In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about whether or not reporting by foreign press in Gaza can be trusted, due to accounts – some confirmed, some denied – of Hamas threatening and intimidating reporting.
The Jerusalem Post attempted on Thursday to contact ten journalists who reported from Gaza in recent weeks. Of the few who responded most declined to be interviewed, even on condition of anonymity, as they plan to return to Gaza to report.
Christian Stephen, founder of "Freelance Society," a media company specializing in hostile environments and conflict zones, which sub-contracts for The Economist, VICE, Vocativ and other press outlets, agreed to discuss his experience reporting from Gaza, because he is in Israel and heading to Iraq in nine days.
"Hamas can't get me there," he quipped.
Stephen is originally from London, but divides his time between his hometown, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.
For the past four weeks, Stephen was based out of Gaza City, Erez, Jerusalem, Sderot, Netivot and Ashdod, where he covered shelling and rocket attacks from both sides and spent time with IDF soldiers and Hamas fighters. He answered questions from The Jerusalem Post via e-mail from the Israel-Lebanon border, where he is covering the possibility of Hezbollah tunneling into Israel. Stephen's answers are provided in full below.
The Jerusalem Post: Have you been able to take photographs of Hamas fighters or rocket launchers? If not, why not? If yes, can you show us an example?
Christian Stephen: Unfortunately, I don't have any shots for you. I saw a good amount of buildings releasing rocket fire towards Israel. However, the fighters were more or less ghosts in living rooms.
Not to mention the fact that on more than one occasion of venturing towards a possible Hamas spot, by the time we got there the building was dust, rubble and bodies.
JP: How would you assess the conditions for foreign journalists in Gaza?
CS: The conditions within Gaza are as good as can be expected from a densely populated area being bombarded. As far as the access inside, there's a definite sense of urgency for fixers and civilians to display the situation, for absurdly obvious reasons.
Without being political (if it's possible in this arena), regardless of motivations for each sides actions, the situation on the ground is a humanitarian apocalypse consisting of buildings becoming time bombs, the streets becoming morgue runways and the limbs of the dead and the dying marking the street stops. If you put aside the politics, it's a chronologically challenged mass grave with both sides to blame.
So as far as conditions go for foreign journalists, the fact that a press card is sitting snugly in your pocket doesn't change the fact that it's a hellhole.
JP: Have you faced any threats or intimidation from Hamas or Israel?
CS: A fighter inside Gaza city threatened to shoot me in the head if I didn't stop taking pictures of a group of cars with tarp-covered trunks parked behind a building.
Another young guy near the outskirts of the city was waving an old handgun around screaming at me because he wanted me to take a picture of the dead boy on the ground next to us under the rubble of a building. He was screaming "This is our hell! This is our hell!"
After a minute or so he sat down and kept murmuring the same words in Arabic.
It's a dichotomy of them needing the situation to be seen, as long as you only show the damage and not the retaliatory measures.
As for the Israeli side, near Netivot there was a firefight near a Kibbutzim. Hamas fighters had come from under the wire through tunnels. An officer tried to take my camera away after the fact, however, instead they insisted I wouldn't be released until I gave them my SD cards. He argued on the grounds that I was there illegally, although they had been more than happy to smoke and chat beforehand.
The cards were destroyed and I was taken away to a nearby petrol station.
These are obviously isolated incidents, although infuriating nonetheless
JP: Do you fear you will face reprisal from Israel or Hamas when photographing or filming something the authorities may not want made public?
CS: There's always a danger of being a witness in the midst of these situations. Any journalist who professes to observe without bias, feeling or fear is a liar, as well as any journalist who claims they are without apprehension of the consequences when working in a geographic raw nerve. In all honestly it's a fool's errand to even think about appeasing either side. My job is to travel to a location, find a story with as much integrity as the situation can muster, and then bring it back with me. I'm beholden only to the people who read what I write and see what I shoot. The rest is bureaucratic noise.
The reprisals from either side are a threat to be expected; however, in order to do my job properly it's imperative that I do my utmost to simply show what I'm seeing.
I leave the spin and theatrics to the armchair diplomats.
Although I would love to have the interrogations [by airport security] about my trips to Baghdad, Mogadishu, etc. calm down next time I'm flying in or out of Tel Aviv.