Could a situation arise in which a senior foreign correspondent posted here is arrested as an illegal resident, jailed and then deported? This scenario seems fictional, but what is not fictional is the fact that Joerg Bremer, correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the most important newspapers in the world, was in Israel for several weeks as an illegal resident. He left Friday for a vacation, and does not know whether he will be allowed back in. A correspondent for another world-class newspaper told Haaretz that he has been in Israel for the past year on a tourist visa, a status that ostensibly bars him from working.
The director of the Government Press Office (GPO), Danny Seaman, said that in the past few years, over 60 foreign journalists have encountered problems in extending their work visas. "There have been many cases when journalists have been illegal residents," he said. "They have my phone number, and if they have a problem they call me."
Those affected are among the longest-serving correspondents, and sometimes the most senior ones. What is special about Bremer's case is that he decided to fight the phenomenon, not just his own private battle. Two weeks ago, the state secretary of the German Federal Foreign Office, Georg Boomgaarden (number three in the office), formally appealed to Israel's Ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, to resolve the problem. Nothing has been solved.
The story began in 2003 when the Entry into Israel Law was enacted to improve the situation of foreign workers. Previously, such workers were allowed to stay in Israel for two periods of 27 months each, but were required to exit and re-enter the country in the interim. The amendment enabled them to stay in Israel for up to 63 months without having to leave in the middle. Apparently no one noticed that the law would apply to foreign professors and correspondents working here.
Since then, the lives of Israel's foreign reporters have become bureaucratic nightmares, being forced to jump through the hoops of the Population Registry of the Interior Ministry and remain with just a tourist visa, or no visa at all, for months at a time.
Bremer has been posted in Israel for 15 years, and until last year, his work visa was extended as needed without a problem. He applied for another extension in September.
"They told me it would go to a committee that would decide," Bremer said. "I contacted Danny Seaman. He told me: 'Of course you'll get it, but there are some we don't want, and that's why I like the committee.' I told him the motive was political. It's not right for the permit to be a matter for a committee, a favor. The foreign journalists can't have the same status as foreign workers," Bremer said.
A Foreign Press Association source also believes the five-year restriction for work visas can be a tool for getting rid of journalists that the state does not like. "They all blame each other," says a source who tried to broker a solution. "The Foreign Ministry washes its hands of the matter, and doesn't understand why people come to it."
Seaman says the GPO sought a solution, including suggesting the issuing of special visas for journalists, but "each time we approached the final stage, the interior minister was replaced." Seaman notes that the Population Registry's Jerusalem office is stricter than its Tel Aviv counterpart. He says that when a journalist hires an attorney, the Interior Ministry finds a way to issue the visa.
Attorney Richard Bardenstein, who represents several foreign correspondents, says the problem can be solved by issuing guidelines for granting a special status to foreign journalists. He said this could happen if an interior minister remained in office for two or three years.
The legal counsel of Kav La'oved - Workers' Hotline, Dr. Yuval Livnat, believes that journalists have a good chance of winning their case if it goes to court. Another person close to the matter says that turning the issue into a court case could hurt Israel's public image.
According to a response issued by the Population Registry's spokeswoman, the Entry into Israel Law "does not distinguish among the professions of foreign workers, with the exception of home health care. Out of awareness of the issue of foreign reporters, a joint procedure was established with the GPO, according to which requests by journalists who receive the GPO's recommendation to receive an extension of their work visa beyond the five years on the grounds of their professional necessity will be considered thoroughly in a positive spirit and in accordance with circumstances."
Haddad added that "since the procedure was mutually agreed upon, there should be no problems." She rejects the charge that the process violates journalistic freedom. "In every country, work visas are limited in duration."
Seaman confirms that he issues letters to journalists, but says he was "never officially informed that there was a procedure." The Population Registry is known to keep its procedures secret to give itself more room to maneuver.
Now it's getting personal
Government Press Office Director Danny Seaman responded with extreme bluntness to the charges of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung correspondent Joerg Bremer.
He said he finds the storm kicked up by Bremer annoying, because he has yet to receive a definitive answer. "I told him not to make noise," Seaman said. "I kind of don't like his attitude, his concealed threats of intervention by the German government."
The German government did interfere.
"I feel like screwing him over just because of this. What kind of gall is this, for the German government to interfere in Israel's internal affairs? How are journalists different from any other foreign workers?"
He maintains that these problems have a political basis.
"I maintain that he's an idiot. That's ridiculous. If I issued press cards according to content, no one at Haaretz would get a card."
"There are very pro-Israeli journalists who are [also] given problems.
"My approach is starting to be to recommend to everyone not to help him. Now it's not political, it's starting to be personal."
He says that you told him that this arrangement suits you, because it gives you control over the journalists.
"I told him something like that? He's a piece of shit. When there were discussions [over a solution], I said I wasn't willing for the GPO to be the one that decides, so no one could say that there was any scheming. He's just a miserable liar. He's a piece of shit."
Bremer said in response to the above: "Seaman wants journalists to lick his feet. He gets enjoyment from the situation, and uses his power instead of helping. It's harmful to Israel."