Vol. 2, No. 23 March 27, 2003
“Television loves emotions and cares less about facts. The Palestinians don’t care about losing people, and the Israelis can’t fight that,” said one senior international news organization representative.
“Arafat and his multi-layered security apparatus have muzzled local press critics via arbitrary arrests, threats, physical abuse, and the closure of media outlets,” frightening most Palestinian journalists into self-censorship, according to the Independent Committee for Protection of Journalists.
In Arabic, the word for “news media” (i’laam) is the same word used for “public relations.”
Foreign news agencies have become dependent on Palestinian cameramen, frequently residents of the West Bank, since Israeli cameramen are prohibited by the IDF from working in the Palestinian areas. The result is TV news pictures that focus daily on Palestinian victims.
Since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in September 2000, Palestinian leaders have succeeded in using the international news media to mobilize world opinion in favor of the Palestinian narrative, depicting the Palestinian “David” defending his homeland against the Israeli “Goliath.” Televised images of Palestinian suffering portray a human drama that wins the news media war. As a senior source associated with an international news organization said recently, “Television loves emotions and cares less about facts. The Palestinians don’t care about losing people, and the Israelis can’t fight that.”1
Playing by Palestinian Authority Rules
Most foreign correspondents, and particularly local Palestinian stringers who report from the West Bank and Gaza for Jerusalem-based foreign news bureaus, operate under an unspoken but firm set of rules. They avoid reporting stories involving widespread human rights abuses, high-level corruption and financial mismanagement, and violence between Palestinian groups that could prove embarrassing to Arafat and senior Palestinian officials.2
According to a 2001 report by the Independent Committee for Protection of Journalists, “In the nearly seven years since the Palestinian National Authority assumed control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, Chairman Yasser Arafat and his multi-layered security apparatus have muzzled local press critics via arbitrary arrests, threats, physical abuse, and the closure of media outlets. Over the years the Arafat regime has managed to frighten most Palestinian journalists into self-censorship.”3
The Palestinian Authority does not maintain an official press center similar to Israel’s Government Press Office. However, the Ramallah-based Palestine Media Center (PMC) is described as “an independent official institution established and directed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, Minister of Culture and Information of the Palestinian National Authority.”4 The PMC is heavily funded by the European Union; it may not be a coincidence, therefore, that European news organizations have largely avoided reporting stories that are critical of the Palestinian Authority.5
According to an Arab-Israeli journalist who assists Jerusalem-based foreign media outlets, Abed Rabbo views media relations as an extension of the Palestinian cause.6 The PA information minister made this idea clear to an official Foreign Press Association (FPA) delegation that met with him in September 2001 to protest Palestinian Authority threats against foreign and Palestinian free-lance photographers who took pictures of Palestinian street celebrations following the September 11th attacks on the U.S. Abed Rabbo reportedly told the senior FPA representatives in no uncertain terms, “Palestinian national interests would come before freedom of the press.”7
A former Arab and Palestinian affairs reporter for Israel Television noted that Palestinians have not yet developed an appreciation for a free news media. In Arabic, the word for “news media” (i’laam) is the same word that is frequently used for “public relations.”8
Palestinian “Fixers”: The Short Route to Palestinian Leaders
Most foreign journalists are not fluent in either Arabic or Hebrew, rendering them dependent on a network of local Palestinian “fixers,” mostly young, educated Palestinians who speak Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Palestinian fixers, who until recently have been fully accredited by Israel’s Government Press Office, know their way around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, arrange interviews with Palestinian officials, and introduce journalists to their own circle of local acquaintances. As a rule, working with a good fixer translates into getting interviews with top Palestinian leaders and moving safely around the territories. An Arabic-speaking Israeli journalist who avoids using fixers noted that most fixers trumpet the PLO narrative and terminology of the conflict, which frequently collides with established historical facts and international law. Moreover, Palestinian security forces watch carefully what is said by local residents to both foreign and local journalists.9
According to senior foreign news sources based in Jerusalem, the vast majority of Palestinian fixers – often close friends of Palestinian employees of Jerusalem-based foreign news agencies – are ideologically motivated by the Palestinian cause, and actively encourage journalists to report exclusively on the “evils” of the Israeli occupation, rather than on the lack of democratic freedoms or human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza.10
Arafat’s “Management” of Foreign Press Interviews
Numerous foreign reporters have learned that interviews with the PA chairman are not open invitations to ask tough questions. On March 29, 2002, Arafat hung up on CNN’s Christianne Amanpour during a telephone interview from his besieged Mukata compound after Amanpour asked the PA leader repeatedly whether “he was able to rein in the violence.”11
In another instance, in 1999, a reporter from the German newspaper Der Spiegel asked Arafat about widespread reports of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Upon hearing the question, Arafat reportedly accused the reporter of being a member of the Israeli security services and promptly had him removed. The German reporter’s fixer, a former Palestinian diplomat who had been based in Germany, convinced his foreign client to write Arafat a letter of apology, but Arafat refused to allow the reporter to return.12
