ISRAEL‘S ACTIONS AGAINST THE MEDIA DURING THE GAZA CONFLICT
Based on dozens of interviews with journalists in Israel and Gaza, along with an extensive review of documents and news accounts, CPJ has compiled this account of Israeli restrictions on the press and military strikes against media facilities between November 2008 and February 2009.
Foreign journalists banned, media movements restricted
On November 5, 2008, without any prior notification to media organizations, Israel’s military authorities stopped allowing foreign journalists into the Gaza Strip. Government officials said crossing into Gaza would be limited to the most urgent humanitarian cases.
Responding to international and domestic protests, the government lifted the ban on the entry of foreign reporters into Gaza on December 4, only to reinstate it the next day. Crossings were opened sporadically for brief periods over the next three weeks, according to CPJ research. It is not clear how many, if any, journalists crossed into the occupied territory during these short, unannounced periods.
A full ban was in place throughout the three-week-long military offensive in Gaza. (In the waning days of the conflict, a handful of international journalists managed to reach Gaza through the Egyptian-administered Rafah Crossing.)
In addition, on December 27, Israeli defense officials imposed extensive “closed military zones” inside Gaza and throughout a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) strip around its perimeter. International standards, while affirming the right of states to impose such closed zones, say that such action must be taken sparingly and within the narrowest scope required by concrete and legitimate military objectives.
Supreme Court decision ignored
On November 19, 2008, the heads of dozens of the world’s leading news organizations protested the ban in a letter to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Foreign Press Association in Israel (FPA) petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court on November 24, asking it to rule on the legality of the ban.
The next day, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond to the FPA’s inquiry within 15 days. The government failed to meet that deadline. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) finally responded to the press association on January 15, 2009, saying that it does “not prevent journalists from entering Gaza” and that “15 journalists have entered the Gaza Strip together with IDF forces.”
These journalists, however, were handpicked by the Israeli military and remained embedded with Israeli troops. CPJ and other press groups noted this situation was not a substitute for full access for independent journalists, a position the Supreme Court would later affirm.
On December 31, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must grant 12 journalists entry into Gaza each time the Erez Crossing on the northern end of the strip was opened. The government failed to respond to the court’s decision. In an effort to orchestrate a compromise between the government and the FPA, the court recommended on January 2 that eight foreign journalists–two chosen by the defense ministry and six picked through a lottery–be granted access each time the Erez Crossing was opened.
The government failed to implement either the December 31 ruling or the court’s subsequent recommendation until four days after it had declared a unilateral cease-fire on January 18. On January 22, Israeli authorities granted access to a total of eight journalists–far fewer than the number ordered by the Supreme Court.
By then, with a cease-fire in place, the rationale for the restriction had ceased to exist. The next day, Israel removed all the restrictions it had put in place in early November.
On January 25, the Supreme Court issued a final ruling on the issue, overturning the blanket ban on the entry of foreign journalists and stating that reporters are to be granted access to Gaza “unless the security situation changes drastically in such a way that the Erez Crossing has to be closed completely for security reasons, and we assume that this will happen only in dire circumstances of concrete danger.”
Conflicting government justifications
The government offered shifting explanations for its sweeping restrictions on access.
In November, a spokesman for the coordinator of government activities in the territories said there was no ban on journalists per se. The spokesman, Peter Lerner, described the closing of all Gaza Strip crossings as a comprehensive measure that happened to include the press.
Once full-scale military operations commenced on December 27, Israeli officials acknowledged that media restrictions were in place, but issued inconsistent and even adversarial statements in explaining the ban. Danny Seaman, director of Israel’s Government Press Office, described foreign media as a “fig leaf” for Hamas, according to The New York Times. On another occasion, he described foreign journalists as “unprofessional” and charged that they take “questionable reports at face value without checking,” The Associated Press reported. Later, government officials said journalists were being kept out of Gaza for their own safety or the safety of Israeli staff operating the crossing.
One Israeli official even blamed journalists themselves for the ongoing ban. Ron Proser, Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, claimed on January 7 that infighting at the FPA about the pool of journalists to be admitted was preventing the press from entering Gaza. The press association categorically denied the assertion.
On January 22, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported a split in the government over press access to Gaza. The newspaper, citing official correspondence, said the defense ministry and the IDF had dropped their objections to opening Gaza to journalists in mid-January. Haaretz went on to quote a letter from a defense ministry attorney to the prime minister’s office. “The prime minister has ordered that foreign journalists be prevented from entering the Strip,” the attorney wrote. He said he was told by the prime minister’s office “that there is public relations interest for not letting journalists in, though this was not a compelling enough reason.”
Palestinian and international media targeted
With all but a handful of foreign journalists kept out of Gaza, Palestinian journalists working for local and international news organizations brought the news of the IDF’s military assault to audiences worldwide as they came under frequent attack. (The mobility of many of these Palestinian journalists was already limited by the lack of Israeli media accreditation.)
Local and international media facilities were struck by Israeli fire on four occasions during the 22-day military offensive. During that time, the IDF also took over the frequencies of Al-Aqsa TV and Sawt al-Sha’b radio multiple times to beam Israeli military propaganda.
On December 28, the IDF bombed Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV in Gaza City, destroying the building that housed the station’s headquarters and studios. The bombing did not cause any fatalities; the station’s management had evacuated the building the previous day.
On January 5, the IDF fired two missiles into the offices of the Hamas-affiliated Al-Risala newspaper, destroying nearly all of its equipment. No employees were killed or injured in the attack, which took place at night, although structural damage forced the residential occupants of the building to leave. Minutes after the strike, the IDF bombed the commercial printing press used by Al-Risala. There were no casualties in that strike. The newspaper had not appeared on newsstands since December 30 due to the Israeli offensive, which prevented staff from getting to work.
On January 9, an IDF airstrike hit the rooftop of Al-Johara Tower, a building in Gaza City housing dozens of international news agencies, television stations, and newspapers. At least one journalist was injured in the strike, which also rendered satellite transmission equipment inoperable. That day, Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, told Al-Jazeera that the potential use of communications equipment by Hamas made the strike lawful.
Six days later, the IDF fired at least one missile at Al-Shuruq Tower, another major media building that housed Reuters, Fox News, Al-Arabiya, and other news outlets. The bureau chief and a cameraman from Abu Dhabi TV were injured in the attack, which also destroyed power generators and forced the evacuation of the building. Multiple news organizations reported that they provided the Israeli military with coordinates for their offices.
Failure to meet international standards
Israel’s actions on media access to Gaza contravened international legal principles. The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of 1995, an amalgam of general principles of international law and customary international law, states that governments “may not exclude journalists … from areas that are experiencing violence or armed conflict except where their presence would pose a clear risk to the safety of others.” It adds that the “burden of demonstrating the validity of the restriction rests with the government.” The blanket ban instituted by Israel in November 2008, which remained in effect largely uninterrupted until January 23, 2009, did not meet this standard.
The attacks sustained by journalists and media installations during the three-week military campaign also raise questions as to whether Israel met international legal standards. The laws of war governing Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza require it to take all necessary measure to avoid harming or killing journalists. The attacks detailed above indicate otherwise.
Research compiled by Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.