GPO: Downgrading Israel's press-freedom ranking 'ridiculous'

Government Press Office head calls NGO Freedom House "useless"; Association for Civil Rights in Israel fighting "big brother" law.

freedom of press 88 (photo credit: AP)
freedom of press 88
(photo credit: AP)
NGO Freedom House is a "useless and ridiculous" organization, Government Press Office head Daniel Seamans charged on Sunday, after it downgraded Israel's press status from "free" to "partly free" in a report released over the weekend. The report was published on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, which was observed on Sunday. The downgrading from 30th to 31st place in world rankings was caused, according to the report, by government actions during Operation Cast Lead, including the barring of foreign and local journalists from Gaza, alleged attempt to influence media coverage within Israel and alleged heightened self-censorship by local media outlets. According to Seamans, the government's decision to prohibit journalists from covering Cast Lead on the spot was a strategic move. Had the foreign press been allowed into Gaza, "their reports would have had a harsh effect on world public opinion and endangered our ability to meet our goals," he said. Seamans added that most of the hundreds of journalists who wanted to enter Gaza knew nothing about armed conflict, particularly armed conflict in built-up areas. They were also unfamiliar with Hamas's skill at manipulating information. Yizhar Be'er, head of the Israeli NGO Keshev, told The Jerusalem Post that "Israel's decision to bar foreign correspondents from entering Gaza was very problematic compared to the norms of behavior in the West. Yet we say we are a Western country with Western norms." He charged that the government had no right to prohibit foreign correspondents from entering Gaza because it was not responsible for their well-being. He was also critical of Israel's refusal to allow entry to local correspondents, even though he said a case could be made for that. The state is responsible for the safety of its citizens and prohibiting their entry into Gaza might be construed as an act of protection, Be'er explained. However, there were Israeli journalists who were willing to forgo the state's protection in order to carry out their journalistic duties. But the government only succeeded in frustrating the hundreds of foreign journalists who wanted to enter Gaza, he said. Aside from restricting freedom of the press without any acceptable reason, the government's move was not in its own self-interest, because it only served to antagonize the foreign correspondents who had come to Israel to cover the fighting. Meanwhile, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Avner Pinchuk, told the Post that the organization was currently involved in a fight against another threat to freedom of the press, this one domestic. Last year, ACRI petitioned the High Court against the "big brother" law, approved by the Knesset on December 17, 2007. The law gives police the right to ask a magistrate's court for permission to order telephone and mobile phone companies to hand over information, including calls made and received by every subscriber in the country and their whereabouts at any given moment. In emergency cases, the police may act without a court order. Pinchuk warned that among other things, the law threatens the right of journalists to conceal their sources of information.