On January 6, 2003, Seif al-Din Shahin, a senior Gaza correspondent for Qatar’s Al Jazeera News Agency, was arrested by Arafat’s Palestinian General Intelligence on charges of “inflicting damage to the interests and reputation of the Palestinian people and their struggle,” for reporting that the Al Aksa Brigades, part of the PLO’s military wing, had claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv the night before.13
Reliance on Palestinian Cameramen
Palestinian camera operators, frequently residents of the West Bank, today film the vast majority of foreign TV news coverage in the territories.14 Foreign news agencies have become dependent on Palestinians, since Israeli camera people are prohibited by the IDF from working in the Palestinian areas. Palestinian camera operators are also far less expensive than their Israeli or foreign news colleagues.
The result is that TV news pictures, broadcast internationally from the territories, focus daily on Palestinian dead and wounded, massive demonstrations and funerals, close-ups of local hospital and morgue victims, homes of mourning Palestinian families, and destroyed Palestinian buildings and fields. Missing is a measure of balance that might show images of the Palestinian-initiated violence, including shootings, bombings, and rocket attacks on Israeli troops and civilians, that prompt Israeli military responses.
Perhaps the best example of the pitfalls of reliance on Palestinian cameramen was the filming of the death of young Muhammad al-Dura by Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahama working for France 2 television. While al-Dura, apparently killed in the crossfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian police, became a symbol of the intifada and was used as a blood libel against Israel, the photographer later denied claiming that the IDF killed the boy.15
Following several formal investigations, the raw footage of the shooting revealed that Palestinian photographers were part of the event and submitted edited footage to foreign networks. Another German inquiry went even further by concluding that Palestinians staged the killing with the cooperation of some foreign journalists and the United Nations.16
Palestinian Intimidation of Foreign News Reporters
The lynching of two Israeli reservists inside a Palestinian police station in October 2000 would change the rules of Western news reporting on Palestinian violence. Nasser Atta, a Palestinian producer with ABC, recalled on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” how his cameraman was beaten and his crew prevented from filming the grisly lynchings.17
According to first-hand reports, Palestinian security forces also surrounded a Polish TV crew who were beaten and relieved of their tapes.18 A foreign correspondent noted that in “post-Ramallah where all good will was lost, he would be a lot more sensitive about going places in the territories.”19 A day after the Ramallah lynchings, an Italian journalist, who had suffered a separate beating by a rioting Arab mob in Jaffa, penned a letter in English to Palestinian officials promising never to violate journalistic ethics by transmitting film to an embassy or government.20
Following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, an AP photographer’s life was threatened by Palestinian officials for taking photographs of widespread Palestinian street celebrations. Arafat’s Cabinet Secretary, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, reportedly said, “The Palestinian Authority cannot guarantee the life of the cameraman if the footage was broadcast.”21 Despite a strongly-worded protest by the Foreign Press Association to the Palestinian Authority, some foreign journalists made peace with the fact that intimidation is a price of reporting the conflict.22
Palestinian Hospitality Versus Uncooperative Israeli Officials
Palestinian leaders have become well respected among the foreign press corps for welcoming foreign journalists as honored guests during meetings and interviews. Palestinian leaders also go to great lengths to make themselves available to correspondents even at inconvenient times. For example, PA official Saeb Erekat sent his personal chauffeured limousine to pick up a Danish reporter and film crew at an IDF checkpoint for an interview.23
In contrast, some leading foreign journalists have long complained about a general lack of cooperation by Israeli government officials towards the foreign press.24 The Prime Minister’s Office and IDF officials have been known to take several hours or more before issuing responses to breaking news in the territories, due in part to requirements of the military censor. Israeli authorities are also often reluctant to provide informative material to foreign news correspondents, even following terror attacks.25
Foreign Media Coordination with the PA
Danny Seaman, Director of Israel’s Government Press Office, has charged that Palestinian employees of several major international news agencies, including the Associated Press and Reuters, regularly coordinate their news coverage with Palestinian officials. According to the GPO, Marwan Barghouti, leader of Fatah in the West Bank and now imprisoned in Israel, issued early warnings to the foreign networks about impending Palestinian shooting attacks on Gilo, so that the film crews could capture Israeli return fire on neighboring Beit Jalla.26 Although Seaman’s charges were rejected by Dan Perry, chairman of the Foreign Press Association, Seaman has refused to renew press credentials for many Palestinian journalists and producers. Avigdor Yitzhaki, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Seaman’s boss, commented: “Do you think that everywhere else, anyone can receive press credentials? I haven’t seen any Iraqi journalists covering the President of the United States.”27
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1. Interview with a senior international network news official, December 8, 2002.
