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As the Palestinian Authority stifles free press, Israel is fighting the media war on an uneven battlefield.

by Lenny Ben-David From the website HonestReporting.com.

The battle lines of the new Palestinian war against Israel are drawn. Why does Israel seem to always win on the military battlefield, but lose the media war?

Ineptitude by Israeli spokesmen? Probably not. Lack of effort? Usually not. A weaker moral and historical case? Certainly not.
Rather, Israel loses the media wars because it is fighting on an uneven media battlefield. The other side has many advantages:

  • The Palestinian Authority (PA) -- indeed all Arab regimes -- are undemocratic and bear no sense of responsibility to protect freedom of the press. Censorship of the press is the rule in the Palestinian Authority.

  • The PA's policies of intimidation, harassment and persecution of the press are standard practices. Reporters won't admit it, but the fear of physical harm or the fear of dying is a powerful motivator. What motivated Italian TV's Ricardo Christiano to congratulate and bless the Palestinian Authority, and then apologize for another Italian broadcaster filming the barbaric lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah? Was it fear? Or was it identification with the PA?

  • There's no point sugar-coating the last point: some reporters simply don't like Jews or Israel. Their reporting reflects "advocacy journalism" whereby the downtrodden is always right, and the "military side" is always wrong.

  • The Palestinian Authority is a master of the "Big Lie." During the Lebanon War in 1982, reporters "ran" with Arafat's claim that 10,000 Lebanese and Palestinians died, only to realize that they had been used. Palestinian reports of Israeli use of "poison gas" have been repeated without questioning the source or veracity. The Palestinian Authority claimed that Israeli "settlers" recently tortured and killed a Palestinian, when, in fact he was killed in a traffic accident.

  • The phony photo-op. The Palestinian Authority -- and the PLO before that -- have often taken photos and misrepresented them: a 1982 picture of a bandaged baby in Beirut (wounds were not caused by Israel), an Israeli coin (does not show Israel's desired territory from the Nile to the Euphrates), a bloodied Jewish student (beaten by Palestinians but presented as a Palestinian beaten by Israelis). But in many cases, the misrepresentation was carried out with the knowledge or because of the sloppiness of editors and reporters.

    * * * The Palestinian Assault on a Free Press
    The Palestinian war against Israel has received more media coverage than any other low-intensity combat has ever garnered. The camera is seemingly everywhere, even within camera range of a 12-year-old's tragic death or a lynch mob's barbaric rage. The media apparently has no problem gaining access to the story on either side of the conflict. But is that really the case? Does the media have unfettered access?
    No, because Israel respects the freedom of the press; the Palestinian Authority does not. Are reporters, writers, photographers, correspondents, producers, and cameramen free to report and film everything? No, because of the fetters placed upon them by Palestinian censorship as well as a self-censorship the members of the media impose upon themselves out of fear.

    Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority's style of governance reflects the style of its predecessor, the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO's reign of terror in Lebanon also targeted journalists and reporters. Old habits don't die too easily, and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority continues to harass and intimidate reporters and journalists. Non-partisan sources, such as the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and even Palestinian rights groups report that the Palestinian Authority routinely harasses, arrests, beats and tortures journalists who print or report items critical of the Palestinian Authority or Chairman Arafat. They all report on the pervasive phenomenon of journalists' self-censorship. See the following items:

    * * * The State Department's Annual Human Rights Report for 1999:

    "The PA limited freedom of speech and of the press, although it professes to tolerate varying political views and criticism. In a number of instances during the year, the PA took steps to limit free expression, particularly in regards to human rights issues and allegations of corruption. Press freedom in PA controlled areas is subject to a 1995 press law that does not adequately protect the press. PA security services further stifle the independence of the press by shutting down media outlets, banning publication or broadcast of material, and periodically harassing or detaining media members. Palestinian commentators and human rights groups say that as a result, the practice of self-censorship by journalists is widespread."

    * * * Freedom House 2000 Report on Freedom of the Press:

    "Under a 1995 Palestinian press law, journalists may be fined and jailed and newspapers closed for publishing 'secret information' on Palestinian security forces or news that might harm national unity or incite violence. Several small private radio and television stations are pressured by authorities to provide favorable coverage of Arafat and the PNA. Official Palestinian radio and television are government mouthpieces. In May Palestinian security forces arrested three journalists working for an Islamic weekly who reported on instances of alleged torture by the Palestinian police. In September, Palestinian police arrested Maher Dasuki, a television talk-show host at a Ramallah-based television station, for hosting a guest who criticized Yassir Arafat. Upon his release 20 days later, Dasuki charged his jailers had tortured him..."

    "The Palestine National Authority is slow in relaxing controls that imply that news media are part of the PNA structure and answerable to it. While censorship is unpredictable, intimidation and harassment of journalists leads to pervasive self-censorship. Despite the PNA's commitment under the 1997 Wye agreement to ensure the free flow of information, authorities made it illegal to incite violence, a restriction which can be arbitrarily interpreted. In 1999, security forces suspended one television station for jamming another's transmission. Another television outlet was suspended for a report on Muslim-Christian tensions. One television journalist was arrested after a broadcast which featured criticism of Yassir Arafat. Security forces arrested three journalists over an article about alleged torture by police..."

