Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Dark Day for Press Freedom in the Middle East

About a year ago the Israeli government forbade Israeli journalists from entering the Gaza Strip, for apparent security reasons. This forced Israelis to get their news about the Strip from foreign news agencies. About a week ago, also for apparent security reasons, the Israeli Government banned all foreign journalists from entering the Gaza Strip under any circumstances.

Didn't Israel stop and wonder who will be left to shine the light on one of the darkest corners of the earth? The result of this measure is that Hamas will effectively control all the information coming out of Gaza.

Journalistic objectivity is only possible in a place where that ideal is valued and cherished by those wielding the power. The Gaza Strip under Hamas is not one of those places, and objective journalism in this embattled territory will be replaced by propaganda. Foreign journalists once had the unique ability to enter Gaza in the morning, jot down the truth as they saw it, and cross back into Israel at Erez crossing that evening before their report hit the presses. While kowtowing to Hamas might be a factor in the mind of a foreign journalist who makes a living sporadically reporting from Gaza, the kowtow-factor is far greater for a Palestinian journalist who will lay his head on his pillow in bedroom in a house chock full of relatives in a refugee camp that is ultimately controlled by Hamas.

By curbing this most basic democratic freedom, Israel has not only taken a page out of Hamas' playbook, but has also played right into the hands of Hamas.

After receiving criticism from all the major international press organizations, Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev tried to finagle his way out of responsibility by claiming, "There is no policy to prevent the media from entering Gaza, and the minute the security situation allows for the normal functioning of the crossings, journalists, like all of the others who have been inconvenienced, will be able to return to using the crossings."

Israel was kind enough to let in some urgent medical supplies and humanitarian workers last week. In order of priority, journalists should always be given second-class status to humanitarian workers, but this is not a zero-sum game where the ethic of press freedom should be weighed up against basic humanitarian assistance. Assuming a person is not considered a threat to Israel, Israel shouldn't have the right to determine where a non-national chooses to go. If a non-Israeli wants to go on vacation in Gaza, he/she should have the right to do so. It is Israel's obligation to protect anyone within its borders, but once they cross into the Gaza Strip (which Israel withdrew from in August 2005), they are no longer Israel's responsibility.

Invariably, the real reason journalists are not allowed into places is when somebody has something to hide. (ie. North Korea, Guantanamo, etc.) This truth finally emerged in an interview with Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror. "Where Gaza is concerned, our image will always be bad," Dror said. "When journalists go in it works against us, and when they don't go in it works against us." Dror also said that Israel was generally displeased with international media coverage, which he believes inflated Palestinian suffering and did not make clear that Israel's measures were in response to Palestinian violence.

Even if this were completely true, it would not justify such a draconian policy. For a country suddenly concerned with preserving its image, this is hardly the way to do it. Sacrificing democratic principles will only tarnish its image further. And you can't defeat bad press by eliminating it. Sometimes, and in the case of Israel's tired Gaza policies, there simply is no antidote for bad press. You must either grin and bear it, use some ingenuity to actually change the reality on the ground, or wait for a miracle. Until that day arrives, it is infinitely better to be seen as democratic monster than an undemocratic one.

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