Jerusalem — Israel, considered a bastion of press freedom in the Middle East, is the only country in the region to achieve “Free Press” status in Freedom of the Press 2015, the latest edition of an annual report published by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world.
But that doesn’t mean Israel, which ranked 61st (along with |Mauritius and Samoa) out of 148 rankings of the 199 countries and territories assessed in 2014, always provides journalists with free access to sensitive information.
This lack of access was a focal point of the International Conference on the Freedom of the Press held late last month at the Jerusalem Press Club.
The report noted that while Israel’s laws and open-minded society encourage rigorous scrutiny of individuals and government officials, the government prohibits Israeli journalists from entering Gaza for their own safety, making it impossible to report from there. And Israel's refusal to issue press credentials to some Palestinian journalists has prompted the Palestinian Ministry of Communications in the West Bank to withhold press credentials to some Israeli journalists.
According to the report, Israel was among only 63 countries or territories (32 percent) rated “free,” while 36 percent were “partly free” and 32 percent “not free.”
Globally, “journalists faced intensified pressure from all sides in 2014,” Jennifer Dunham, project manager of the report, wrote in the document’s introduction, which noted that Press Freedom in 2014 was at a 10-year low.
“Governments used security or anti-terrorism laws as a pretext to silence critical voices, militant groups and criminal gangs used increasingly brazen tactics to intimidate journalists, and media owners attempted to manipulate news content to serve their political or business interests,” Dunham wrote.
The Israel conference — attended by 40 journalists and press freedom advocates from 26 countries and territories, including Bosnia, Mongolia, Liberia, Turkey, Kosovo and the West Bank — described these limitations and the dangers they face in the line of duty.
Samer Shalabi, a veteran cameraman for CBC and the first Palestinian chairman of the Israel Foreign Press Association, said both Israeli and Palestinian officials often make it difficult for journalists to do their jobs.
“Freedom of the press is a dream, not a reality,” Shalabi said during the panel discussion “Reporting from the War Zones.”
“I've never seen freedom of the press here [in Israel], not here, not in Gaza, the West Bank or anywhere else,” he said. “Of course in Egypt and Saudi Arabia it’s much worse than here.”
Referring to Israeli limitations on Palestinian journalists, Shalabi related how, that very morning, it had taken him more than two hours to travel from Ramallah in the West Bank to Jerusalem due to backed-up Israeli checkpoints that give no preference to journalists vetted by Israel. The distance between the two cities in just 17 km, he noted, adding that Palestinian cars are not allowed into Israel.
In his role as FPA chair during last summer's war, Shalabi said he was constantly calling the IDF and Hamas to ask “Why can't journalists go here? Why can't journalists go there?”
“I felt everyone tried to prevent something, to limit movement or the story itself,” he said.
IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, who sat on the same panel, said West Bank checkpoints are backed up because Israel has actually increased the number of Palestinians it allows to enter Israel.
But Lerner acknowledged that Israel’s security forces sometimes limit journalists’ ability to enter a military zone or even the site of a terror attack.
“We have to facilitate journalists in a transparent way that does not jeopardize our forces’ security,” he said, and related how, in 2006, TV networks were reporting Israeli troops’ military moves into Lebanon, something that threatened the troops’ safety.
Asked by The Jewish Week why the Israeli government has long forbidden Israeli journalists (even those with dual passports) from entering Gaza, he replied, “Because the situation today is unsafe for Israelis to be in Gaza. Hamas dug tunnels to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians.”
The restriction, which angers many Israeli journalists, “comes up frequently,” Lerner said. “It’s a policy that should be reviewed from time to time.”
Some, like Georges Malbrunot, a French reporter for Le Figaro who worked in Israel before moving to Iraq more than a decade ago (he left in 2005 after he was kidnapped and held hostage for 124 days), said reporting in Israel was by far the easier gig.
“If you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are rules,” Malbrunot said. If the IDF blocks access, “you can call Peter Lerner,” he said, smiling at the IDF spokesman. “There is organized chaos, but there are interlockers.”
In Syria, Malbrunot said, “there is no one to call.”
The war correspondent said it’s possible to travel to Homs,” the embattled city in western Syria, “but you can’t cross the lines” from rebel-held areas to government-held areas. “Journalists are used as a tool for kidnappings” and extorting ransoms.
There are, he said, “no front lines.”
Malbrunot said that journalists now covering Syria “must rely more and more on fixers,” the locals who serve as translators and arrange visits.” In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza “you have information and propaganda” disseminated by the different parties, “but you also have international NGOs and other sources to give you a balance of information.”
Today in Syria “There are no diplomats [left], no NGOs except the Red Cross. It's a problem having access to independent sources,” the journalist said.
Malbrunot also advised Israeli journalists with dual passports to chill out when it comes to their government’s Gaza entry policy.
“In Gaza there were no journalists abducted until 2008. That’s changed, and it’s a sign that the situation is getting bad and people are ready to enjoy the chaos.”
In Gaza, Malbrunot said, “they don't consider you American. They consider you Israeli,” with all inherent dangers that entails.