After two years in which the Foreign Press Association has kept a stiff diplomatic upper lip regarding the unending obstacles of the Israeli authorities - bureaucratic sanctions and various other ways and means - its chiefs have decided the time has come for a more strident policy.
An appeal by the secretariat of the 350-member organization yielded initial results: within a matter of days, what had been the personal anecdotes of foreign reporters has been transformed into an astoundingly detailed document. The organization intends to use the collected evidence to try to end what its members see as officially sanctioned harassment.
About 30 complaints arrived within days on the desk of Charles Enderlin, who heads the local office of the television network France 2 and who is a member of the FPA board. The complaints focus on a primary means of curtailing the press' freedom of activity: blatant and systematic harassment of foreign correspondents at the country's airports and border crossing points.
The authors of the complaints, including senior correspondents of major media outlets from around the world, attest to prolonged delays caused by security examinations; recurrent interrogations even when crossing the border for official events such as the Aqaba summit; confiscation of expensive electronic equipment for the purpose of examination, and occasional damage or loss of same; requests that they disclose notes and computer files, and requests for disclosure of meetings and personal contacts. In several instances, complaints were received about invasive physical searches, up to and including a request to drop trousers for the purpose of an examination, as happened to a senior correspondent for the British ITN.
Even in light of the statement by the Shin Bet and the Israel Airports Authority that security procedures had been tightened for all passengers, without exception, since the September 11 attacks, the treatment accorded members of the foreign press seems unusual and harsh.
The journalists report having been treated differently - as soon as they declared their occupation. One of the incidents occurred last weekend, and touches on an especially raw nerve at times such as these. A senior computer engineer who works for the BBC, the network that has been boycotted in recent weeks by Israel, arrived here to work in the network's offices. On his way out of the country, he was told by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport that he was free to get on the plane, but would have to leave his PC behind, for examination. The computer, he said, contained all of the basic software programs used by the BBC and by no means could he leave it in the possession of strangers. The argument proved fruitless, and the engineer opted to leave Israel without his computer. The chief of the BBC bureau in Israel, Andrew Steele, says that on Saturday the network had to alter the security codes for its entire computer system, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. The computer was returned 24 hours later.
Steele terms this scandalous behavior, but that it is only one example of what hundreds of reporters arriving in and leaving Israel often experience. Steele reports that a printer was taken from him and restored only 12 days later, two days before the end of his assignment; photographer Heidi Levine-Milner, who is married to an Israeli and has lived in Israel for many years, tells of a palmtop computer that was damaged during inspection; a similar episode occurred to BBC correspondent Orla Guerin; and two French reporters, Isabelle Dor and Muriel Rozelier, did not get on a plane to Jordan after refusing to part with their electronic diaries.
Personal computers are given similar treatment. Simon McGregor-Wood, head of the American ABC network's Israel bureau, was asked in May to leave behind his PC upon his return from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. He charges that when he got it back, the battery was warm - evidence that the computer was turned on without him being present.
Especially glaring was an incident that took place last September to Pierre Ferrier, director of the Israeli bureau of Le Figaro, the French newspaper. His PC was taken from him by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport and was lost - evidently by the airline that was responsible for restoring it to him. Ferrier sent a letter of complaint to the deputy director-general of communications at the Foreign Ministry, Gideon Meir.
There are also a fair share of ridiculous episodes, such as the confiscation of a camera lens (worth $15,000) belonging to a cameraman for RAI, the Italian public broadcast channel, and its return three days later. Paulo Longo, head of the channel's Israel office, has a hard time understanding what could be suspicious about a lens. "You just look through it. That's your examination," he says.
Other complaints refer to lengthy, bothersome questioning, specifically directed at foreign journalists. A particularly absurd scene took place at the Eilat airport in early June, when the foreign correspondents were returning from the Aqaba summit. It was described separately by two reporters - one who works for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Jorg Bremer, the object of the inspection, the other veteran correspondent Jay Bushinsky, who reports on Israel for several news outlets, and who observed the scene and tried to intervene.
The travel arrangements for members of the press were coordinated and organized by the FPA from start to finish, but the Arkia security officers disregarded this. Bremer described with some irony the circular questioning to which he was subjected for about 20 minutes: "The security inspector humiliated herself with countless circular questions - `Where were you? (She knew where I was. )Why Aqaba? With whom did you meet there? Why did you leave Israel through the Allenby crossing? How many Jordanians do you know?
