Freedom of the Press Card

Government-issued press cards do not make a bad journalist good or transform a hostile one into a Zionist. Nor do they suddenly and miraculously create "government-oriented journalists."

A quick glance at the list of reprimands issued by the International Press Institute to heads of state in response to assaults on freedom of the press includes, in addition to Israel, Zimbabwe, Russia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

In some of those countries, journalists are arrested or killed, in others they are not permitted to operate freely or have had their press cards revoked. Israel, apparently seeking to retain its place on the list, this year decided not to renew the press cards of Palestinian journalists. There is no need to look for the reason: folly or revenge don't require explanations - but treatment.

Government-issued press cards do not make a bad journalist good or transform a hostile one into a Zionist. Nor do they suddenly and miraculously create "government-oriented journalists." Most of the journalists who have "caused" publicity damage to Israel did it while carrying a press card issued by the Government Press Office (GPO).

Suffice it to watch the BBC on good days, or to read The Guardian, in order to understand that the card signed by the director of the GPO is not a certificate of good character. It is certainly far from resembling an international driver's license.

In Turkey, for example, a press card will get you a discount on to museums, where the gatekeeper will in any event hold it upside down. In Egypt and Jordan, by contrast, it's best not to show a press card, and in the Rafah refugee camp, you should definitely not be caught carrying one.

At the State Department in Washington, only the photograph on the card is of any value, as an identifying document, but not as an entry card. Only in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan is the bearer of a press card treated as though he were a medium-level government official. The high level doesn't need a card; its members show up in luxury cars accompanied by two bodyguards.

In the territories, a press card is of relative value at roadblocks, provided the soldier manning the barrier has been briefed on how to treat the press. That is the major importance it has for Palestinian journalists, along with the entry it gains them to press conferences held by Israeli politicians or army officers.

Revoking a press card in these cases is something like taking away the card that makes you a member of the local supermarket club. The information arrives in any case, but it will be recorded with an angry pen.

The pretext that a press card should not be issued to an enemy is of course a lie. Journalists from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television station, the Saudi-owned MBC, from Abu Dhabi and other places report freely with the help of an Israeli press card. Probably, if a journalist from Iran were to visit Israel, he would not only be issued a card - if only to plant the Israeli flag in his pocket - but would be asked to join an organized tour to Masada and would be worn down by means of a lengthy interview with the prime minister and the foreign minister, because it's very important for the Israeli position to be given voice in Iran. But as for the Palestinians, it's better for them not to hear what Israel thinks.

The Palestinian journalists are the only ones who can open a Hebrew-language paper or watch Israeli state television and translate for their colleagues from England, France or India.

What is difficult to understand is not the refusal to issue press cards to Palestinians, but the source of the wisdom that engendered that enlightened move. It draws its strength from the fact that a demand for the card exists. If the Israeli journalists and the foreign and Palestinian correspondents were to decide to work without a press card, as a writer works without a writer's card, no one would suffer and the government would have to find a different way to make life difficult for Palestinian journalists.

A press card constitutes confirmation that the issuing state recognizes the recipient as a professional and the organization for which he works as a professional organization. It's a kind of state guarantee. Now the card issued by Israel takes on added significance. It becomes a confirmation that its bearer is a national employee. Anyone who does not have that status, such as those enemies from Palestine, is not going to get a press card. They, the Palestinians, will have to make do with creating the situation about which they will report without a card.