Foreign press decry GPO warning against joining flotilla

Journalists covering flotilla on boats face 10-year entry ban; group says move "raises questions about Israel's commitment to freedom of press."

Oren Helman Habara_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Oren Helman Habara_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel’s warning to journalists participating in the upcoming flotilla that they risk being barred from the country for 10 years raises “serious questions about Israel’s commitment” to press freedom, the Foreign Press Association said in a statement Sunday.
The statement came in response to a letter Government Press Office Director Oren Helman sent to representatives of the foreign media in Israel. In it he warned journalists against participation in the voyage, stating sanctions would be taken against those who do take part.
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“As the director of the Government Press Office, I would like to make it clear to you and to the media that you represent, that participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for 10 years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions,” Helman wrote.
“I implore you to avoid taking part in this provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself and to knowingly violate Israeli law,” he continued.
Helman wrote that the flotilla was a “dangerous provocation” intended to aid Hamas, “which the world defines as an extremist Islamic terrorist organization.”
He said the blockade was imposed on Gaza because of attempts to smuggle weapons and terrorists into the area.
“The flotilla intends to knowingly violate the blockade that has been declared legally, and is in accordance with all treaties and international law. The government of Israel has instructed the IDF not to allow the flotilla to reach its goal,” he wrote.
The Foreign Press Association, said the government “threat to punish journalists covering the Gaza flotilla sends a chilling message to the international media, and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.” It also called on the government to immediately reverse the decision.
“Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation,” the statement said.
Helman did not coordinate his letter with the Foreign Ministry, even though the ministry is in daily contact with the foreign press, ministry sources said.
One official said that the menacing tone of the letter was harmful to Israel’s image, and that Helman should have simply informed the media representatives of Israel’s policies toward those trying to enter the country illegally – without issuing any specific threats.
The Foreign Ministry has made clear that the country’s policy toward the flotilla is that if the vessels are towed into Ashdod, their passengers – regardless of their profession – will be seen as individuals trying to illegally enter Israel.
As such, the regulations that govern illegal entry are that they be given three days to appeal the courts to stay in Israel – and if they waive that right, they will be deported to their country of origin and be subject to a 10- year travel ban.
“There was no reason for the GPO head to direct this policy specifically at journalists,” the official said.