Covering Gaza Israel Shuts Out World Press


Part 2: 'Criminal' or Collateral

The lesson of the war in Lebanon was clear and, this time around, the government has little to fear from the local media. Since the current war broke out, Israel's press has been strikingly docile, and it would seem that reporters now regard patriotism as their primary civic duty. They worry about "our heroes" being cold on these winter nights. The military is allowed to air its videos on TV, and the viewer at home sees the conflict through night-vision equipment and telescopic sights.

But what about the Palestinian dead, the wounded, the terrified citizens? On Israeli TV, at least, they simply don't exist. Not even the shelling of a school in the Gaza Strip, in which 40 Palestinians died, made it onto the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's leading daily newspaper. Instead, the paper ran images of five fallen Israeli soldiers.

"Criminal," says Gideon Levy, a left-wing columnist for the daily paper Haaretz. "Our media is systematically covering up the suffering in Gaza, and there's only one opinion present in the TV studios -- the army's." Levy accuses journalists of having "volunteered to serve the military."

Gadi Sukenik, a veteran news anchor, sees it differently: "If that's the price we have to pay for the operation to run more smoothly, then I'm in favor of it." And most of Sukenik's colleagues agree. In any case, they don't feel unusually restricted by the current situation -- seeing that it's been two years since Israeli journalists have been allowed into the Gaza Strip.

Message Control

Israel is fighting this media battle at a more professional level than ever before. The government knows that members of the foreign media have traveled to Israel from all over the world -- and that they're desperate for material. So that's what they get in Sderot, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has opened a "media center." There, journalists can help themselves to coffee, cake and the Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket attacks. Ministers stand ready to provide their commentary for the cameras. And, every once in a while, everyone can take refuge together in the air-raid shelter.

"We're experiencing this war only with the Israelis," says Silke Mertins, a reporter with Financial Times Deutschland, "and that's an oppressive feeling." Thorsten Schmitz, a correspondent for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, finds the working conditions grotesque: "It's nothing more than voyeurism."

In order to let the Palestinian side get a word in at all, journalists quote humanitarian aid workers, doctors and professors working in the Gaza Strip. "But talking on the telephone is just not quite the same thing as being there in person," Mertins says. Besides, who knows what situation the person being interviewed is in at that very moment? How objective are their statements? And how much do they represent the typical situation?

Most media outlets don't have their own correspondents in Gaza. Instead, journalists based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have gotten used to taking daily trips there. Now they are being forced to rely heavily on information gathered from local helpers, known as "stringers." "They're good colleagues, but they're not journalists," says Karin Storch, a correspondent for the German public TV station ZDF. "What we're missing is the opportunity to see things with our own eyes."

Also missing is the substance of the journalistic trade: gathering facts professionally and verifying them independently. But when Palestinian reporters and other locals make all the decisions concerning which material makes it out of the Gaza Strip and onto the evening news, this is simply not possible. To partially counter these drawbacks, for example, Germany's leading evening news program "Tagesthemen" has started disclosing all its sources to its viewers.

The reason for this is the fact that the Palestinian side is no stranger to the propaganda business. Current circumstances make it impossible to verify whether the numbers they provide -- 800 dead and more than 3,300 injured so far -- are really true.

What Arabs See

On Al-Jazeera, the largest Arab news channel, the war looks completely different from the one shown on Israeli television. Here, the dominant images are of crying women and maimed civilians. Hamas' rocket attacks hardly ever make an appearance.

Al-Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, has rarely been as politically powerful as it has been during this crisis. Since Dec. 27, 70 of its correspondents, camera operators, producers and stringers have been filing reports nonstop from Gaza. They are in control of how their stories are interpreted. But how objective is their work?

When presented with this question, Al-Jazeera's editor-in-chief, Ahmed Sheikh, sighs: "In Iraq, people first accused us of being for Saddam and then for his mortal enemy Muqtada al-Sadr. In Lebanon, it was that we support the Shiite Hezbollah; now it's that we support the Sunni Hamas."

As Sheikh sees it, it all comes down to politics: "First and foremost, it's about stopping a war." "(During the Vietnam War,) American journalists like Dan Rather were doing what we're doing here now: They sought out pictures that were powerful enough to bring the bloodshed to an end."

Israel's politicians are aware of Al-Jazeera's power -- and they're making use of it. Since the crisis began, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, President Shimon Peres and even the hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu have given interviews on Al-Jazeera. And, according to Sheikh, the interviews have increasingly been at the politicians' own request.

Agreeing to air interviews with such guests has also forced Sheikh to field questions from people asking why his station is talking with them. Sheikh defends his editorial choices, saying: "I make that decision -- for the same reason that I show the women from an Israeli nursing home who were disoriented and fleeing from the rockets. Victims are victims. It's just that there happen to be a lot more on one side."

Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based station and Al-Jazeera's main competitor, acts with a great deal more caution. Financing for the satellite channel comes from investors in Saudi Arabia, a country on good terms with the United States. Its critics call it "Al-Ibriya" -- the station of the Hebrews -- to express their opinion that Al-Arabiya is being too soft out of consideration for the US.

But Al-Arabiya's executive editor, Nabil Khatib, defends his station's approach: "Al-Jazeera is proud to have an agenda; we're proud not to have one." As he sees it, whereas Al-Jazeera is provocative by letting only one side have a say, he lets both sides have their say.

Censorship Keeping Pace with Technology

Under such complicated and nebulous media circumstances, many had earnestly hoped that the so-called "social media," such as e-mails, blogs and text messages, would help disseminate the truth. Early on, this euphoria even led people to imagine that, with such tools in use, dictators wouldn't stand a chance of enforcing their censorship, manipulations would be revealed and every cell-phone user could be a citizen journalist. People were convinced that the truth could never be suppressed again.

Instead, Israel has shown just how easy it is to stop up leaks using such technologies. For example, bombs were used to topple radio towers, and a large part of the Gaza Strip's power supply was knocked out. The Palestinian telecommunications company Paltel warns that "the connection to the outer world can be severed at any time," and now 90 percent of the network is down. And only those who still have electricity can send e-mails.

When it comes to Israeli soldiers, this time they'll be of little help in supplying front-line reports. In order to avoid a PR disaster from their own ranks, such as the one in Lebanon in 2006, the army has confiscated its soldiers' mobile phones.

And even the reports that have managed to make their way out -- through blogs, shaky mobile-phone videos and Twitter messages -- only reinforce doubts about just how useful the "social media" can be. Indeed, it's impossible to form a complete picture from these fragmented images of suffering. At best, these unfiltered personal reports are just that: unfiltered, emotional and subjective. At their worst, they're contrived, manipulative and mere propaganda.

The military has also assumed a presence on these new information channels. Jerusalem immediately set up its own channel on the YouTube video-sharing site and has been ceaselessly uploading videos of its military attacks.

Meanwhile, the frustration of the journalists waiting in Israel continues to grow. Last week, Israel gave in a little by allowing a single BBC reporter into Gaza. Of course, the journalist had to be embedded -- that is, chaperoned by the Israeli army. And the army will keep watch over what the reporter does -- and doesn't -- get to see.

Isabell Hülsen, Juliane von Mittelstaedt, Martin U. Müller, Michaela Schiessl, Christoph Schult, Bernhard Zand


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