Foreign Press Divided Over Hamas Harassment

Protest issued by Foreign Press Association in Israel and the Palestinian Territories against Hamas intimidation in Gaza is hotly disputed by some members.

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A Palestinian mourner cries as she talks to a TV journalist after overnight Israeli strike hits house in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, July 14, 2014.Credit: AP

When Jodi Rudoren, Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, read Monday’s statement from the Foreign Press Association in Israel and the Palestinian territories, she couldn’t believe her eyes.

The association, representing some 480 resident correspondents and hundreds more visiting Israel/Palestine each year, protested “in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month."

The FPA said it knew of journalists who were “harassed, threatened or questioned over stories or information they have reported through their news media or by means of social media” and accused Hamas of “trying to put in place a ‘vetting’ procedure that would, in effect, allow for the blacklisting of specific journalists.”

“Every reporter I've met who was in Gaza during war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense,” Rudoren tweeted, referring to Israeli accusations that Hamas pressure on foreign reporters had helped massage the messages coming out of Gaza in the last month.

Rudoren’s Tweet was followed by a furious email exchange with the FPA, in which Rudoren denounced the statement as “dangerous.”

Crispian Balmer, last year’s FPA chairman and former Jerusalem bureau chief for Reuters, told Haaretz the FPA was not in the habit of issuing such protests without very good reason.

“When I was on the FPA board, we took our statements very seriously,” said Crispian Balmer. “They were never written on a whim and were only issued after broad consultation – either face-to-face at a board meeting or via a stream of email exchanges. Our prime concern was always the well-being of the foreign press pack and we would not pull our punches if we thought our members needed vocal support. We would certainly never issue broad statements condemning the behavior of one side or the other if we did not feel that a good number of our members had been impacted.”

Even more intriguing, Rudoren’s deputy at the NYT, Isabel Kershner, was one of the FPA board members who approved the statement. How could two colleagues from the same newspaper observing the same sequence of events come to such different conclusions?

“I was not in Gaza during the height of the hostilities, I have only been here a week,” Rudoren told me. “But in conversations with many colleagues, those who were here from NYT and other major news organizations who I trust, I have not heard about harassment, intimidation, censorship or threats. There have been a few anecdotes re Hamas people shooing photographers away from fighters' faces at the hospitals, asking people not to shoot this or that, and yes, names and phone numbers were taken down in a spiral notebook of who was here, but nothing that these veteran war correspondents consider unusual.”

“I am confident the FPA based its statement on detailed reports from members regarding their experiences on the ground, and only had the best intention of protecting journalists and journalism, as it always does. But I found the wording of the statement overly broad, and, especially given the narrative playing out in some social media circles regarding foreign correspondents being taken in by the Hamas narrative and not reporting on the war fully or fairly, I was concerned that it undermined what I consider to have been brave and excellent work by very talented people,” she said.

Rudoren wasn’t actually there. Her conclusions are based on talking to colleagues. But several other reporters who spoke to Haaretz agreed with her. British freelancer Harry Fear was reporting for Russia Today TV when he was asked to leave Gaza by three plainclothes Hamas officials at Al-Shifa Hospital, apparently for referring to rocket launches near his hotel. But Fear said he did not feel he had been subjected to intimidation or interference for the four weeks he reported from Gaza, where he has worked intermittently since 2012.

“It’s a totally free playing field,” said Fear. “I feel somewhat aggrieved that there were no guidelines that I broke, because there are no guidelines. If they had asked me not to do it again, which is what’s happened to dozens of other visiting journalists over the last several years with respect to rocket locations, I would have respected that, because professionally you have to respect such things.”

Fear and other reporters who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity insist that they did not experience or hear of the kind of Hamas actions described in the FPA statement. Anecdotal evidence suggests they may well be in the majority.

But other reporters did experience threats and intimidation from Hamas – enough to convince the FPA that they were not isolated incidents. Unfortunately for Hamas, they included prominent FPA members. So many of them complained that when the board met in Jerusalem on Monday and looked at confirmed information about a series of troubling incidents there wasn’t a single dissenting voice – only a discussion about just how fierce the protest should be.

The board was aware that any statement might feed into a pro-Israel propaganda campaign about the accuracy of reporting from Gaza that has angered many FPA members, but that did not deter them, any more than they had been prevented from issuing previous criticisms of Israel or the Palestinian Authority for fear they would be interpreted as anti-Israel or anti-PA.

To protect its members and their local assistants in Gaza, the FPA has decided to keep the details of the complaints private.

The FPA worked tirelessly through the conflict to get journalists in and out of Gaza on a specially-chartered bus via a safe passage. Haaretz has learned that Hamas repeatedly demanded a list of the names of correspondents using the FPA bus in order to draw up a blacklist of individuals and networks.

“We do not take or give out lists to anyone and certainly not for the purpose of blacklisting people going into or out of Gaza,” said Glenys Sugarman, the FPA executive secretary.

Some reporters received death threats. Sometimes, cameras were smashed. Reporters were prevented from filming anti-Hamas demonstrations where more than 20 Palestinians were shot dead by Hamas gunmen.

In perhaps the most serious incidents considered by the FPA, Hamas began firing mortars right next to the location of foreign reporters, in what may have been an effort to draw Israeli retaliatory fire.

Several foreign correspondents said the FPA had been right to issue the statement. One European reporter told Haaretz how Hamas officials prevented photographs being taken of any wounded or dead fighters at Al-Shifa hospital, even though their presence there was common knowledge. Only images of wounded or dead civilians were permitted. The journalist said Hamas repeatedly issued warnings to local translators that blatantly interfered with reporting. Other correspondents had similar experiences.

“It’s the policy of the FPA to support our members and this is what we are doing,” FPA Chairman Samer Shalabi told Haaretz. “If there is any kind of harassment or pressure we are willing to stand and support our members, whoever they are, whatever they are, whatever nationality they are.”

“In the past we have made huge announcements and statements against the Israelis because they prevented journalists from doing their job. I think it’s part of the FPA’s job to support its members as long as they need it from us,” said Shalabi, a CBC cameraman who is the first Palestinian elected as FPA chairman

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