Paula Slier has been covering the Middle East for many years, not least the recent Palestinian-Israeli crisis. She writes about the difficulty of remaining neutral when covering these stories.
If there is one person who would undermine the propaganda efforts of Hamas, it isn’t supposed to be their spokesperson. So it was a surprising admission from the head of foreign relations in Hamas’s information ministry, Isra Al-Mudallal, when she told Lebanese TV recently that foreign journalists reporting in Gaza were inadvertently strong-armed into reporting what Hamas wanted audiences to hear. A reporter who tried to depict Hamas missile launch sites was given a choice: report a different story, or leave.
Most chose to stay. Several who tweeted or wrote about civilian locations being used to store weapons either deleted that information later on, or waited until leaving Gaza before reporting it.
But the majority of the 700 journalists who descended on Gaza to cover the recent Israeli-Palestinian flare-up kept mum, becoming intentionally or unintentionally part of the propaganda war that both sides have become so adept at waging on foreign audiences.
I was taken to task over the issue during a recent panel discussion with Israeli journalists. The topic was whether the Israeli side was putting as much pressure on correspondents reporting from their side of the border as Hamas was on the other.
A few quick points:
Israeli soldiers, like Hamas militants, live among the population. For many, it’s a flawed argument because they feel Hamas – which the United States, European Union, Israel and others consider a terrorist organisation – cannot be equated with the Israeli Defence Force. But there are those who would argue that Israeli soldiers, armed and in uniform, can be seen all over Israel, waiting alongside civilians at bus stops, walking through shopping centres and catching trains. Few journalists point this out.
There is also strong military censorship in Israel. Any reports touching on ‘security matters’ are supposed to be submitted to the country’s military censor, but few journalists do this. Most either self-censor or rely on what has already been published in the Israeli media on the assumption that it’s been given the green light.
But it wasn’t this that got the panelists so heated up. My point was – and still is – that I don’t think the authorities, Israel or Hamas, have to be as strong-handed as they perhaps think they need to be to get journalists to toe a certain line.
All of us reporters, whether we like it or not, are emotionally tied to a story, particularly the longer we spend covering it. Israeli journalists live their story and most of them have been living it for decades. Is it not possible, therefore, that they are no longer neutral observers of the conflict and, unwillingly even, have come to see it through the eyes of the Israeli public?
It’s a public that ranked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 85% in terms of being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with his leadership and military action in Gaza. To have reported this conflict from among the Israeli public means to have reported it from among the anger, frustration and fear that galvanised the population.
Moreover, Israeli journalists are not allowed into Gaza. So regardless of the fact that many left-wing Israeli correspondents write empathetically, always trying to depict the Gaza side, they could only do so from second-hand sources.
And it was always as a side-story to what was going on in Israel and how Israelis were suffering.
Of course the same charge can be leveled at journalists living and working in Gaza. It cannot be easy to watch your family and neighbours die and remain neutral, however hard you try. What’s more, many Gazan journalists, particularly those who work for Hamas’s media outlets, believe the Israeli army relentlessly targets them. It’s a claim supported by Reporters Without Borders, which concluded in a statement that, “covering the military conflict and its ripple effects in Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian media, including Hamas broadcast stations, find themselves in the Israeli army crosshairs”.
International law recognises that a journalist or media organisation is not a legitimate target merely because it broadcasts or disseminates propaganda. Regardless, the headquarters of Hamas’s television and radio stations were bombed in numerous Israeli air strikes.
Censorship is a funny thing. It can be overt and suffocating, or it can creep up on one and play out in subtle ways.
Even for the foreign correspondent who doesn’t live among either of these populations, it can be tricky. I doubt flying into a warzone and reporting on it for three weeks makes one immune to censorship in all its myriad forms. It’s easy to empathise with one side – particularly if that’s the side you’re reporting from and in most conflict situations it’s near impossible to vacillate between the warring sides. Can you imagine reporting on Assad’s army one day and then reporting from among the rebels fighting him the next? Just crossing the frontline can get you killed.
When there is suffering, destruction and death around you, it’s inevitable you will be touched by it. That’s what makes us journalists. On the other hand, it’s what makes us falter.
Paula Slier is a South African-born international correspondent based in the Middle East. This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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