Editor’s note: Despite the increasing violence and terror in the five-month-old “intifada” — yesterday’s suicide bombing by a Palestinian terrorist killed three Israelis and wounded 60 – much of the international news coverage throughout this troubled period has displayed an openly pro-Palestinian slant.
Israel is commonly portrayed by the American and European news media — and of course the Arab press — as the brutal “Goliath” in battle with the righteous Palestinian “David.” This, despite the fact that Palestinian and especially Islamic leaders frequently and openly call for the indiscriminate murder of Jews and the total annihilation of the Jewish state.
Judy Lash Balint, a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist whose articles have appeared in many publications worldwide, including the Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem Post and Seattle Times, conducted an in-depth survey of media representatives in preparation of this insightful three-part report. She discovered a complex pattern of intimidation at work that has exerted a profound influence on journalists and what they report.
This first installment focuses on the aftermath of the filming of the infamous Ramallah lynching last October.
JERUSALEM — Journalists and the Palestinian Authority have what might euphemistically be called a strained relationship.
The independent Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors abuses against the press and promotes press freedom around the world, reports: “In the nearly seven years since the Palestinian National Authority assumed control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza, Chairman Yasser Arafat and his multi-layered security apparatus have muzzled local press critics via arbitrary arrests, threats, physical abuse and the closure of media outlets. Over the years, the Arafat regime has managed to frighten most Palestinian journalists into self-censorship.”
There’s no reason to suspect that foreign correspondents — who were notoriously hounded in Beirut 20 years ago by the PNA’s forerunner, the PLO — are not exercising the same kind of self-censorship today, compromising fair and objective coverage of the current situation.
Still, the most effective clamp on the truth is the peer group — the homogenized ideology of the press corps where independent thinking continues to require courage and fortitude. In a region where the media has in many ways shaped the conflict, the combination of fear and lockstep thinking on the part of its protagonists does not bode well for its resolution.
Ramallah: never the same
The lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah last October proved to be a watershed in coverage of the new intifada. Up until that point, most Western journalists traveled wherever they wanted to in their quest to convey the essence of Arab violence and Israeli reaction.
Sky TV News reporter Chris Roberts says that at the outset of the violence, the PA welcomed reporters with open arms.
“They wanted us to show 12-year-olds being killed,” he explains. But after the lynch, when PA operatives did their best to confiscate and destroy tape of the grisly event and Israel Defense Forces used the images to target and arrest the perpetrators, Palestinians have sometimes vented their hostility toward the U.S by harassing and intimidating Western correspondents.
“Post-Ramallah, where all goodwill was lost, I’m a lot more sensitive about going places,” Roberts admits.
Even people like Ahmed Budeiri, a bright, 20-something Arab stringer for ABC-TV, acknowledges that Ramallah was “really dangerous for foreigners,” after the lynch.
According to firsthand reports, a Polish television crew was surrounded by Palestinian security forces, beaten and relieved of their film of the lynching. But most of the TV cameramen were Palestinians. Given PA intimidation of Palestinian journalists, it’s not surprising that almost all of them, except for one working for the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera and another shooter for the independent Italian station, RTI, meekly handed over their film.
Nasser Atta, a Palestinian producer with the ABC News network, was outside the Ramallah police station with a camera crew as the bloody scene unfolded. Appearing the next day on ABC’s “Nightline,” he told host Ted Koppel that crowd members had assaulted his team to stop them from filming the action.
“I saw how the youth tried to prevented [sic] — prevented my crew from shooting this footage. My cameraman was beaten,” Atta said.
A British photographer, Mark Seager wrote in London’s Sunday Telegraph Oct. 22: “I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face by a Palestinian. Another Palestinian pointed right at me, shouting ‘no picture, no pictures,’ while another guy hit me in the face and said, ‘Give me your film.’ One guy just pulled the camera from me and smashed it to the floor.”
Most reporters acknowledge that the PA openly confiscated TV footage and still photos of the lynching. But some, like Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Neil Macdonald, asked PA Security chief Jibril Rajoub about the matter and were told that no tape was seized.
Others, like the New York Times’ William Orme, came to their own conclusion that while the mob that attacked journalists did include some uniformed Palestinian police officers, “no one is suggesting that it was PA policy. It was not an official order.”
The film that did escape the clutches of the PA police made its way to TV screens around the world in an unorthodox way. According to Gideon Meir, deputy director general for public affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Embassy in Rome was able to secure the video from the independent Italian RTI TV station, and within six hours of the gruesome event, the images were received in Jerusalem. The Italians released it without charge, said Meir.