"The security inspectors," writes Bremer in his complaint, "always look perturbed when you talk about having interviewed the king and queen, but what can I do? Who did I meet with in Egypt? With Hosni Mubarak, Osama al-Baz. I'm very sorry."
Bushinsky describes his colleague's interrogation as "stupid and insulting." Bremer had spent only 12 hours outside of Israel, and had been part of an organized, identifiable delegation and the object of their trip was readily known. The treatment given to all of the foreign correspondents upon arrival in Israel is hostile, he says, and worse than what they now receive in Egypt or than what was once the case at the border crossings to East Germany and Russia.
Alexander von Sobeck of the German public TV channel ZDF says the Arkia security inspector insisted on looking over his notes from the summit, and when he complained to her supervisor, the latter threatened to bar his entry to the plane if he did not cooperate. "It is a clear policy that is aimed mainly at European correspondents," he says. "It does not help Israel when you are treated like garbage every time you fly in."
In their efforts to find a solution, the foreign correspondents have a hard time finding anyone in a position of power who sees himself as responsible for the policy, and is capable of helping. The nominal address for matters of this sort is Danny Seaman, head of the Government Press Office. But he presents himself as lacking any influence when it comes to security policy and officials. In the background is the struggle against the foreign press that Seaman has been waging over the past two years on the pages of the newspapers, and his attempts to restrict it through every bureaucratic means at his disposal, on the grounds that the reports of many members of the foreign press are biased in favor of the Palestinian side.
Among other things, Seaman is responsible for rescinding the press credentials of Palestinians who worked with foreign press crews and for the numerous difficulties placed in the way of foreign correspondents who wish to receive new press cards or work visas in Israel. In the past year, he has come to verbal blows with editors and station managers at some of the largest newspapers and television stations in the world, and an editorial about him in the British newspaper The Guardian appeared beneath the headline "Israel's bully."
At the same time, Seaman says he understands the severity of the problem of security examinations, and is trying to help reporters. Some of the reporters that have asked him for help confirm this statement.
Seaman offers a different version than the official one provided by the Israel Airports Authority and the Shin Bet, which categorically deny that they adopt more stringent inspection procedures for members of the foreign press (see box). Conversely, Seaman says that the press is different when it comes to security concerns, as "their contact with enemy agents is greater."
Nevertheless, he promises to act assiduously to find a permanent solution to the problem, and even raises a few practical ideas - if only to give himself, so he says, a breather from the constant phone calls he receives, night and day, from reporters who have been detained at the airports and border crossing points, and whose equipment has been taken away. He offers another reason: "I am interested in working out a solution to the problem in order not to undermine the credibility of the other steps that I do take, for example the confiscation of press cards."
Seaman's efforts are now being joined by those of the Foreign Ministry's Gideon Meir, who received the FPA's thick sheaf of complaints and was shocked at what he read. He decided to take action, and as a first step met with the director-general of the Airports Authority, Gabi Ophir.
"All of our work goes to waste if journalists are treated poorly when they enter and exit the country," he says, "and this contrasts with the Palestinians, who treat them well. I'm not arguing with the security considerations, but it simply cannot be that a Le Figaro journalist leaves the country without his computer. An individual who is abused for hours at the airport cannot afterward really like the system. I myself have been explicitly told, 'I will not be writing any articles sympathetic to Israel.'"
A response from the authorities
The Israel Airports Authority stated that journalists are not subjected to more stringent treatment when it comes to inspection procedures, that the opposite is the case - there are guidelines to go easy on them due to the sensitive nature of their occupation. Nevertheless, it was stated, "No profession or status grants a special bill of rights, and the examination has specific aims, especially in consideration of the events of the past two years." The Airports Authority spokesman also said that he categorically rejects the claim that passengers are strip-searched as part of the security examination procedure. He said that electronic equipment is not confiscated, but is held for a slow examination extending 24 hours, in order not to cause any damage, and that it is then returned to its owner.
As for the security inspection policy at the other border crossing points, the Shin Bet offered a similar response. Computers are examined not in order to inspect the written or graphic contents, but merely to remove any suspicion regarding the device itself, in accordance with the more stringent regulations imposed since September 11 all over the world, and especially in Israel.