A pressing need for ethics
At what point should a journalist abandon his profession and take part in the event? Under what circumstances, if at all, should he or she go beyond the role of documenter and take an active part in what is going on around him? A few weeks ago, that dilemma was submitted to the presidium of the Press Council at the behest of the council's president, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer (who teaches law at Hebrew University).
In August 1999, immediately after a major earthquake in Turkey buried tens of thousands of Turks and several dozen Israelis, Channel One sent one of its reporters, Shlomi Eldar (now with Channel 10 News) to the disaster area. Eldar found himself in a small town, reporting on the excavation work and the search for possible survivors. "There were very few rescue workers there and the work proceeded slowly," he recalls. "I started to ask myself whether I should be photographing and documenting what was going on, or whether I should put my work aside and pitch in to evacuate the ruins with the local residents."
He continued to function as a reporter. "I felt that that was the right thing to do," he says, "Maybe because I thought I was not a professional at evacuation and maybe because I thought that after three or four days no one would be found alive. But when Shiran Franco was pulled out of the rubble alive, and then the body of her brother, I felt I had made a mistake. I said to myself that maybe I should have joined in the evacuation and then everything would have gone faster and maybe it would have been possible to save the brother, too. Even now, almost four years later, I still don't know what I should have done."
At what point should a journalist abandon his profession and take part in the event? Under what circumstances, if at all, should he or she go beyond the role of documenter and take an active part in what is going on around him? A few weeks ago, that dilemma was submitted to the presidium of the Press Council at the behest of the council's president, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer (who teaches law at Hebrew University). Following the discussion, the presidium decided to amend the council's charter of ethics by adding a new clause, entitled "Saving Lives," which states, "The moral and legal duty to proffer assistance to a person who ... faces grave and immediate danger to his life or to his body applies also to a journalist in the course of his journalistic activity."
In other words, first rescue, then go to work. On the face of it, this is a simple guideline, but reporters, editors and photographers who work in the field say that life, as usual, is a little more complicated.
The Miarra episode
The discussion by the Press Council was the culmination of a lengthy process that began with a traumatic event that is burned into the Israeli collective memory - the Asaf Miarra affair. On December 2, 1998, Palestinian students held a stormy demonstration at the Ayosh Junction outside Ramallah, to express their solidarity with prisoners incarcerated in Israel. A military vehicle that approached the site, carrying two intelligence officers from the division that was stationed in the area, was struck by a brick and retreated quickly. Shortly afterward another vehicle approached. Asaf Miarra, an operations sergeant in the Ramallah brigade, had been sentenced to a week on the base for disciplinary infractions, but left the base and caught a lift with a resident of one of the nearby settlements. Seeing the threatening demonstration ahead, the driver slowed down and then ran from the car. Miarra found himself trapped in the back seat. He had an M-16 rifle but the clip wasn't hooked up, and in any event he didn't even try to shoot. The car cruised slowly toward the demonstrators and was immediately attacked with stones and iron bars. Miarra, beaten and bleeding, managed to escape by the skin of his teeth.
This brutal event was documented on film by a number of photographers who were at the junction, most of them Israelis who worked for foreign media outlets. The images were broadcast on the newscasts that evening and appeared in the next day's papers. In the days that followed, accusations were hurled both within the army and outside it for allowing the event to occur, but the photographers at the scene were also subjected to criticism. They were accused of giving a good photograph precedence over trying to rescue Miarra. Some people claimed that the attack on the Israeli car was actually coordinated with the photographers and that their very presence at the demonstration was an incentive to violence. The State Prosecutor's Office examined the possibility of indicting some of the photographers in the wake of a law that had been passed not long before by the Knesset, but by the time the examination was completed, the statute of limitations on the offenses imputed to them had expired. (The law in question, which forbids standing aloof while others are in danger, is the fruit of a private bill submitted by former MK Hanan Porat in 1998. It is based on Leviticus 19:16. The law itself makes no distinction between one person and another, but the usual interpretation of the verse speaks of the duty "to save one soul from Israel." Only from Israel.)
The rescue clause
Be that as it may, Moshe Shilo, director of the appeals section in the State Prosecutor's Office, did not let the matter drop. In November 2001, three years after the event, he sent a sharp letter to the president of the Press Council, Mordechai Kremnitzer, in which he described the behavior of the journalists at the event as "grave and infuriating," and said he expected that "this fundamental question of ethics" would be clarified. Kremnitzer reached the conclusion that there was a concrete basis for the allegations and appointed a committee headed by Major General (res.) Raphael Vardi to look into the matter. The other members of the committee were Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, political scientist Dr. Yoram Peri and Elisha Spiegelman, from the Channel One news department. The committee submitted two proposals that contained reservations about adding the rescue clause to the charter of ethics, but these were not adopted, and on March 16 the new clause was added. As far as is known, Israel is the only country in the world, apart from Georgia, whose charter of journalistic ethics stipulates that the duty to assist casualties takes precedence over fulfillment of the journalistic mission.
