Bullying the Press
The Israelis have taken a very tough, sometimes violent, approach toward journalists covering the country’s aggressive response to the wave of suicide bombings by the Palestinians.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
On a gray Sunday, Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid made his way to the epicenter of one of the world's hottest stories--the Israeli assault on Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Shadid wore a white flak jacket emblazoned with "TV" in bold red letters, the universal symbol for the press in conflict zones.
It was March 31, the third day of a fierce offensive into Palestinian territories after a rash of suicide bombings.
Around 5 p.m., Shadid tucked away his notebook and began the trek back to the hotel. The once-bustling hillside city was ghostlike as residents took refuge from the tanks and armored personnel carriers that roared through the streets, mangling cars, pulling down power lines and smashing water pipes. There was an eerie quiet as the sun began to fade.
Shadid felt pleased with his day's work, particularly making it past Israeli Defense Forces troops dug in around Palestinian Authority headquarters. He was walking down the middle of a deserted street, talking with a colleague, as someone in the shadows took aim. The high-velocity bullet tore through his left shoulder, missing his spine by a centimeter.
The reporter crumpled into a heap, unable to move his arms or legs. "At first I thought I was hit by a stun grenade because my whole body locked up," recalls Shadid, 33, a veteran Middle East reporter. Suddenly, the white flak jacket was soaked with blood. The bullet entered at the edge of the protective gear and exited through his right shoulder, leaving two gaping wounds.
Israeli medics administered morphine and stopped the bleeding. They put Shadid on a stretcher and wheeled him across the street to the Arab Care Hospital. His ordeal was far from over. A few hours later, the reporter once again faced terror in a region that Ann Cooper, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, calls "the most dangerous assignment in the world right now." An avalanche of evidence supports that grim assessment.
On March 29, Carlos Handal, a Palestinian cameraman working for Egyptian Nile TV, was shot in the face while filming from inside a van driving through Ramallah. It is unclear who fired the shot. On April 1, NBC's Dana Lewis described on air how he felt as bullets fired by Israeli soldiers smashed into his armored vehicle that had "television" painted on it. "We thought we were going to die there," Lewis said. "The only thing we could do is jam the car into reverse and get out of there." Four days later, Israeli troops threw stun grenades and fired rubber-coated bullets at journalists waiting for U.S. Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni to arrive at Arafat's headquarters.
There have been accounts of strip searches by Israeli forces, confiscation of press credentials and expulsion from West Bank towns declared closed military zones. So far, one journalist has been killed: Italian photographer Raffaele Ciriello, 42, was shot in the stomach by Israeli machine gun fire on March 13, according to witnesses.
Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's largest military operation since the 1982 Lebanon war, has included an iron-fisted lockdown of the media. "The government's intent is clearly to intimidate reporters and prevent them from covering a story of great international importance," says CPJ's Cooper. Despite the hellish conditions, dozens of correspondents continued to operate in the region.
Some Middle East correspondents called attempts to bully the press the worst they have ever seen by the Israeli military. The Boston Globe quickly filed a complaint with the Israeli government over the shooting of Shadid. So did the BBC after one of its Middle East correspondents was pinned down by gunfire while covering a demonstration in the West Bank.
Overnight, the international press corps became part of the news. A headline from London's Guardian read: "Israeli troops attack foreign journalists." From the Washington Post: "Reporters become targets of Israeli army firepower."
These cases are hardly anomalies, according to CPJ; rather, they fit neatly into a long-standing pattern. Over the years, the committee has documented a number of incidents in which journalists were wounded by Israeli soldiers, despite being easily recognizable by having obvious press insignia and camera gear.
Last June, in response to CPJ's appeal for an end to violence against journalists, Israel's embassy in Washington, D.C., said that Ambassador David Ivry "categorically rejects the implication that Israel deliberately targets journalists. On the contrary, the standing orders of the IDF explicitly prohibit such behavior."
As access to battle zones slammed shut, media critics began searching for reasons why the Israeli government would risk such a public relations nightmare. The common rationale: They must have something to hide. Or it may have more to do with the slant of stories emanating out of places like Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah.
