Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 July 2006
Issue No. 803
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Jonathan Cook

Covering up Gaza

The state of Israel, fearful of the truth, continues to control media coverage of its brutal occupation, writes Jonathan Cook*

One early and easy victory for Israel in Gaza has been in its battle to manage the news. Israel's invasion is a very private war against Gaza's population, to which only invited guests -- the representatives of our major media outlets -- are being given access.

Click to view caption
Palestinian children from Al-Ajuri family play on the debris of their destroyed home in Beit Lahya, Gaza

In the last Iraq war, America set a precedent by requiring Western reporters to "embed" with its forces before they were let near the battlefield. Israel is following suit, adopting similar measures to control the flow of bad news from Gaza.

The restrictions on who can report and what they can tell us explain in part why more than a fortnight after an Israeli soldier was captured, almost every Western reporter is still referring to him as "kidnapped"; why the destruction of vital civilian infrastructure such as Gaza's only power plant is described as "pressure" rather than what it is -- collective punishment, a violation of international law and a war crime; and why the deaths of large numbers of Palestinians, civilians and militants, in the current attacks are receiving far less coverage than the deaths of the two soldiers enforcing the occupation that gave Israel the pretext to launch its invasion.

Gaza -- a giant open-air prison -- could not offer a more perfect environment for an occupier wanting to manage the news. Israel controls the borders and can decide who is allowed in and who is refused access. Freedom of the press is meaningless on these terms.

Israel developed its own "embedding" strategy during the disengagement from Gaza last year. Only journalists from the big news organisations were allowed into the Strip, on special army buses that drove straight to the settlements. Those without accreditation from the main media organisations, and those who had upset Israel with their previous reports, had little hope of gaining entry. Disfavoured journalists were doubtless supposed to take note for next time, and change the tone of their coverage.

The big media organisations have no interest in pointing out why they have special access to Gaza and at what price such privileges were bought. An admission from them would hint at some of the subtle pressures already influencing their reporting and might expose the cosy arrangement that offers them a monopoly on the flow of information at a time when they are already feeling the heat from the rise of Internet journalism not subject to the agendas of wealthy owners and corporate advertisers.

Israel's system of embedding operates at two levels: it ensures that many potential journalists are not in a position to report from Gaza; and then it imposes a range of pressures on those journalists who are there.

When Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza last August, the windfall was that it gained absolute control over who was allowed in and out of the tiny sliver of land on the Mediterranean coast. The result: just as Palestinians find it all but impossible to get out of Gaza, foreigners find it nearly as difficult to get in.

The hermetic sealing off of Gaza follows a series of steps taken by Israel in the past few years to discourage foreigners from venturing into places where its soldiers prefer to go about their business unobserved.

In late 2002 and 2003 the Israeli army killed two peace activists with the International Solidarity Movement, Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie. It was a very effective deterrent to other activists -- as well as freelance journalists who might be mistaken for activists -- considering living in the occupied territories.

Foreigners stopped "embedding" themselves in Palestinian areas, and in consequence there was a rapid loss of the Internet diaries of life under occupation and eyewitness accounts that were creating a fledgling but useful "alternative journalism".

Since then Israel has been on the lookout for anyone at its borders whom it suspects of belonging to peace organisations or being recruited to work in Palestinian organisations. Non-Israelis are held for lengthy questioning and usually deported if Israel suspects them of planning to enter the occupied territories, whether their purposes are legitimate or not.

As a result, the West Bank and Gaza are now sorely deprived of the young idealists and hopeful journalists who once travelled around the occupied territories.

Israel has claimed that its measures are designed to protect these individuals and its own soldiers from unnecessary and dangerous confrontations. But in practice, Israel has ensured that independent witnesses -- including those that were once able to describe at first hand and in their many native tongues the horrors being inflicted on the Palestinians -- are now largely absent from the occupied territories.

Instead "professional" reporters, based in Israel, venture into these areas only to report after the event, when the best they can hope to achieve is to present two conflicting narratives: the Israeli official version and Palestinian eyewitness accounts.