Eyal Warshavsky, who in 1998 was a photographer for The Associated Press and who now works for Haaretz, is outraged by the criticism leveled at the behavior of the photographers in the Miarra episode. He was there, and he says that not only was there nothing he could have done to assist Miarra but that he risked his life to photograph the event, ignoring Palestinian threats. According to Warshavsky, the presence of the photographers (he also remembers three Israelis who were working for CNN) had a moderating effect on the Palestinians, who finally let Miarra get out alive.
Warshavsky: "I was photographing the demonstration. Suddenly I see a car arriving, the driver getting out and the car continuing to move by itself. At this stage I am convinced that there is no one in the car and that the Palestinians are going to vent their rage on it. They started to congregate around the car. I tried to get closer, but they pushed me back. `No picture, no picture,' they said. I realized that there was someone in the car. Finally I managed to get close and then I saw a soldier getting out of the car. I photographed someone hitting him over the head and then he ran off and that was the end of the story. There was no way I could have helped him. I was working for AP at the time, and the photos appeared in all the media, but I had bad luck because one of the papers credited me personally. Early the next morning I got a call from Army Radio saying they wanted to interview me, and in the days after that all the media was after me."
How did you feel about the allegations that were made against you and the others?
"I felt like shit, because you go to do your work and get photographs for the public, you are actually the emissary of all the people who stand around and talk, you risk your life [and] everyone who wasn't there asks why I didn't help. It's very easy in theory, but we don't carry arms, we have no training in rescue techniques and we aren't part of the Special Forces. What do people expect me to do by myself in the face of a frenzied mob?"
Incidentally, the conclusion of this affair smacks of more than a little irony. The photographs that were published in fact helped the Israeli security forces hunt down the Palestinians who took part in the near-lynch and bring some of them to trial. In January 2002, the military court in Beit El sentenced Yusuf Subahi Abu Kamar, a student at Bir Zeit University, to seven years in prison for hitting Miarra over the head with a large stone. He stopped beating the Israeli soldier only after another student grabbed him by force and made it possible for Miarra to escape. The president of the court was none other than Major Moshe Shilo.
Mordechai Kremnitzer says that neither he nor the Press Council has any intention of passing judgment about what happened at the Ayosh Junction that day. However, he opened the discussion held by the council's presidium with the words, "We are discussing this subject in the wake of the Miarra episode, when the photographers didn't lift a finger during the pogrom that was perpetrated against him." There is also additional meaning in the fact that the new ethical guideline has its source in the Miarra affair: It's fair to say that it is no accident that the new clause was added in connection with an incident that constitutes another brutal link in the chain of such events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not under the influence of an event of a civil character, such as a fatal road accident, for example.
Journalists who report on the conflict said this week that they are apprehensive that the new clause is really a disguised demand that they take sides, assist Israeli soldiers when the need arises and forgo even the appearance of neutrality they try to show. Some of the journalists maintain that the new demand is especially problematic given the constantly increasing number of reporters and photographers - so far only Palestinians and foreigners - who are being added to the list of casualties across the Green Line on an almost daily basis.
"Journalists on the battlefield demand to be treated as a neutral element, not to be fired at, and to be allowed to approach every site so that they can cover the events. In order to be deserving of all these privileges, they have to know that they must not intervene," says legal analyst Moshe Negbi, who is not happy with the new addition to the rules of ethical conduct. "That is the direction that journalistic ethics should strive for. If there are certain situations in which a journalist's conscience tells him to behave otherwise and forgo his neutrality, that is legitimate, but it has to be his personal decision and not a guideline of principle in the charter of ethics."
One journalist who, much to his chagrin, found himself confronting precisely this dilemma head on is Yossi Ein Dor, from Channel Two News. In September 1996, he was sent with a camera crew to cover the violent events at the Erez Checkpoint between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in the wake of the opening of the Western Wall tunnel. Ein Dor and a photographer, Haim Assias, positioned themselves on the highest point in the area, an observation tower next to the checkpoint. Their vantage point gave them a panoramic view of the arena of battle. They saw the Border Police deployed behind a wall on the other side of which were Palestinians, some of them carrying arms, others with stones. Ein Dor made contact with the Border Police and informed them of the danger that lurked for them. Some time afterward, with or without connection to his active involvement in briefing the soldiers, the Palestinians opened fire at the observation tower. Assias was seriously wounded in the stomach and hand, and Ein Dor sustained moderate wounds.
