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Foreign Media Protests Israel’s Press Regulations

BY Admin  October 24, 2002 at 12:00 PM EDT

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a human rights non-profit group which monitors the treatment of journalists worldwide, published its first international index of press freedom on Wednesday, ranking Israel in 92nd place and the Palestinian Authority in 82nd place.

Among the countries in the Middle East, Lebanon was ranked highest in its treatment of the press, landing in 56th place. Israel and several other Middle Eastern countries placed in the bottom fifty among the 139 countries listed. Israel’s standing was substantially lower than that of the United States, which placed 17th. North Korea and China were the two lowest ranked countries.

Reporters Without Borders called Israel’s attitude towards press freedom “ambivalent,” noting the Israeli government generally “respects the local media’s freedom of expression, despite its strong pressure on state-owned TV and radio.”

The group said Israel’s respect for freedom of the press — though generally good — has suffered since Israel’s incursion into Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza in March 2002.

“[V]ery 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up, threatened, arrested, banned from moving around, targeted by gunfire, wounded or injured, had their press cards withdrawn or been deported,” the group said in its report Wednesday.

The report comes amid an increasingly heated dispute between foreign media outlets and Israeli officials. Over the last month, the Israeli government’s press office said foreign photographers and production staffers could receive press cards only if they obtained a work permit from the Labor and Welfare Ministry and a visa from the Interior Ministry.

Israel Government Press Office Director Daniel Seaman said the new requisites were necessary to enforce tighter security precautions.

“Today there is a greater need to look out for the State of Israel’s interests because we are in an emergency situation,” Seaman said in an Oct. 11 interview with Kol Ha’Ir.

Seaman maintained that the new accreditation measure was a security precaution, but acknowledged that it would likely result in a substantial reduction in the number of foreign, notably Palestinian, reporters working in Israel — a likely boon to local Israeli journalists.

The permit issue would not apply for Israeli Arab journalists, or those from East Jerusalem, but will ultimately target Palestinians.

“Palestinians are no longer under our jurisdiction, and we no longer give them accreditation,” Seaman said.

Foreign media agencies have protested the measure, noting the very difficult — and dangerous — prospects of entering Palestinian-controlled territories without Palestinian stringers and photographers. And, since most Israeli journalists will not enter those territories, media coverage of events within the West Bank and Gaza could be nearly impossible.

Seaman has long encouraged foreign media outlets to contract Israeli reporters instead of Palestinians, arguing that Palestinians are trying to manipulate the international press.

“The Palestinians let the foreign journalists understand: if you don’t work with our people we’ll sever contact with you, you won’t have access to sources of information and you won’t get interviews,” Seaman said.

Seaman lashed out at the foreign press for taking “direct instruction of the Palestinian Authority … to determine what is broadcast.”

“The offices of the foreign networks in Jerusalem are compelled to hire Palestinian directors and producers,” Seaman said. “Those people determine what is broadcast. The journalists will certainly deny that, but that is reality.”

“[The foreign media] have grown accustomed to being treated very freely in Israel, but the liberty that we gave them was abused,” Seaman told Kol Ha’Ir, blaming the foreign media for sullying Israel’s international image.

Seaman cited the Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, the BCC and CNN, among others, for relying on Palestinian reporters and taking their editorial direction, a charge vehemently denied by media agencies, including the BBC, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and CNN.

Seaman also said that several foreign reporters, including Lee Hockstader from The Washington Post and Suzanne Goldberg from Britain’s The Guardian were shunted from their positions in Jerusalem because of souring relations between the reporters and the Israeli government.

“We didn’t revoke their press cards, because this is a democratic country,” Seaman said. “But in the name of that same value I also have the right not work with them. The editorial boards got the message and replaced their people.”

The Guardian responded that the decision to move Goldberg to another news bureau was unrelated to Seaman’s claim and praised the integrity of her work in Jerusalem.

“The decision to promote [Goldberg] to a new role in Washington was mine alone, and was utterly unconnected with any view of her reporting which the government of Israel might or might not have had,” The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, said in a letter.

Reuters Jerusalem Bureau Chief Tim Heritage dismissed Seaman’s allegations the foreign press was taking direction from the Palestinian Authority, saying “Seaman’s accusations are absurd and baseless.”

The BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief Andy Steele also rejected the claims and called for a boycott against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s press office.

In an internal e-mail, which was leaked to the London-based Jewish Chronicle, Steele reportedly described the accreditation issue as “part of a long war of attrition between the prime minister’s office and the foreign media.”

Steele wrote in the leaked e-mail that it was “difficult to find ways to retaliate without losing our journalistic objectivity — except for one thing — I’d like to deprive the Prime Minister’s spokesmen of their platform until we resolve this,” The Jewish Chronicle reported. Steele recommended the BBC staff deal with the Israeli foreign ministry’s office rather than the prime minister’s office.

The BBC’s press relations office refrained from confirming or denying Steele’s complaint against the prime minister’s office, but acknowledged the BBC and other media outlets were working “to resolve issues with the Israeli government over accreditation.”