our concerns seriously, and the army subsequently made statements calling on troops to be mindful of reporters in the field. Yet we still witnessed examples last year -- in March and April, in particularčof the IDF demonstrating a clear disregard for journalists' safety.

What's next on the committee's agenda?

We will continue to document and publicize abuses when they occur on both sides and fight to ensure that journalists are able to perform their work safely and without interference. One of our major concerns in the coming year will be the issue of accreditation and access for journalists covering the occupied territories.

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