Behind the Lines: Hidden truths about the news from Gaza

Relief about Johnston's release shouldn't stop us from probing uncertain media practices in a war zone.

johnston haniyeh 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
johnston haniyeh 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Alan Johnston is now a national hero in Britain and other places around the world, and that is how it should be. He is a brave and conscientious newsman who, despite having endured the ordeal of a 114-day incarceration - during which his life was continually at risk - merely a few hours after his release remarkably still had enough of his journalistic instincts about him to deliver a vivid description of his capture and time in captivity, at what must have been for him an exhausting press conference. But the excitement and joy surrounding his liberation shouldn't allow us to forget that there are still a number of serious questions arising from his case about the way journalists operate in areas of conflict, reporting on the warfare and its victims, and how too often they themselves become the story. Writing about the BBC's coverage of the Middle East is always like venturing into a minefield. Everyone has a strongly held opinion on the conduct of the world's largest news organization, which doesn't usually brook criticism easily. In this case, when one of its own was actually in mortal danger, its defensive instincts were especially sharp. The Jerusalem Post's former editor, Bret Stephens, wrote a few weeks ago in his Wall Street Journal column that the BBC "seemed to operate in the Palestinian Authority with a sense of political impunity" and therefore "might have felt relatively comfortable posting Mr. Johnston in a place no other news agency dared to go." He was immediately taken to task in a blog on the BBC's Web site written by Fran Unsworth, the head of newsgathering, who termed his column "a scurrilous piece of journalism." Unsworth denied the charge that the BBC had been complacent about Johnston's safety, dragging into the debate the murder of the Journal's Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. She totally ignored the main context of Stephens's column, that the BBC had always seen the situation in Gaza as part of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, downplaying the violent rift within Palestinian society, a perspective that affected not only its reporting but also the assessment of the danger to its own employee. The decision to send a reporter into a war zone is the most difficult call a news editor has to make. The fact that quite often it is the reporter who is most eager to go only makes the decision harder. Ultimately, it is the man or woman in the field who can best assess how dangerous a situation really is; the bosses back in the home office have to accept, or reject, the reporter's judgment. But the fact that for more than a year, the BBC was the only Western news organization with a reporter permanently based in Gaza wasn't only because the others had left fearing for their lives. Even during much more peaceful times, only a relatively small number of Western journalists were based in the Strip full time. Most of the media, even the wealthiest, preferred to maintain a bureau in Jerusalem, whose reporters made frequent journeys to Gaza and made wide use of Palestinian stringers living there. It was a matter of comfort as much as of safety, Gaza not being the most salubrious of postings. And after all, it's less than a two-hour drive from the American Colony Hotel's cocktail garden - so why slum it? Even Johnston, who certainly deserves credit for enduring the hardships of everyday life in Gaza, preferred to use his foreigner's freedom of movement for various purposes - on the day of his kidnapping, he had returned from a dentist's appointment in Jerusalem. But Johnston and the BBC managers believed that it was worthwhile to have a reporter living in Gaza, and from a pure news perspective, they were quite right. SINCE YASSER Arafat's death almost three years ago, the story has moved from the Jerusalem-Ramallah area to Gaza. Disengagement, the rise of Hamas, the capture of Gilad Schalit, the IDF operations and the bloody showdown between Hamas and Fatah over the last year all happened in the South. But during this very period, Western news organizations scaled down their Gaza presence. To all but the tutored eye, these changes were imperceptible, as photographs and footage continued to come out of Gaza. But they were produced exclusively by local cameramen, who - if not Hamas sympathizers - definitely are under orders not to show any undesirable scenes. Print journalists, including those working for the most prestigious newspapers and see themselves as bastions of ethics, also had to rely increasingly on copy from their Palestinian stringers, all of whom were being closely monitored by Hamas and other armed groups. When the kidnappings of foreign journalists began about a year and a half ago, they went largely unreported. In private, a number of reporters and those who work with them have admitted they preferred not to mention the fact so as not "to stir things up" and endanger their ties with the local potentates. Nor has the daily intimidation of Palestinian journalists who were interested in bringing out the real story received anything near sufficient attention. Johnston was one of the few journalists who actually reported on the wave of kidnappings, but the BBC, along with the rest of the international media, shoulders part of the blame for the skewed view of the Gaza situation. It was always easier to report on the casualties caused by Israeli attacks than on the victims of internecine fighting. The BBC claims that its management and Johnston were fully aware of the dangers and thus he kept a low profile while other necessary precautions were taken. At the same time, it never tired of telling us during the months of his captivity how much he was loved by local residents for walking their streets without bodyguards. Whether this validates Stephens's criticism that the BBC felt its reporter enjoyed an immunity his other Western colleagues did not have, or we accept the view that bodyguards only impede a journalist's work, there is no question that the BBC took pride in the fact that it had the only remaining Western journalist in Gaza. It is a badge of honor for which it paid dearly. Even after the kidnapping, out of concern for Johnston's safety, many reports obscured details that were widely known about the captors and their ties to Hamas. WHY WAS the media so reluctant to admit that Gaza had become a no-go zone for reporters? For a start, journalists never like to admit to weakness. Even in cases where the precautions are justified, no one wants to say out loud that he is afraid to go into the danger zone alone. The "embedded" system used at the beginning of the Iraq war attracted a good deal of criticism, because reporters were to a large degree "controlled" by the coalition forces to which they were attached, and saw things from only one perspective. But it remained the only effective and relatively safe way to report on the war, and all major news organizations availed themselves of it. Those who set out to report the war "independently" quite often found themselves being coerced by the Iraqis, and after that by the insurgents, to a much greater degree than the embeds. But, aside from the safety issue, there has also been a tendency to downplay Palestinian divisions, even when they were directly threatening reporters and other foreigners in Gaza, and to continue showing events through the prism of the conflict with Israel. For the past 20 years, ever since the beginning of the first intifada, the international media organizations have built their operations in Gaza around the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, and they just weren't prepared to change their mindset to tune in to a different situation. In a memo to his reporters six months ago, the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, attributed the fragmentation of Palestinian society to "the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel's military activities, land expropriation and settlement building - and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas-led government." Is there any hope that Johnston's ordeal and last month's bloodbath in Gaza will disabuse the BBC and others of these notions? I wouldn't bank on it. The BBC might have had the rare courtesy not to blame Israel directly for the kidnapping, but the rush to credit Hamas for Johnston's release, even though he was originally taken prisoner by a group with close ties with Hamas and that Hamas had done nothing to free him for the first three months of his incarceration, is worrisome. Just as worrisome is the recasting of Hamas as the law-and-order force in Gaza, not least by Johnston himself in his appearances this week, when only three weeks ago its members were busy throwing their Fatah opponents out of 15th-floor windows. The BBC is usually at the top of the list of news organizations accused of anti-Israel bias, but Israel has survived decades of hostile press relatively unscathed. It should realize that this current style of coverage - by conferring legitimacy on a group of bloodthirsty cynics - is doing much more harm to the Palestinians themselves.