Some cite what they see as a notable tilt toward Arafat in coverage that depicts him as a tormented martyr helplessly trapped by a powerful enemy. His dramatic candlelight interviews and vows to die rather than be captured led newscasts around the globe. To Israelis, any sympathetic portrayal of Arafat is anathema.
They view the aging Palestinian leader as the ultimate anti-Semite and pioneer of terrorist factories that produce human bombs to slaughter innocents in supermarkets and pizza parlors. The horrific images of the Passover massacre are burned into the psyches of Jews who long have been at the mercy of suicide assassins.
There's also the argument that an army ordering journalists out of a hot zone is nothing new. Israel's defenders point out that the American military routinely has declared battle zones off-limits to the media in places like Panama, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.
"The whole idea of creating a zone that's closed to civilians is something every army does when it conducts an operation," says Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. "If I am not mistaken, the Americans have done similar things in Afghanistan. NATO forces in the former Yugoslavia did it. I know the British in the Falklands did it." He paused for a moment, then added: "We shouldn't and we don't shoot journalists."
Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron sees it differently. He believes evidence points to his reporter being targeted by a member of the Israeli Defense Forces. "The shooting took place in an area completely under Israeli control," Baron says. "It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for a Palestinian to operate there. There was no crossfire. Only one shot was heard. There was no effort by the Israeli soldiers to look for a gunman. All that indicates to us that Anthony was shot by the Israelis."
Upon learning of the incident, Baron immediately boarded a plane to Israel. The Globe also flew Shadid's wife, who is a doctor, to Tel Aviv.
Regev says the Globe's complaint is being taken seriously, but he wonders why Shadid was quoted in earlier stories saying he didn't know who fired the shot. "How can he be so sure now?" he asks.
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, believes a double standard might be in play regarding worldwide criticism of the Israeli media crackdown. He points out that American journalists have complained loudly that the U.S. military has restricted access in Central Asia and even has bullied reporters in a way that has made it difficult to report the story (see "On Their Own," page 32).
Lowry says accommodating journalists should be a secondary concern, especially if they are likely to inhibit an operation or signal to the enemy by broadcasting operations live on TV. "I have sympathy with the Israeli army on this score," says Lowry.
David Greenway, vice chair of the Austria-based International Press Institute, doesn't buy the comparison with the American military as an excuse for what has happened in the West Bank. "Just because the U.S. was wrong doesn't mean Israel needs to be," says Greenway, who writes a foreign affairs column for the Boston Globe. "But as far as I know, American soldiers are not shooting at journalists."
One thing is clear: The Israelis are very unhappy about the tenor of much of the coverage of the conflict. The embassy's Regev faults Western journalists for failing to cite differences between the two political systems coexisting in the region. He maintains that while Israel is a democracy that fosters an unfettered press system during peacetime, the Palestinian Authority is a dictatorship in which journalists in the Muslim world march to Arafat's beat and spread malevolent propaganda. Israelis are also irked by what they see as the seeming "moral equivalency" in Western coverage of the suicide bombings and the Israeli efforts to stop them.
Correspondents at the scene speculate about reasons for the clampdown. NBC's Lewis reported that the military acted against the media after being stung by a weekend incident in early April in which 40 peace activists, followed by journalists, managed to enter Arafat's compound even while it was surrounded by Israeli commandos. After that embarrassing episode, the military banned journalists from entering Ramallah.
Some say the restrictions were sparked by footage aired by Israeli Channel 2 TV in March showing the army blowing off the door to a family's house in a refugee center, killing the woman inside. The army had agreed to allow the film crew to accompany soldiers under certain conditions. There are charges that the station did not live up to a prior censorship agreement.
The Los Angeles Times reported on a heated exchange between a producer for Britain's ITN television and an Israeli army spokesperson. The verbal battle was captured on film as the producer complained of being kept away from Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity by a hail of bullets. She was attempting to cover a story about Palestinian gunmen and civilians who were holed up inside.
The brigadier general's response offers insight into the standoff between the army and the press: "We are talking here about a war. People are shooting at each other, and the instruction to minimize the journalists' presence in the areas was made to minimize the 'teasing effect,' which instigates violence. We get enough from our enemies and work hard to save our soldiers' lives. At times, we cannot deal with the media as well."
