Media Matters: When a ban is a boost

Forbidding foreign journalists from entering Gaza fosters, rather than fetters, freedom of speech.

cameraman 88 (photo credit: )
cameraman 88
(photo credit: )
I must be one of the only members of my profession who supported the ban - imposed last month, following the renewal of rocket fire - on the entry of foreign journalists into Gaza. Lest this be misconstrued as personal or political, let me set the record straight. My favoring of the temporary policy was not the result of some kind of professional schadenfreude, stemming from the fact that while foreign-press access to the Hamas stronghold has only been limited sporadically and for brief periods, we locals haven't been allowed in there since the terrorist organization took over two years ago. Nor was altruistic concern for the safety of individual reporters or photographers at the root of my support. War correspondents are a particular brave breed, who recognize and accept the risks involved in the line of their duty. Nor did my approval derive from a desire to penalize those of my counterparts whose coverage of The Conflict reflects the opposite of my take on it - no matter how much they set my teeth on edge. No, the reason I welcomed the ban is that I hold freedom of speech even more dear than my opinions. This is why my solution to the indigestion I get when reading or watching certain reports is to go for the Tums, not promote censorship. Heartburn may hurt like hell, but a world without freedom actually is hell. And, as prized possessions tend to be, freedom is costly. The price we who enjoy it are forced to pay is not being able to pick and choose which voices are heard and which suppressed. No wonder dictators and tyrants oppose it - and us - so vehemently. Where dissent is not tolerated, the unfettered flow of ideas is the true enemy. The current global battle is between those who can say and write anything they see fit and those who would deny them that right. It is as mysterious as it is disturbing, then, when the former opt to lobby for the latter, or fall prey unwittingly to their propaganda. But it is still their prerogative, just as it is mine to try to persuade them and others that they are wrong. This, after all, is what democracy's all about. It was thus legitimate for the Foreign Press Association (FPA) to go as ballistic as a Kassam over the Gaza ban, and to take measures to have it reversed. One such measure was a written appeal to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, signed by the bureau chiefs of all the major news organizations. Another, when the first failed, was to petition the High Court of Justice. A decision is still pending, but it doesn't really matter now, because as we went to press, the BBC reported that journalists were allowed back in. This is not surprising, really, since the ban was not directed at the press specifically. Rather, it was a move to keep the border temporarily closed to everyone, other than suppliers of humanitarian goods. In any case, once FPA chairman Steven Gutkin called it "a serious problem for freedom of the press," and asserted, "We serve as the window for the world into Gaza," the Foreign Ministry got nervous. All the world would be seeing with a ban in place, ministry officials claimed, is a bunch of journalists forbidden by big bad Israel from revealing the "real" story beyond the border. THIS WOULD be funny if it weren't so sad. In the first place, the reportage emerging from Gaza, well before the ban went into effect, focused far more on the "humanitarian crisis" caused by the Israeli blockade than on the massive weapons build-up and missile launchers aimed at Israeli cities. So, the claim that the ban would lead to bad press is ridiculous. Furthermore, Hamas - as was the case with its counterpart, Hizbullah, during the Second Lebanon War - does not allow for the free flow of information from its side to the outside. Intimidation, threats and actual violence are the tools these groups employ to ensure that the press present solely the version of events that serves the interest of their radical cause. Indeed, the only use terrorist organizations have ever had for the Western media is manipulative at best and murderous at worst. Take the case of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, held captive by the Army of Islam for 114 days in 2007. Or that of Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl, beheaded in 2002 for investigating links between al-Qaida and Pakistani intelligence - links that emerged in full blast last week in Mumbai, where Pearl had been stationed. THE INABILITY of journalists to do their job properly when under the watchful eye - and gun - of anti-Western forces is nothing new. Columnist and author Ze'ev Chafets, who served as the director of Israel's Government Press Office from 1977-1982, described this very phenomenon in his 1985 book Double Vision: How America's Press Distorts Our View of the Middle East. Though Chafets was writing about the first war in Lebanon, what he wrote then could just as easily have been written today: "In conformity with the PLO-dependent security system, Western reporters ghettoized themselves and became, in effect, accomplices to their own isolation and supervision. They clustered around the Palestinian-run Commodore (Hotel) where they knew their movements, contacts and outgoing communications would be monitored. Some of those with separate offices in the city found that they needed local Palestinian employees in order to establish contacts and guide them through the complexities of life in Beirut. These assistants were, in many cases, subject to the discipline of the PLO; and if the organization was circumspect in its dealing with most of the foreign reporters, it could afford to be far less so in its demands on its fellow Palestinians or Lebanese Muslims. Even reporters aware of the fact that their local employees might be a conduit to PLO intelligence were loath to give them up; in many cases such people were an invaluable buffer." What this means is that even the best-intentioned, most professional, least biased reporters, when located in places like Gaza, are not at liberty to serve as any "window" worth looking through. As a champion of freedom of speech and a member of the media, I'd take a lack of information over controlled - censored - coverage any day. Too bad my colleagues in the foreign press feel otherwise.