Israel is refusing to renew the visa of a Dutch journalist who has lambasted Israeli policy toward the Palestinians in the West Bank, though the Government Press Office says he knowingly worked without a visa extension or permit.
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Derk Walters has criticized Israeli policy in the Netherlands’ fourth biggest newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, though the GPO, which operates out of the Prime Minister’s Office, denies that this the reason for his expulsion.
Last year, Walters criticized Israeli actions in Hebron in the West Bank and tweeted about boycotts as political action against Israel.
Walters has been reporting from Israel since 2014. In January 2016 he ran an article describing constant friction between the Palestinians and settlers in Hebron early in the wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks against Israelis.
He wrote that because of collaboration between the Israeli army and settlers, the Palestinians did not believe that the Israeli army was actually acting against assailants. Instead, it was planting knives near the bodies of the dead.
On January 13, 2016, a day after a Walters article on Hebron ran, he received an email in English from Ron Paz, the GPO’s foreign press chief.
“I do not challenge you about the hostile and biased description of the reality in Hebron,” Paz wrote to Walters in the email obtained by Haaretz. “I don’t challenge you for not even mentioning that Hebron is the most radical religious Islamist city in the West Bank and that dozens of suicide attackers came from there in the past 3 months, triggering tighter security measures.”
Paz added that a Walters headline saying that 175,000 Palestinians in Hebron were captives of 600 Jewish settlers was anti-Semitic.
Paz particularly criticized what he called Walters’ “severe accusations” against the Israeli army, “including seemingly-quoting the IDF/security forces policy and actions, without asking for a comment from the IDF.” As Paz put it, this was “just unimaginable.”
NRC’s editor-in-chief, Peter Vandermeersch, responded to Paz, criticizing the Israeli’s email to Walters. Four days later, Walters came to the GPO in Jerusalem to pick up a press card. He says he not only did not receive one, he was assailed by complaints, especially about the Hebron article and his paper’s coverage of Israel in general. He says he only received a press card after the Dutch ambassador intervened.
On March 8, 2016, the GPO again contacted Walters, this time about a tweet. Walters quoted a Palestinian blogger who tweeted that “Boycott is legitimate political expression. It’s not less so just because used against Israel.”
Walters then added his own interpretation: Israeli Arabs cannot talk about boycotting Israel because they could be persecuted for it. Paz wrote to Walters asking if the tweet could be construed as supporting BDS. ‘I hope not,’ Paz wrote in an email.
Paz also wrote that retweeting an article from the left-wing website +972 Magazine raised “several questions, if I may point them out in the frame of our open and frank dialogue.” Paz wrote to Walters that “we do not think it is legitimate for journalists to take a stance in this highly controversial issue.” He wrote that such a tweet “gives the feeling of supporting the ideas in the articles.”
Paz also asked, “If you merely quoted an opinion (although highly controversial) which is not your own, would you consider quoting/tweeting an intelligent well-put article which explains why singling out Israel for political boycott is the new form of anti-Semitism?” He added: “’Palestinian Israelis’ is a problematic phrase in many people’s opinion.”
Facebook evidence of residence
At the end of 2016, when the GPO rejected Walters’ request to renew his visa and press card, it cited as grounds that NRC is not a recognized media organization under the GPO’s standards because its editor-in-chief is a board member and thus it suffers conflicts of interest between its commercial and editorial sides. The GPO later withdrew that argument after the Dutch Embassy intervened.
GPO head Nitzan Chen suggested that Walters receive a visa and press card for three months, during which the newspaper could get organized as the GPO required. The paper took that to mean that the GPO wanted Walters to be expelled.
Walters says that based on his previous experience with the GPO, he decided not to answer that particular email; instead, he told his paper it should talk with the GPO, or the Dutch government should use diplomatic means as in the past.
In February this year, Walters received another email from Chen, saying that since he had not answered the email from December 2016, he had been working illegally without a permit since December 20. The GPO also demanded proof that he lived in Tel Aviv, as written in his visa application.
Paz accidentally attached to Chen’s letter internal correspondence in which Paz wrote about his proposed answer to Walters. This included references to making the other side sweat and leaving all options on the table including a U-turn, and letting the Foreign Ministry get involved.
Paz said the need for Walters to prove his Tel Aviv residence was based on his knowledge that Walters had actually moved to East Jerusalem – he posted it on Facebook.
NRC says the correspondence between Paz and Chen increases suspicions that Walters and the paper are being harassed. The temporary permits given to Walters expire in July and, he says, the GPO told him that his permits would not be renewed.