Since the disengagement, the process of isolating Gaza has intensified, ensuring that a far narrower range of voices are being heard -- in practice, only those of professional journalists who have the sensitivities of their news desks back home and their careers to worry about.

With an electronic fence surrounding Gaza on three sides, and the sea on the fourth, the only way into the Strip is through one of several crossing points controlled by the army. Where once journalists could freely roam around the occupied territories, reporting things as they saw them, they are now required to jump through several hoops before they are allowed to cross into Gaza.

So how does Israel's version of embedding work?

First, to get into Gaza a journalist must be in possession of a press card issued by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). All other journalist cards -- even international ones -- are worthless in the eyes of the Israeli government.

To be eligible for a GPO card, applicants must have accreditation with a recognised media organisation. Freelance reporters and photographers are considered to be impostors unless they can prove that they have an assignment from just such an accredited organisation.

The problems for freelance journalists are twofold. First, Israel decides which organisations are accredited and is likely to reject any "alternative" media that has been too critical of Israel in the past.

And second, Israel makes it impossible for freelancers to do in Gaza what they would do in any other conflict zone: head off with an open mind to see what is happening on the ground. Now, the freelance journalist must have a specific assignment in mind, and have an agreement in advance with a media organisation to cover that assignment in its name.

These conditions severely limit the freedom of freelance reporters and photographers to find stories that the main media organisations have overlooked. In practice, if a freelance journalist can get such an assignment (in itself a difficult task), it is likely to be for one of the stories the news desk thousands of miles away considers to be important: that is, the same stories the rest of the media pack are already pursuing. Innovation and difference of perspective are excluded from the outset.

Those journalists who do manage to gain a GPO card then have to jump through a second hoop: they must sign a "waiver" form, exonerating Israel of all responsibility if they are injured while in the Gaza Strip, including from the actions of the Israeli army.

The effect of the waiver is to impose a large financial burden on freelance journalists. While media organisations provide their staff with war insurance, an armoured car, and a flak jacket and helmet, they do not feel the same obligation towards freelancers, even those on assignment for them.

This leaves freelance reporters and photographers in Gaza in an unenviable position: either they protect themselves in the Strip at a huge personal cost they are unlikely ever to recoup from their reporting, or they risk injury for which no one can be held accountable and made to pay.

Even if it can be proven that an Israeli soldier took a malicious shot of the kind that in the past killed filmmaker James Miller and UN official Iain Hook and destroyed most of face of activist Brian Avery, freelance journalists and their families will not be entitled to a penny of compensation.

It can be assumed that this measure alone has been a serious deterrence for many freelance journalists who might otherwise have considered making a name for themselves by reporting from the Gazan frontline.

And then there is the third and most problematic hoop of all. Reporters who receive a GPO card must agree to submit any reports that touch on "defence and security" matters to Israel's military censor. Although in practice few Western reporters refer to the censor, the knowledge that they are breaking the terms of their agreement -- and could have their privileges withdrawn -- is intended to encourage "self- restraint" on their part.

As long as the journalists' reports don't attract too much attention from the Israeli authorities, this term of their contract with the army is unlikely to be enforced. If they keep their heads down, and stay within the pack, there is no danger they will be "picked off". By contrast, distinctiveness and daring from journalists is a recipe for incurring the wrath of the Israeli Press Office and complaints to the reporters' editors.

The most shocking aspect to this embedding of the media with the Israeli army is the silence from the journalists themselves, from their employers and from their professional federations. None has tried to challenge the restrictions imposed by Israel on those wishing to report from the occupied territories.

The generally dismal standard of reporting during the invasion of Gaza has proven just how much a cosy club of well-paid journalists are being protected by these arrangements and what little incentive they have to rock the boat with either Israel or their news editors. As a result, Israel's language and agenda have come to dominate the coverage.

Israel's invasion of Gaza is not the end of this story of media complicity. As the West Bank wall nears completion, Israel's reach in managing the news will soon extend there too. And with it, doubtless, we will have yet more craven reporting from our embedded media.

* The writer is a journalist based in Nazareth and author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State , published recently by Pluto Press.

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