2. Bassem Eid, Palestinian human rights activist, November 17, 2002. Palestinian opposition to discussing intra-Palestinian strife with the foreign press was also reported by a bureau chief of a major American daily newspaper at a meeting in Jerusalem on November 26, 2002.
3. Judy Balint, “Palestinian Harassment of Journalists,” Worldnetdaily.com and Emunah magazine, February 25, 2001, http://www.jerusalemdiaries.com/doc/20. Frequent instances of self-censorship by Palestinian journalists were also confirmed in a meeting with a deputy bureau chief of a leading Jerusalem-based news agency, November 17, 2002.
4. From the PMC website, http://www.palestine-pmc.com/about.asp.
5. Bassem Eid, Palestinian human rights activist, November 17, 2002.
6. According to a prominent “fixer” from eastern Jerusalem, who also reports on Arab affairs for a major Israeli newspaper, November 29, 2002.
7. Interview with a deputy bureau chief of a leading Jerusalem-based international news agency, November 17, 2002.
8. Moshe Cohen, former Arab affairs reporter, Israel Channel One News, November 14, 2002.
9. Moshe Cohen, November 17, 2002.
10. According to a well-known Palestinian “fixer” who works with leading European TV networks, November 29, 2002. Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid also confirmed this point on November 17, 2002.
12. Bassem Eid, November 17, 2002. For other instances of Palestinian intimidation of the press, see Freedom House 2000 report, http://www.freedomhouse.org/pfs2000/reports.html#ispa, and the 2000 Amnesty International Annual Report, http://web.amnesty.org/web/ar2001.nsf/webmenafr?OpenView, “Palestinian Authority: Silencing Dissent” (AI Index: MDE 21/016/2000).
13. See Honest Reporting.com, http://honestreporting.com/articles/critiques/Tel_Aviv_Fallout.asp.
14. According to a senior source at a Jerusalem-based international news organization, November 17, 2002.
15. “Who Killed Muhammad Al Dura? Blood Libel – Model 2000,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 482, July 15, 2002, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
17. Judy Balint, “Palestinian Harassment of Journalists,” Worldnetdaily.com, February 25, 2001.
21. “AP protests threats to freelance cameraman who filmed Palestinian rally,” September 12, 2001, http://arabterrorism.tripod.com/terrorism3.html.
22. Judy Balint, “Palestinian Harassment of Journalists.”
23. According to Moshe Maoz, an Israeli free-lance cameraman who works with Danish Television, December 8, 2002.
24. Jay Bushinsky, former chairman, Foreign Press Association, in remarks made at the Ariel Media Conference, March 3, 2002.
25. Working Paper, “Israel in the New International Environment: The Media and Legal Arenas; The Balance of Israel’s National Security,” Herzliya Conference, December 2002.
26.”Why Israel’s Image Suffers,” interview with Government Press Office Director Danny Seaman, Kol Hair, October 13, 2002.
27. Aviva Lori, “The Seaman Code,” Ha’aretz, December 27, 2002.
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Dan Diker is a Knesset and economic affairs reporter for Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English News. He is also media affairs consultant at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Institute for Contemporary Affairs, founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation.