January 6, 2009
Minister of Defense
37 Kaplan Street
Via facsimile: 972-3-691-6940
Dear Minister Barak,
Dear Minister Barak,
The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on you to explain why you have imposed blanket restrictions on international media entering the Gaza Strip and certain areas inside Israel along the Gaza border.
Israel prides itself on being an open society with a free and vibrant press. Yet by preventing journalists from covering its military offensive in Gaza, Israel is betraying its own democratic principles. It is also denying the world access to fact-based reporting. News organizations whose reporters are camped outside Gaza looking in have few reliable ways of quickly checking claims by either side.
Hundreds of journalists have arrived in Israel since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began their campaign on December 27 aimed at halting rocket fire from Gaza. Authorities say these and the 900 or so other media personnel already in Israel working for international news outlets cannot cross into Gaza for safety reasons. Israel has barred its own citizens from entering Gaza for the past two years, citing security fears. But the ban on international journalists is less than two months old and had been enforced sporadically until the latest military offensive.
The Foreign Press Association in Israel appealed the ban to the Supreme Court, which last week suggested a compromise that would allow a small group of international journalists to file pool reports from Gaza. The IDF agreed to allow eight journalists in through the Erez crossing in northern Gaza but scrapped the plan on Monday, supposedly for security reasons, even as relief workers and others were admitted into Gaza. Although crossings have been opened more than once since the Israeli offensive on Gaza started, no journalists have been allowed to enter.
Danny Seaman, the director of the Government Press Office, was quoted on Monday as saying that the opening of the Erez checkpoint would endanger staff at the terminal, which has been attacked by Hamas militants in the past. He went on, however, to say that the absence of international journalists was good for Israel, because Hamas militants fabricate coverage to make Israel look bad, according to The Associated Press.
"And they get away with it because of the unprofessional cooperation of the foreign press, which takes questionable reports at face value without checking," Seaman added. Today, he was quoted in The New York Times as saying that "any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that."
Israel has a long history of allowing international journalists to cover conflict. Why is it now restricting all access to a conflict zone? What is the legal basis for this restriction on the free movement of journalists?
While all sovereign states retain the right to deny journalists access to certain areas, basic rules of international law dictate that states are obliged to do so sparingly and for legitimate and specific security reasons.
States may exclude journalists only when they can demonstrate that the mere presence of journalists poses a clear risk to the lives of others. Restriction of all access to an entire conflict zone for unspecified safety reasons simply cannot suffice.
Our colleagues in the Foreign Press Association in Israel want to cover the story. They are experienced reporters and know the risks involved. The IDF should respect their judgment and lift restrictions on international media immediately.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.