In an article he published in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir a few months ago, Assias took Ein Dor to task for his behavior. Among other accusations, he maintained that Ein Dor's assistance to the Border Police induced the Palestinians to shoot at the tower. "As I was filming the events," Assias recalled, "I saw to my astonishment that Ein Dor, who was below me, was reporting to the Border Police where the Palestinians were hiding. He pointed toward them and shouted, `They're there, no, there.' I saw what he was doing and went into shock. I screamed at him, `Ein Dor, shut your mouth, you asshole.' People have to understand that in a situation like that you mustn't talk to anyone. You're from the United Nations, you don't belong to anything. If you take sides, you are in for it."
Ein Dor filed a huge libel suit against Assias, but in regard to the assistance Ein Dor gave the Border Police, they agree on the facts. Ein Dor related that as the event was unfolding he thought of the possibility that the next day he would be sent to cover the funerals of the Border Police and would have to look their mothers in the eye, knowing that he could have saved their sons. Ein Dor: "Beyond the fact that I am a journalist, I am first of all a human being who works according to basic moral principles, and if someone around me is in trouble I will do my best to help him. We are not above everyone else, and what we expect from others applies equally to us."
But isn't it true that in this case you didn't help an ordinary person in distress - you instructed a military force in combat, and thus effectively transformed yourself from a reporter into an accomplice? And doesn't that make it legitimate for the other side to shoot at you?
"You're wrong. I was standing on the Israeli side because that is where I came from. Last week, if I had been standing next to the Palestinian photographer who was shot in Nablus I would have warned him, too, if I had known he was in danger. I want to believe that if I were next to Palestinian civilians who were being shot at I would help them, and if a Palestinian child were wounded next to me, of course I would try to help him and only afterward go on documenting the event. Of course, it's very easy for me to say all this now, but I hope I would act accordingly in a concrete situation."
But you would never assist a Palestinian fighting force the way you assisted the Israeli side, right?
"Okay, after all, I am first of all a human being, then an Israeli, then a journalist. You can switch your profession but not your identity. The first thing we did when we were wounded was to call on the Israeli soldiers to help us, not on the Palestinians. The soldiers didn't evade the issue by telling us we were civilians and not soldiers, but came to our aid immediately."
What do you say to the allegation made by some that by assisting the Border Police you endangered Israeli journalists who work in the territories?
"I disagree. The proof is that Israeli journalists are continuing to work in the territories, to interview wanted individuals and to do their work, and nothing happens to them."
Rafiq Halabi, until recently the longtime head of Channel One News, is worried about the connection between the amendment to the charter of ethics and the work of journalists across the Green Line: "If a journalist is a witness to a traffic accident and he's expected to assist people who are injured, that's one thing. But when it comes to the territories, it seems to me that the new amendment is another step in the direction of a patriotic, mobilized press. Sometimes I have the feeling that people who don't work in the field don't understand the plight of journalists. A few years ago, when I was a reporter in the territories, I was called up for reserve duty and asked to escort convoys of settlers. I explained to them that I couldn't do that - that there was no way I could escort settlers and be seen doing that everywhere in the territories, and then two days later I would be a civilian again and interview Palestinians."
Eyal Warshavsky agrees that there are cases in which giving assistance is self-evident - "and then there is no need for rules" - but the situation in the territories is far more complex. "The best thing is to be a fly on the wall. When a Border Policeman beats up a Palestinian and hits him over the head with a club, I can't intervene, because I will be charged with disturbing an officer in the course of doing his duty. My role is to document and report so that the public will know and be able to judge. We are there to pass the story on."
According to Mordechai Kremnitzer, there is nothing in the new clause that might encourage journalists to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "The guideline does not distinguish between blood and blood. If a reporter or a photographer is present when soldiers are using violence against Palestinians, he is only expected to call headquarters or someone else in authority and report. If he says that something irregular is happening at that moment, it may very well be that it will stop. I don't see any contradiction."
The photographer's job
Miki Kratsman, a photographer who has been documenting events in the territories since the first intifada (including work for Haaretz), is very upset about the new ethics clause. Kratsman notes that in most cases in which he encounters a helpless individual who needs protection against a violent attack, the victim is a Palestinian. Kratsman thinks that his job as a photographer is to take photographs. "As a physician should heal and a policeman make order, a photographer should photograph," he states. "I don't work like a machine, but I do work according to a moral code, not an ethical code, and there are cases in which it is far more moral to photograph what is happening than not to photograph. For example, take the case of the famous photograph by Eddie Adams of the South Vietnamese officer pointing a pistol at the head of a Vietcong man who is scared to death. Publication of a photograph like that has a tremendous impact on world public opinion, and it's possible that impact on that scale [can save] the lives of a lot more people."