In a letter published this week in Dutch, Vandermeersch, the NRC editor, wrote that there was no way to interpret this decision other than as an attempt to prevent the publication of articles critical of Israel. Vandermeersch wrote that strangely, the April 4 letter from the GPO did not mention the tenor of Walters’ reporting. The nature of his articles was never a factor in the Israelis’ decisions, which contradicts Israeli accusations that Walters was engaging in improper activism.
Vandermeersch also quoted from a GPO statement saying the office believed that Walters’ reports were professional and adhered to journalistic ethics. As a result, the way Israel was expelling its writer was a stain on a country that depicts itself as a nation of laws.
Meanwhile, NRC has quoted Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders as saying he regrets that Walters’ work permit has not been renewed. Journalists should write what they want under the rules of freedom of expression that apply in Israel too, Koenders said.
GPO: Walters broke the law
Chen, for his part, told Haaretz that Walters “wrote things connected with agitation and incitement but I don’t even want to go into those alleys. Mr. Walters broke the Israeli law in that, despite all our requests, he worked without a working permit. The offenses were committed intentionally, not by mistake. For example, he made a statement that I don’t want to say was perjury, but it was highly problematic – that he lives in Tel Aviv, while actually he was in East Jerusalem.”
As Chen put it, “We sent four or five reminders to renew his visa but he scorned the GPO at every level. Ron Paz called him and said, let’s arrange this, take a temporary visa. He wouldn’t hear of it. We don’t look into issues of content. That isn’t our arena. We look into whether he’s a journalist, not an activist or mercenary, for example, and whether the publication behind him meets the rules.”
On Paz’s claim that he had contacted Walters at least twice over the reporter’s comments in the paper and on Twitter, Chen said the office indeed considers the ethics and credibility of journalists, universal journalistic ethics, but the GPO never made a connection between Walters’ writing and work permits.
“We are an administrative authority that just inspects. We don’t care if he waxes critical. There are examples of Al Jazeera writers in English and CBS being much more radical or influential,” Chen said.
“We never bundled the content aspect with the permits. Let them check if we ever denied a visa or press card to a journalist who wrote against Israel. Not only did we not impose gags, we give five-star service compared with any other media outfit, including to Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.”
In an English-language statement, the GPO added: “Unfortunately, both articles published by the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad are tendentious, distorted and based on half-truths: the GPO has never conditioned its recommendation for work visas and press cards [on] the content published by one journalist or another. Nevertheless, when the GPO recognizes a substantial deviation from the facts and from universal journalist ethics, we request a clarification accordingly. This was the case of the article in question published by Mr. Derk Walters in Hebron in the beginning of 2016.
“The article’s headline, in which the reason for not extending the journalist’s visa beyond 3 months due to ‘activism,’ is an absolute lie, and the GPO has documents proving it. The article also claims that NRC requested the GPO’s response and did not get it that is another lie. The GPO sent its response to the newspaper, and they did not bother publishing it.
“Mr. Derk Walters has violated Israeli law by working without a permit for months. According to NRC’s position, he did so with intent and not as negligence. Following information the GPO received regarding the NRC failing to comply with the rules, the GPO turned to the journalist and offered a 3 month renewal for his permit pending clarification. However, Mr. Walters and the paper chose to ignore the offer and immediately turned to diplomatic channels, during which time the journalist continued to work in Israel without a permit.
“Nevertheless, and beyond the letter of the law, after the GPO was satisfied with the NRC complying with the rules, the journalist was issued a 3 month work permit, and it was explained to the paper that it won’t be renewed due to the law violation above – to allow the paper time to send a replacing journalist which will receive permits by law.
“The GPO strongly rejects any suggestion that the material published in NRC had anything to do with the above. Hundreds of foreign journalists operate in Israel, some of which are critical to the state of Israel and its policies, yet the only one who decided to operate against the rules and regulations is NRC journalist Derk Walter[s]. Our decision is a direct consequence.”
The GPO concluded: “The State of Israel in general and the Government Press Office in particular champion freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The GPO does everything in its power to accommodate the media in Israel in all respects.”
In December, the GPO told Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein that his GPO card was “under review” after he challenged MK Yair Lapid at a press conference and a media watchdog blog charged that he was not a journalist, but “a prominent anti-Israel activist” and “a public supporter of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement,” quoting public statements he made.
Ultimately, however, Loewenstein was permitted to keep his credentials and his visa until it expired in March. Given his plans to leave the country and return to Australia in May, the GPO agreed to allow him to remain in the country as a tourist until his departure, following lobbying on his behalf by the Foreign Press Association and others.
Allison Kaplan Sommer contributed to this report