Top media executives protest Israel’s ban on journalists’ entry to Gaza + Open Gaza to media coverage

We are gravely concerned about the prolonged and unprecedented denial of access to the Gaza Strip for the international media,” they wrote in the letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

We would welcome an assurance that access to Gaza for international journalists will be restored immediately in the spirit of Israel’s long-standing commitment to a free press,” reads the letter.

After a recent upsurge in Palestinian rocket fire, Israel closed off Gaza to all but the most vital supplies. The only people allowed in or out are urgent medical cases and a handful of humanitarian workers.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, confirmed that the letter had been received. Journalists were not being singled out, he said, but were affected by a broader decision to close the crossings:

There is no policy to prevent the media from entering Gaza, and the minute the security situation allows for the normal functioning of the crossings, journalists, like all of the others who have been inconvenienced, will be able to return to using the crossings.

The Israeli government has long banned Israeli journalists from entering Gaza because of fears for their safety, but foreign reporters have been permitted to go in, even during times of heavy fighting. In the past two weeks, coverage in Gaza has been largely left to local Palestinian staffers and a handful of foreign journalists who entered before the closure went into effect, including two AP reporters.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel’s Defense Ministry, said journalists would be allowed in only once Gaza militants stopped shooting and said Gaza was being adequately covered by reporters already there.

While he said journalists were not being targeted, Dror also said Israel was displeased with international media coverage, which he said inflated Palestinian suffering and did not make clear that Israel’s measures were in response to Palestinian violence.

Israel pulled all of its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, a withdrawal that was followed by an increase in rocket fire and a takeover by the Islamic militants of Hamas, a group dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

“Where Gaza is concerned, our image will always be bad,” Dror said. “When journalists go in it works against us, and when they don’t go in it works against us.”

Dissatisfaction with coverage would not hold up in court as a reason to bar journalists, said Dalia Dorner, a retired Supreme Court justice who represents Israeli journalists as head of the Israeli Press Council. Only concerns that “grievous harm” could befall state security could provide the legal justification for the Defense Ministry’s ban, she said.

Israel’s Foreign Press Association, which represents international journalists operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, also has condemned the ban.

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said the ban is part of an Israeli policy of isolating Gaza internationally. “This stops outside parties from seeing the crisis taking place in Gaza,” Hamad said.

Since violently seizing control of Gaza last year, Hamas sometimes has harassed journalists, in some cases beating reporters, seizing videotapes and raiding news offices.

The Gaza ban is the latest in a line of difficulties foreign journalists have encountered while covering the Israel-Palestinian conflict. International reporters inside Israel generally enjoy broad freedom, but must pass security checks to receive government certification and are subject to a military censor in all matters related to defense.

A number of journalists have been killed or injured by Israeli security forces during clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and reporters have also been subject to abuse by Palestinian security forces and kidnapped by militants.

The news executives’ letter came as international criticism of the closure grew. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Olmert on Tuesday to express concern about a possible humanitarian crisis in Gaza, home to a largely impoverished population of 1.4 million. A group of 21 aid organizations also charged the closure was harming their Gaza operations. The current European Union president, France, issued an unusually strong protest saying the closure was a “disproportionate response” that would “collectively punish” Gaza’s civilians.

Gazans are facing a shortage of basic goods and fuel. Restaurants and bakeries across the strip are closing as cooking gas runs out.

Ref: Haartez

Open Gaza to media coverage

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was among those who lent their voices to the international protest against Israel’s tightening siege on the Gaza Strip. This past weekend, the heads of the world’s most important media organizations joined the group, protesting in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert against the closure of the Strip to international journalists.

“We are gravely concerned about the prolonged and unprecedented denial of access to the Gaza Strip for the international media, [which contradicts] the spirit of Israel’s long-standing commitment to a free press,” said the letter, which bears the signatures of the chiefs of international news agencies, the presidents of important television networks and the executive editor of The New York Times. In response, the Defense Ministry said the closure of the Strip will be lifted once the rocket fire ceases, and that the international coverage of events in Gaza is unfair toward Israel.

The Gaza Strip has been sealed off from the world’s press for the past two weeks. The closure comes on top of the two-year-old ban on Israeli journalists from entering Gaza. The lone exception is Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass, who reached Gaza a few days ago by sea. The denial of entry to Israeli journalists was met with not one protest, and when Defense Minister Ehud Barak was asked about the subject a few weeks ago, he did not even know there was a ban in force. It is worth remembering that not only the army is entrusted to do its job, but journalists as well. It would behoove Israel’s top defense officials to be wary of harming the media’s ability and freedom to operate, a fundamental requirement in any democracy.
If closing off the Gaza Strip to Israeli coverage can be excused by security considerations, then shutting out foreign journalists is an act of punishment that gives Israel and her democracy a bad name. Freedom of the press is freedom of the press, and any infringement on it is grave.

To serve their function sufficiently, representatives of the Israeli and international press must be in Gaza, just like in any other conflict region around the world. There is no way to cover the events in the Strip without free access to it. Journalists and those who dispatch them can and must take responsibility for their well-being, exactly as they do in every other war zone and conflict area in the world. Journalism is at times a dangerous profession, but no less dangerous is the darkening of a section of a country or a country itself, and preventing free press coverage there. The Israel Press Council, journalist associations, editors, writers, and like them, media consumers in Israel do not have to reconcile with the curbing of a free press. They must raise their voices in protest.

The heads of the defense establishment are called upon to immediately lift the media closure. Neither the content of media coverage – whether it is interpreted as favorable to Israel or not – nor the nature of the regime in power in Gaza – whether Fatah or Hamas – nor the level of risk to journalists should be a factor influencing journalists’ ability to enter the Strip. A Gaza Strip closed to media coverage harms Israel’s image and endangers the character of its polity more than any negative article written about it.

Ref: By Haaretz Editorial

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