    * * * Amnesty International Annual Report 2000:

    "Since its establishment in 1994, the PA has progressively restricted the right to freedom of expression through a variety of means, including arrest and detention by various security forces... Many detainees have been held incommunicado and some have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment...

    "Those arrested are rarely shown an arrest warrant or informed of the reason for their arrest. Nevertheless the fact that their arrest took place hours or days after they delivered a controversial speech or wrote a critical article, for example, leaves little room for doubt as to the reason for their detention. Critics of the PA may find themselves invited to have a short meeting over a cup of coffee with one or other of the security services, only for them to emerge from detention days, weeks, or even months later. Rarely has the PA brought anyone to court during their detention. Frequently, it was not clear to detainees which authority ordered their arrest, whether the initiative was taken by the security force detaining them or by another authority, such as the President [Arafat]. In many cases detainees were informed verbally that they were being held on ''higher orders...

    "Those arrested have included journalists, academics, political activists, lawyers, government officials, trade unionists, and religious figures. Many human rights defenders were detained in the early years... "The PA has infringed the right to freedom of expression in other ways. Many journalists have reported being subjected to ill-treatment at the hands of the security forces while they were going about their duties... "Newspapers, research centres, news agencies, television and radio stations have all been closed for days or even weeks. In May and June 2000, two private radio stations in the West Bank... and three private television stations were closed by the Palestinian police for several days...

    "To avoid the kinds of abuses described above some Palestinian journalists now admit that they practice self-censorship, either by modifying the manner in which they report a story or not reporting or commenting on certain topics at all. Even if a journalist is prepared to take risks, his or her editor may not be willing to carry the responsibility of authorizing publication of a critical article..."

    * * * Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group

    The most damning indictment against the Palestinian Authority comes from a Palestinian organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. The PHRMG describes at length the nature of the harassment conducted by the Palestinian Authority against journalists. The human rights group's findings can be found in "Media in Palestine: Between the Hammer of the PNA and the Anvil of Self-Censorship." Following are excepts:

    "...The PHRMG feels the seriousness of the increase in the self-censorship phenomenon among Palestinian journalists, which not only prevents publishing what is true, but also limits the freedom of thinking... A journalist in Palestine faces external censorship that restricts his freedom of opinion and expression. He or she faces self-censorship that limits the initiative to think on issues that he or she believes may surpass the drawn red lines. This fact made the local press only look like parrots that repeat what is expected from them without asking or criticizing anything."

    "Self-Censorship: Self-censorship is considered more serious that external censorship because it not only prevents the journalist from publishing what he writes, but it also hinders his writing, thinking or analyzing. He or she would not think of wasting time writing material that will surely not be published... Self-censorship also takes hold when journalists hear of colleagues getting abused by the security services when they exceed the red lines."

    "Violations against Palestinian journalists [by the PA's police, general intelligence, national security and preventive security agencies] for crossing the red lines vary. From 50 violations recorded by the PHRMG the percentages were distributed as follows:
    - Injury from gun shooting:
    - Beatings:
    - Breaking or confiscating cameras:
    - Confiscating films or videos: 8%

    - Summoning, stopping or detaining: 68%


    (Note: rate is taken per accidents [sic] not per individuals)..."

    * * * Palestinian Tradition of Press Intimidation

    During the six years of the PLO's reign of terror in Lebanon (1976-1982), Lebanese and foreign journalists were harassed and in several cases murdered by the PLO.
    The following journalists and editors were victims of Arafat's ultimate form of censorship:
    - Edouard Saeb, editor of L'Orient le Jour and Le Monde correspondent, shot down by PLO gunmen, September 1976.
    - Riadh Taha, president of the Lebanese publisher's union. After meeting with Lebanese leader Bashir Gemayal to work out an anti-PLO front, Taha was gunned down by PLO gunmen, 1980.
    Journalist Edouard George, who worked for Edouard Saeb, compiled a list of seven foreign journalists who were killed by the PLO between 1976 and 1981:
    - Larry Buchman, correspondent for ABC Television
    - Mark Tryon, Free Belgium Radio
    - Jean Lougeau, correspondent for French TF-1
    - Tony Italo, Italian journalist
    - Graciella Difaco, Italian journalist
    - Sean Toolan, correspondent for ABC
    - Robert Pfeffer, correspondent for Der Spiegel

    * * *

    Conclusion

    Many accusations are thrown at the media for what is perceived as inaccurate reporting and unfair bias against Israel -
    - advocacy journalists who push the Palestinian cause;
    - reporters who simply don't know the history of the conflict;

    - latent and even blatant anti-Semitism by some journalists; and

    - "parachutists" who drop in to cover the story who exhibit sloppiness with the facts.

    Another reason may also play a role in the media's coverage -- reporters may be reacting consciously or even subconsciously to the Palestinian's intimidation and threats of harassment. International monitoring groups and Palestinians themselves admit that local journalists are intimidated to the point that they impose upon themselves self-censorship.
    Is that also the case with the foreign press trying to cover the new intifada?

    Lenny Ben-David served as Israel's "number two" diplomat in Washington between 1997-2000. Today he is a consultant on government and business affairs for corporations and organizations, including
    HonestReporting.com.