As tensions escalated, there appeared to be a common thread to how media organizations were advising staffers on the scene. "We never ask anyone to stay if they're not comfortable," CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius said in a statement that echoed the position of her peers. But correspondents in the field may need to hear more than that.
The highly fluid and volatile situation in the Middle East demands "overt conversations between those at home and those in the field rather than an assumed understanding," says Deborah Sontag, who served as the New York Times' bureau chief in Jerusalem for three years and covered the latest intifada.
Editors routinely tell journalists "no story is worth dying for," but maybe that doesn't go far enough. That still places the onus on the correspondent. "That is very vague on the ground where the rules of engagement change every day," says Sontag, now a writer for the Times' Sunday magazine. "The burden of how far to go should not fall on individual reporters." Instead, correspondents should have clear messages from their news organizations about what they should and should not do. "One journalist's unnecessary risk is another's gonzo adventure," says Sontag, who related a harrowing account of being trapped in Bethlehem last fall.
Traveling with the pack might be one way to ensure greater safety. When they venture out into the rubble-strewn streets of Ramallah and other West Bank towns, many correspondents travel in convoys, with headlights flashing and signs saying "TV" taped all over their vehicles. The lucky ones ride in armored cars with helmets and other protective gear. But the group mentality can take a toll on the quality of journalism.
"If you have the L.A. Times and Washington Post, Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer traveling together and using the same translator, they're going to end up seeing and reporting the same things," Sontag says. "It cuts down on the number of different voices."
Being in the company of other journalists didn't protect Anthony Shadid. On March 31, the Oklahoma City native joined a large press contingent at the Palestinian Authority compound surrounded by Israeli forces. The sounds of gunshots and helicopters had subsided earlier in the day. The Boston Globe reporter felt at ease as he headed back to his hotel with Said Ghazali, a Palestinian journalist who works with Globe reporters in the West Bank. Moments later, Shadid was lying on the ground, bleeding from a gunshot wound and shouting, "We're journalists, we're journalists. We need help."
That same evening, Israeli soldiers raided the Arab Care Hospital where Shadid had been taken. In a stupor from painkillers, he focused on heavily armed soldiers standing in his room, barking questions in Hebrew. "I said, 'Hold on, I'm a journalist.' One of them said in English, 'Put your hands up.' " It was two hours before he would see a doctor again.
The next morning, the IDF arranged a military escort out of the war zone for the wounded journalist, who had spent five years reporting for the Associated Press in Cairo before signing on with the Globe. Shadid insisted that his Palestinian colleague be allowed to leave with him. "The Israeli military was not keen about the idea," he says. "I knew if Said didn't come with me, he would never get out."
The two drove off in an ambulance headed toward Ramallah's main square. Suddenly Shadid was told by the army that he was being transferred to an armored personnel carrier and that his colleague could not go. "I said, 'Forget it. We'll go back to the hospital,' " the reporter recalls. During the return trip the ambulance driver and Ghazali decided to head straight for a checkpoint. For the second time in less than 24 hours, Shadid faced Israeli gunfire.
"We didn't run into any problems until we got to the checkpoint. At first, we thought they were shooting at us," says Shadid. "We could actually hear the bullets ricocheting off the pavement. I was lying on a stretcher helpless. I remember thinking, 'This could be a bad ending.' I felt more fear than when I was shot." Instead, the Israelis were firing at Palestinians hurling rocks. Moments later, barely daring to breathe, they slowly maneuvered through the checkpoint to safety on the other side.
Shadid, who has returned to the Washington, D.C., area, speculates that the Israeli soldier thought he was a Palestinian when he pulled the trigger that Sunday afternoon. "It's hard for me to fathom that he would have taken specific aim at an American journalist."
The wounds have healed, but 12 razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel remain embedded in his body. Still, Shadid has one goal in mind: "I will go back. It's not like a cowboy thing. I don't get high on an adrenaline rush. This is an important story, one that I have been involved with for a long time."###