Danny Seaman stands on a low hill in southern Israel. His legs are set wide, and his whole face is beaming. Whatever he is looking at is clearly filling him with satisfaction.
While a crowd of journalists scurries around the hill, television cameras stand at the ready and the logos of major television channels glint from the satellite dishes mounted atop broadcast vans. The area is swarming with photographers who sit and wait like paparazzi camped outside a celebrity villa -- except that the situation here isn't quite so glamorous. With little to see, the general mood is one of annoyance. And that's exactly how Seaman likes it. After all, he doesn't like these foreign observers very much.
Seaman is the director of Israel's Government Press Office. The Israeli government has barred all media coverage from the Gaza Strip, which has forced correspondents from around the world to take up position here, one kilometer (0.62 miles) back from the border. In the distance, they can make out the silhouette of Gaza City. And they can see the smoke that rises after each air strike, too.
At the moment, this hill provides the best view of the war available -- and it's the Israeli view. The journalists are close enough to film the impact of Israeli bombs but too far away to see the Palestinian casualties.
Our Way or No Way
"I'm happy that you are here," says Seaman, with barely concealed scorn, as he greets the assembled journalists. In front of him stands CNN's star reporter Christiane Amanpour. Next to her are her colleagues from the BBC and two dozen other television channels. Then Seaman lets everyone know what he expects from them: "You're here, and you are covering our side."
This means that -- even two weeks into Israel's Operation Cast Lead against the Palestinian organization Hamas -- no independent reporters are being allowed into Gaza. Seaman has no qualms about making it clear that Israel wants to keep the international media out of the Gaza Strip. The reason is that the foreign press is biased, unprofessional, and falls too easily for the other side's propaganda. His definition of professional, it would seem, is only putting out Israel's version of the war.
The fact that this is happening in Israel, of all places, is surprising. Israel prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East and for having always emphasized freedom of the press. But, now, it has suddenly reversed the way it treats the media.
"Israel has never restricted media access like this before, and it should be ashamed," says Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times. CNN's Ben Wedeman complains it feels like North Korea. Media groups from around the world are protesting against the way they are being treated in Israel, and the country's own Foreign Press Association even took its case to court -- and won.
But the Israeli Supreme Court's ruling -- that the army must allow at least eight journalists into the Gaza Strip -- hasn't made matters any better. Those journalists have been waiting with packed bags ever since. "When it really comes down to it," says Christoph Sagurna, Middle East correspondent for the German television station RTL, "Israel bends and twists media laws in a way similar to its Arab neighbors."
Still, no matter how justified the criticisms levied at Israel are, when it comes to Hamas, freedom of the press is a completely foreign concept. Hamas, whose rocket-fire into Israel provoked the current war, has massively suppressed reports of casualties caused by its own mistakes, such as those from misfired Qassam rockets. It has stripped camera crews of their footage and even detained journalists it finds disagreeable.
From Vietnam to Gaza
The era in which journalists enjoyed almost unfettered access to combat operations has been over since the Vietnam War. By delivering horrific combat images straight into American livingrooms, journalists in Vietnam helped spark the anti-war movement back home.
Since then, the world has seen only the aspects of US military operations that the Pentagon wants it to see. The 1991 Gulf War, for example, was a war presented by censors, a war without victims, blood or suffering. Many correspondents covering the conflict sat in hotel rooms for months in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, without ever hearing a single shot. Meanwhile, the television screens back home ran antiseptic pictures of air strikes, images that looked more like those you'd see in a computer game than the death of a human being.
Likewise, in 2001, when the first rockets struck outside Kabul, the only pictures made available came from an Afghan night vision camera stationed 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. In the war that followed in Iraq, the journalists who were embedded among the American troops were only allowed to witness the war accompanied by the military and were subject to its authority.
Israel's rigid media policy grows out of bitter experience. In the 2006 war in Lebanon, members of the international media primarily reported from the Lebanese side. Although global public sentiment had initially sympathized with Israel's reaction to Hezbollah attacks, these journalists' images of civilian casualties tipped sympathies toward Hezbollah. And when Israeli soldiers gave journalists telephone reports from the front, the news was soon full of stories about the victims of friendly fire and mistakes being made in how the war was waged.
After the war, the Israeli press was sanctioned for its critical stance. Generals were outraged, and many citizens simply saw journalists as traitors.
'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.
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.