Israel 'controls' Gaza message

2009-01-16 09:41

Jerusalem - The Israeli military took about a dozen foreign reporters on a rare foray into the Gaza Strip on a day when a bombardment killed the Hamas security chief and an Israel shell landed on the United Nations headquarters there.

But the journalists saw none of the action on Thursday. Their 30-minute drive from an army base near the border took them to an unpopulated area where a commander arrived in a tank, gave a statement and answered a few questions. They saw no troops, no combat.

If Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon was a media free-for-all, its offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza has been a model of media control.

Journalists are barred from freely entering the war zone. They are granted only limited access even when embedded with Israeli troops, which is rare. And military interviews, few and far between, have been tightly controlled.

The military also has closed off large sections of southern Israel to reporters and a number of journalists who have gone into those areas have been arrested. Photographers have had their disks erased.

The military has explained its restrictions in southern Israel by noting large concentrations of forces there. Israeli officials, addressing the larger issue of banning reporters from Gaza, have said that journalists would be in danger if they entered.

Policy matter

Also, they say that many journalists would relay the views of Hamas without checking their facts, leading to a distorted picture of the conflict - admitting that banning reporters is a policy matter, not security.

Media outlets have criticised Israel's tactics for severely inhibiting the free flow of information from the Israeli assault on Hamas militants in Gaza, a story that has captured world attention as Israeli forces penetrated civilian areas and the Palestinian death toll rises to 1 088, according to Palestinian health officials. Thirteen Israelis have been killed.

The Foreign Press Association, representing journalists covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court and won limited access to Gaza - which had been blocked more than a month before the Israeli offensive began, a period of relative tranquillity.

But the army has not complied with the ruling to the satisfaction of the FPA, which rejects the miltary's claim that allowing groups of reporters into Gaza briefly under strict supervision is compliance.

"It is not just the journalists. They are keeping a lid on broad information that is important in terms of being able to fight the war they want to fight," said Gad Wolfsfeld, a communications professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noting that soldiers are banned from taking their cell phones into battle.

"I think the conclusion from the last war was, right or wrong, the less said, the better, and the less filmed, the better.

Backfired in the past

Wolfsfeld said the move seems to be helping Israel control the message, but he noted the tactic has backfired in the past.

During the 2002 invasion of the West Bank town of Jenin, media barred from the area relied on Palestinian accounts reporting that some 500 people had been massacred. When UN officials were later granted access to the site, it was revealed the number of dead was closer to 50.

The Israeli military even cited Jenin in 2005 when it gave free access to its withdrawal from Gaza.

But then came the Lebanon war of 2006. Not only did foreign reporters roam freely, but soldiers called in their complaints about inadequate training and equipment to Israeli television. Foreign media - who could access the zone from Lebanon anyway - were granted free movement and easy access even to the upper echelon of the military.

By contrast, the government even tightly controlled an interview it set up with a fighter pilot earlier this week, handlers instructing the pilot not to answer certain questions as authorities sought to illustrate how the military avoids civilian casualties.

Friction between the government and the media heightened on Thursday after Israeli attacks in Gaza struck two high-rise buildings housing international media, injuring two journalists in a Palestinian media centre two floors above the offices of Reuters news agency.

'Unconscionable breaches'

Bullets also flew into the office of The Associated Press in another building several hundred yards away, entering a room where two staffers were working. No one was injured.

The Foreign Press Association has demanded a halt to the kind of attacks that hit the buildings, saying the Israeli military was "severely violating basic principles of respect for press freedom."

The organisation called the attacks and other restrictions "unconscionable breaches" and demanded a formal apology.

The military in a statement said that it only targets buildings or locations "from which fire on (Israeli) troops or civilians emanates", saying the Hamas terrorist organisation that the 20-day old offensive is targeting "deliberately and cynically operates from within civilian areas."

Both The Associated Press and Reuters had provided the military with the co-ordinates and address of the office.

"The military knows what it is, and where it is, and have assured us it is not a target," said Julian Rake, Reuters deputy bureau chief in Jerusalem.

But Rake said his staffers and other journalists in the building were certain that "at no stage" did militants fire from inside the building.