TVNewsweb, a website for TV editors and correspondents, reported the transmission of the footage a little differently.
“Two tapes are spirited away and reappear in Jerusalem one hour later. Al-Jazeera’s tape is offered for sale at US$1,000 per minute, but it’s shot shakily from far away and lacks impact. The RTI tape is extremely graphic.
“RTI’s Israeli tape editor, who was at the scene, gives her eyewitness account at a Jerusalem press conference organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Government Press Office. RTI eventually makes the tape available to the agencies in Italy and the gruesome pictures lead most evening newscasts.”
Meanwhile, veteran Italian TV reporter Riccardo Cristiano had just been released from the hospital where he spent more than a week recovering from injuries he received when he was beaten up in Jaffa while covering the riots started by Israeli Arabs. Cristiano’s nose was broken, his cheek gashed, and he almost lost the use of his right eye.
The Italian government TV channel reporter went back to work the day before the lynching. According to CBC’s Macdonald, Cristiano, “a very pacifist guy,” was traumatized by the Jaffa attack. When he received death threats the day after the Ramallah events, presumably from Palestinians who mistakenly associated his TV channel with the damning lynching footage, Macdonald says Cristiano penned a letter in English to a Palestinian journalist friend at Al Hayat Al Jedida newspaper, assuring the colleague that his station had nothing to do with the filming nor would he ever violate journalistic ethics by transmitting film to an embassy or government office.
On Monday, Oct. 16, a version of the letter appeared in Arabic on the front page of the paper. Cristiano lost his Israeli press credentials and was recalled to Rome. The RTI correspondent was spirited out of the country for her own safety after the Israel Defense Force used freeze-frames of her film to nab six of the perpetrators in undercover raids.
This reporter traveled to Rome to meet Cristiano last December. The tall, gray-haired and mustachioed, soft-spoken man acknowledges he’s a leftist, but in his quest for justice for those whom he perceives as oppressed, he feels he’s following in the footsteps of his father, renowned Italian artist Paolo Cristiano.
The senior Cristiano was a member of the Italian resistance who spent three years in a series of Nazi death camps. He weighed 60 pounds when he returned home. Riccardo says his father is mortified by those who accuse his son of being anti-Semitic.
“The only thing he wanted to do when he came to visit me in Israel was visit Yad Vashem,” Riccardo quietly said. Recently, Cristiano met with the head of the Jewish council in Venice to explain his actions and gain his support.
The Al Hayat letter became a significant political issue in Italy because Cristiano worked for the government station, and his letter was perceived to have endangered the life of a reporter from the independent channel operated by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy’s center-right opposition. Berlusconi’s party is critical of support for the Palestinians on the part of the government-controlled media.
Over the course of several interviews, Cristiano was careful to talk only about what has happened to his life in the intervening months, not the details of his controversial letter. Even though he does not have a job, he is technically still employed while he awaits a disciplinary hearing that will determine his future as a journalist. His October letter was unauthorized, and he can’t afford to be accused of another unauthorized action such as an interview explaining his actions.
Interestingly, Orme recalls that in a telephone conversation with Cristiano the day the letter appeared in Al Hayat, the Italian reporter verified and even defended its contents, telling Orme that he was concerned for the safety of his staff.
Cristiano’s plight does provide a certain insight into the journalistic fraternity of those covering the Middle East. Like the other reporters who were beaten up by Palestinians over the past few months, Cristiano has no rage against their violent tactics. Neither does he expect much from the PA. He relates how his crew was filming a bodyguard of PA Jerusalem Affairs minister Faisal Husseini who slapped someone at a garden party at Orient House, the PA Jerusalem headquarters. Another guard came over and erased the film. Cristiano, the deputy bureau chief, complained. The next day, Husseini sent an apology and all was forgiven.
While Cristiano has obvious sympathy for the Palestinian cause, he is not anti-Israel. He speaks of his special interest in the Armenians and views both Israel and the Palestinians as “nations under trauma.”
But until his name is cleared, Cristiano continues to be a fallen man.
“My friends think I’m in this mood because I lost my job in Jerusalem,” he said sadly, “but the reality is that I lost my honor and credibility from myself and my heritage.”
TOMORROW: Balint reports on her eye-opening interviews with reporters on the beat in the conflict-plagued West Bank and Gaza, and how the various challenges facing them profoundly affect the way they report the news.
Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist, an associate of the Israel Media Resource Agency and the author of a forthcoming book, “Jerusalem Diaries,” to be published by Gefen this summer. She may be reached by e-mail.