APRIL 20, 2002: Media organizations and watch groups around the world have complained to the Israeli government after multiple incidents of journalists being harassed, barred from covering the news, and in some cases shot at or expelled from the country.
On April 3, BBC World News Editor Jonathan Baker protested to Israeli authorities after correspondent Orla Guerin was fired at while covering a peaceful demonstration in the West Bank. Baker said the incident was "the most serious that we have encountered directly since the start of the second Intifada."
"It has been and it remains extremely dangerous," Baker told TBS. "We are trying to equip our people with flak jackets and armored vehicles. It's the equivalent of working in a war zone. When people are suspicious and troops are prepared to fire around journalists, this is just as dangerous as being caught in crossfire."
The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned both Israel's barring of journalists from areas of the West Bank and incidents of journalists coming under fire, literally or figuratively. The CPJ website lists reports of harassment, attacks, or killings of journalists in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000.
"The intimidation and violence against the media must stop," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "These attacks have gravely damaged Israel's standing as a country that respects press freedom." In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dated April 2, Cooper said that "While we recognize the potential dangers involved in covering the current crisis in the Occupied Territories, it is the duty of journalists to report on the crisis and the obligation of the Israeli government to let them work freely. Attempting to prevent journalists from witnessing events on the ground is a flagrant act of censorship." The letter cites the shootings of Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid and Egyptian TV cameraman Carlos Handal, both of whom were wounded, and an incident in which a crew from NBC News was fired upon by the IDF.
Israeli Government Press Office spokesman Daniel Seaman said in a statement issued April 2 that the GPO had sent written warnings to the bureau chiefs of CNN and NBC, saying that their correspondents "are grossly violating OC Central Command's order declaring Ramallah to be a closed military zone," and that CNN correspondent Michael Holmes and NBC correspondent Ashleigh Banfield were continuing to broadcast from the closed area "in violation of Israeli law." Seaman said that "if the violations of Israeli law do not cease, the State of Israel will be obliged to take sanctions determined by law."
Seaman added that "while the State of Israel is indeed a democratic country, in which journalists have complete freedom, democracy is not anarchy."
The same statement said that the press cards of Abu Dhabi TV anchor and executive producer Jasim Al-Azzawi and Abu Dhabi TV correspondent Leila Odeh were being revoked, and alleged that the station "has been engaged in cruel anti-Israeli propaganda and has taken an inflammatory and hostile approach that contributes to unrest in the Arab world. The network's live broadcasts have violated Israel's military censorship rules."
"On [March 31, 2002], they broadcast a report on executions allegedly carried out by IDF forces against 'groups and groups of young men who were led to the Islamic Club in Ramallah...' This report—like all of the network's other reports, without exception—was broadcast without reservations and without any Israeli official response." Four days after the statement was issued, Al-Azzawi was expelled from the country; Seaman said that Al-Azzawi had signed a document agreeing to leave but failed to keep his promise; Al-Azzawi says he was told to wait for deportation papers which never appeared.
Abu Dhabi Television issued a press release on April 2 stating that "what the Israeli authorities are doing to Abu Dhabi TV reporters is contrary to freedom of expression and speech, and thus to the democracy Israel claims it respects."
"On a daily basis we've seen footage and news about the harassment that goes on by the Israeli authorities and especially the Israeli army against journalists and reporters from various countries, not only Abu Dhabi Television," Abu Dhabi Television Deputy Director Mohamed Dourrachad told TBS. "It just so happened that it was Jasim Al-Azzawi that they expelled. But in spite of this decision to expel Jasim Al-Azzawi and to withhold our correspondent Leila Odeh's press card, we are still determined to do our job the way we know how. Israel, having done what it has in terms of a total news blackout imposed on the media and the continuous harassment, and sometimes shooting and threats against journalists, I think they're in no position to tell us or anybody else how to cover the events taking place there.
"We're sure this is not just about Abu Dhabi TV, it's about the entire media, which are only allowed to see events through the eyes of the Israeli army. Some of the atrocities committed by the Israeli army are just coming out, and we believe that what we have reported on is really only a small fraction of what we should have covered of the horrible acts and atrocities committed by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians, especially in Jenin and Nablus," Dourrachad said.
Al-Azzawi took a copy of Abu Dhabi TV's press release around the American Colony hotel in Jerusalem a few days before he was escorted by Israeli police to the airport. Fellow journalists staying in the hotel signed the press release in support. From the BBC: "Against expulsion of journalists in principle." From ABC: "ABC News supports Abu Dhabi TV's right to cover the news." "Against expulsion," said Fuji TV. "AFP is against the expulsion of journalists and limitation of press freedom." From APTN: "We protest your expulsion."
The BBC's Baker said that this is an incredibly difficult story for journalists to cover, not just because of the difficult conditions, but because "every word or phrase we use has some pejorative sense for one side or another. The Palestinians are watching; they are less media-savvy but they have their point of view. As journalists we're trying to show two sides, or more than two sides. The pictures make it very difficult to be balanced. You see tanks and helicopters and it just looks like meaningless aggression—we have to give the Israeli viewpoint on what they are doing."
With much of the media barred from the West Bank, the only-days-old Independent Media Center in Palestine—part of the network of Independent Media Centers, a grassroots independent media collective—turned into a command center for international media, reported the Guardian on April 15. "We've had press from all over the world calling for contacts, interviews, statements—the works," IMC volunteer Sarah Irving said. "The office has turned into press central, all four phone lines going 24-7." The four IMC volunteers, working under curfew from a Bethlehem office, handled media requests for eyewitness interviews from Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem, and set up a system to send news alerts via pager and fax to a three-page-long list of media correspondents. IMC Palestine was reporting hundreds of thousands of hits to its website, www.jerusalem.indymedia.org.