If we work on the basis of the principle that intervention is obligatory, Kratsman says, "then the American photographers in Bosnia would have been busy treating the wounded all day instead of documenting the war. You can take it a step further and say that if it weren't for the fact that we photograph events there might not be any terrorist attacks, because the goal of the terrorists is not to kill people but to frighten us all and make sure that the whole world sees it. In a certain sense, photographing terrorist attacks is like being an accomplice to a crime. So maybe we'll stop photographing? I'm afraid that the new regulation is another step in the direction of clipping the wings of the media."
Kratsman too has faced this dilemma more than once. On one occasion in the first Gulf War, he was the first, along with three reservists, to reach a house in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Savyon that had been hit by a Scud missile. "Someone was buried under the rubble there, so I moved the stones away together with them, I helped and I took photos, I helped and I took photos, until the police arrived and pushed me aside."
Attorney Amit Schejter, formerly the legal adviser to the Israel Broadcasting Authority and one of the framers of the IBA's ethical code, doesn't agree with Kratsman's order of priorities: "According to my moral judgment," he explains, "first of all you have to save a person's life and only afterward give thought to future considerations. Beyond that, it's true that there's a problem with the status of the press in Israeli society. It's in a low position in the public and judicial order of priorities, and its rights are usually not protected by legislation. The question in a situation of this kind, when one has to decide between giving help and doing one's job as a journalist, is: Where do your loyalties lie? To your professional mission or to the rules of human morality? It seems to me that it's superfluous to answer this question in the form of the charter of ethics, because these are dilemmas that go beyond ethics. By the way, there are many cases in which it is precisely the documentation of an event that requires courage and risk-taking, like the case of the Italian crew that filmed the lynching of the two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah at the beginning of the present intifada."
Kremnitzer notes that it was in fact the wobbly status of the press in Israel that was one of the considerations that led him to support the ethics amendment: "It is precisely in Israeli society and its attitude toward the profession of journalism that it's important to make this normative statement - that journalists are above all human beings. The result will be to strengthen the trust and the positive approach of the public in the profession and its practitioners."
A simple duty
If journalistic ethics has now aligned itself with the language of the law in regard to assisting people in distress, in another, related, area - the confidentiality of sources of information - the friction between journalists and the law enforcement agencies is likely to continue. On the morning of October 9, 1994, the day the soldier Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped by Palestinians, Shlomi Eldar interviewed one of the leaders of the militant Hamas organization. A few hours later, when news of the kidnapping broke, Mordechai Kirschenbaum, then the director-general of the IBA, got a phone call from the Shin Bet security service. The Shin Bet wanted to have a word with Eldar, as he could lead them to the senior Hamas man he had met with. Eldar rejected the request: "I said that under no circumstances would I breach the confidentiality of my sources, but the truth is that I had no compunctions at all. First of all, I had no idea how to get to him, because I had been taken blindfolded to an orchard, where the interview took place. Besides that, I was convinced that he had nothing to do with the kidnapping and that he couldn't help. In retrospect, it turned out that I was right and the Shin Bet was wrong."
And had it not been for those two reservations, what would you have done?
"If I had known how to get to him and if I was convinced that he was involved in the kidnapping, I would have led the Shin Bet to him and abandoned journalism for good. You can't violate confidentiality and go on being a journalist. You have to choose."
The history of world journalism is rife with cases in which reporters had to cope with the dilemma of whether to intervene. In some cases their behavior outraged public opinion. The photographers who reached the smashed car in which Princess Diana was killed were accused not only of wildly trailing the car but of not giving the casualties first aid.
Under the pressure of public opinion, the French prosecution considered the possibility of indicting the photographers, but the case was closed when the authorities reached the conclusion that there were no grounds for a trial. In 1985, the world was distraught at the images of a Colombian girl who was filmed by television crews for hours as she gradually sank into volcanic mud. It is not clear whether the cameramen tried to save her or whether there were other rescue teams at the site. The girl died.
According to Kremnitzer, it is precisely cases such as these that brought about the need to put in place a high moral bar for Israeli journalists: "I know that in the larger world of the media the duty of a journalist is not self-evident. There is a view holding that a journalist is first of all a journalist, and therefore the duty that applies to others does not apply to him. I myself have heard that view expressed by many journalists, including some with high reputations."
What do you say to the argument that one of the problems with the new clause lies in its general character, and that it's not clear to the journalists what they are being asked to do and in what circumstances?
"The demand made by the new clause is quite minimal, and I want to take this opportunity to clarify the matter. The clause states that it is following in the spirit of the law, which states that a citizen who sees someone who needs help must report this to the authorities. No more than that. We are not asking a journalist to endanger himself or others, we are not asking them to make a frontal assault on criminals or terrorists or to get into a confrontation with soldiers, but only to undertake the simple act of informing the authorities. You can do your human duty and at the same time do your journalistic work. Sometimes a call from a cellular phone is enough." n