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Israel is reputedly the most reported upon country per capita in the world. The bulky size of our press corps always seemed to say something about correspondents' pleasure at being stationed in this land of high-stakes stories, easy access to sources and a voluble population. Not to mention abundant food and comfy lodgings.
A regular media haven, or so I thought.
But then the latest Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index was published. I was disappointed to see how low we were ranked: 50 out of 168 on a scale with Finland at No. 1 and North Korea at 168.
But before you think "not so bad" considering other international evaluations, skim down the list and notice that Israel actually appears twice. We earned 50th place for freedom of reporting within Israel; we're at 135, tied with Azerbaijan and one lower than the Palestinian Authority, in what's called "Israel extra-territorial." Not quite North Korea, but closer to the despotic end of the axis. We share the distinction of having a double rating only with the US (53 and 119 for inside the US and "extra-territorial" respectively).
Considering the frequency with which journalists are kidnapped in the PA areas, and the open threats to journalists who produce unflattering profiles, you might expect the Palestinians to have a lower rating than us. But foreign reporters in Gaza, many of whom choose to live in Israel, seem even more peeved by alleged Israeli harassment than Palestinian intimidation or even kidnapping. Is this a question of expectations?
While it's true that all the reporters and cameramen who were snatched by Palestinians were eventually freed, the ordeal must be terrifying. For example, the Holy Jihad forced Fox correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, and cameraman Oleg Wiig, 35 to convert to Islam at gunpoint last August.
The index has a distinct and puzzling manner of calculation. Higher rated than Israel is the country of Benin (as distinct from the city in Nigeria by that name). How many of us can find it on a map? (Hint: it used to be called Dahomey.) And what is the size of the press corps there?
Last year, Denmark tied with Finland in modeling freedom of the press. But this year it nose-dived to 19th place because of the threats against the authors of the Muhammad cartoons published there in autumn 2005. Denmark actually lost points for this expression of freedom because "journalists had to have police protection due to threats against them because of their work."
I would have awarded points for the newspaper's courage to stand up for freedom of the press.
ON THE other hand, Yemen (149th) tumbled four places because the government arrested several journalists and closed newspapers for reprinting the cartoons.
Not to downplay freedom of the press or to patronize the stories of any country, but I'd guess that questions of freedom of the press in top-rated Finland are easier than those in Israel. Domestic issues certainly grab a smaller portion of international attention. I took a random glance through domestic stories this week from Helsingin Sanomat's international edition, which is printed in English. Prominent was a story about flood control, another about gray seals killing tons of rainbow trout and a third on an ethnologist researching the history of the Finnish bed. Another Finnish publication featured the environmental hazards of new slim models of Finnish-made cellphones falling into toilets and consequently into sewer systems.
TO ITS CREDIT, last month Reporters Without Borders dispatched a committee to the Gaza Strip to make sense of the deteriorating press situation and come up with suggestions. According to the organization's claims in 2006, the IDF threatened or "attacked" 16 journalists and wrecked the premises of three news media, while Palestinians themselves caused damage to seven Palestinian news media by setting them on fire or smashing equipment, attacked at least four journalists and kidnapped six foreign journalists in the Gaza Strip.
The IDF earned credit for improving its behavior toward journalists by adopting suggestions from the international monitoring body, and both Israel and the Palestinians expressed goodwill. A continuing complaint is that the troubling incidents toward the press aren't fully investigated in Israel, and the kidnappers aren't even prosecuted in Gaza.
After interviewing IDF and PA government officials from Fatah and Hamas, the committee members also met with members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine plus Islamic Jihad, urging them to respect journalistic freedom and not use the media for propaganda purposes.
The report contains an interesting suggestion. RWB previously came out against special IDs for journalists that might make them the target of hostility: "Identifying oneself as a journalist in Iraq or Afghanistan significantly increases the risks to which one is exposed." But the committee suggested reversing this stand vis-a-vis the PA: "In some cases it could provide additional protection in the Palestinian territories, where journalists face a regular and professional army."
I'm not sure about the second part of this sentence. Who does RWB refer to as a "regular and professional army"? In any case, the proposal underlines the awareness here of the importance of press coverage as part of the conflict. Both sides care about reporting, and would be less likely to harass or endanger reporters if they could identify them.
RWB proposes "to rapidly bring together Palestinian and Israeli journalists, politicians from both camps and Israeli military officials to discuss this question and find a solution that would reduce the risks to which journalists working in the Palestinian territories are exposed."
Bringing all the camps together: Now there's a worthy if ambitious goal, and one that builds on the fraternity of the Fourth Estate to overcome identification with various sectarian causes.
I'd suggest avoiding armbands and forehead bands because of the cultural associations. Maybe reflector jackets similar to those we now carry in our cars, but flak jackets, although they're hot in the summer. There would have to be a way to differentiate between authentic media and nefarious imposters or those just seeking a measure of safety. Remember all those cars that taped "TV" on the side to decrease the chances of drive-by shootings in the intifada. Whatever is chosen could contain a global position bug, just in case the goodwill is a little less than idyllic.
Do you think we could trade our media vests for the Finns' slim cellphones?
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