Reporters working for mainstream media educated many people – myself included – about South African apartheid.
Some press associations are rightly proud of their anti-racist history. The National Union of Journalists for Britain and Ireland now celebrates how it supported the international campaign to boycott and isolate the white minority regime in Pretoria.
But the need to fight bigotry around the world did not end when Nelson Mandela was released from prison or elected president.
Palestinians endure the “worst version of apartheid,” Mandla Mandela – Nelson’s grandson – stated recently. He is among many South Africans who have argued that the system of racial discrimination enforced by Israel is more extreme than the one they encountered. His grandfather called Palestine the “greatest moral issue of our time.”
And the union’s code of ethics says nothing about what reporters should do if offered junkets by major human rights abusers such as Israel.
The need for clear guidance has become more pressing as Israel ramps up its propaganda activities.
Next year, the Giro d’Italia – a major cycling race – will start in Jerusalem.
Hoping to garner some favorable publicity, Israel and its supporters are already organizing press trips ahead of the event.
Richard Abraham, a cycling writer, has admitted that a recent visit he made to the Middle East was “paid for by the Israelis” as part of a charm offensive. Significantly, his disclosure was included in a reflective article for a publication called Rouleur, rather than in a news feature on the same topic that Abraham wrote for The Guardian – a more widely-read newspaper with a declared desire to discover and tell the truth.
By coincidence, I arrived in Italy last week on the day that the route for the 2018 Giro was unveiled. The announcement – made during a glitzy event in Milan – sparked a tantrum from the Israeli government, which objected when the Giro administrators referred to the starting location as “West Jerusalem.”
Israel’s tantrum proved effective. Promptly, the word “West” was dropped from the Giro’s official website.
The row illustrated how bringing an Italian competition to Jerusalem is a blatant propaganda exercise. Jerusalem is being promoted as a city of harmony. The reality that Palestinians in the city live under military occupation must not interfere with the image that Israel wishes to project.
We got a taste of the image manipulation a few months ago. According to the Israeli authorities, the aim of starting the Giro in Jerusalem was to demonstrate how the city was “open to all.”
My traveling companion in Italy – Fareed Taamallah – has not experienced such openness.
A farmer and political activist in the Ramallah area of the occupied West Bank, Fareed lives around six kilometers from Jerusalem but is seldom allowed to visit that city.
“Israel says it is an open country, that it is a democratic state,” he said. “It is a democratic state for Jews and foreigners. When it comes to Palestinians, it is closed.”
His family has endured much torment because of the restrictions imposed by Israel.
Fareed’s daughter Lina – born in 2002 – has required treatment in Jerusalem’s hospitals for most of her life.
When she was about 18-months-old, Lina was diagnosed with kidney failure.
Lina needed a transplant and a South African friend of her family was identified as a compatible donor. Yet when the South African woman applied for a visa before the transplant operation, she was rejected by the Israeli authorities as she had previously visited Palestine and campaigned against the Israeli occupation. It was only after a documentary-maker – working in tandem with a lawyer – investigated why Israel was endangering Lina’s life that the visa was granted.
Fareed himself has been stopped from seeing his daughter in hospital on many occasions. Lina has to visit Jerusalem for check-ups and treatment every three months. Usually her mother, Ameena, accompanies Lina. A few times, both Fareed and Ameena have been refused permits.
In 2014, Lina had to undergo a knee operation in Jerusalem. Fareed wanted to be with his daughter on the day of her surgery. When he sought a permit from Israel’s Civil Administration – a military body that oversees the occupation – “an Israeli soldier told me ‘quit all your [political] activities,’” he said.
Among those activities were Fareed’s work on opposing Israel’s wall in the West Bank and on advocating a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions. Fareed, who helps run an ecological farming project called Sharaka, has insisted that he will remain politically active despite the pressure he has encountered.
“They play with my nerves,” Fareed said, adding that he has given up applying for permits to visit Jerusalem. The ordeal of spending hours waiting in an Israeli military building made him “feel very humiliated,” he said.
Fareed emphasized that his story is “not isolated.” It is common for Palestinians to be obstructed from receiving medical treatment by the Israeli authorities. Israel has a deliberate policy of restricting Palestinians’ movement.
Journalists are being courted by Israel, the very same state that stops parents from visiting their children in hospital.
Israel’s strategic affairs ministry is arranging propaganda trips as part of its aggressive efforts to counter the BDS movement. Lobby groups with whom that ministry works have bragged of taking reporters from well-known media outlets like the BBC and The Daily Mail in Britain and Le Figaro in France on junkets.
Journalists who take part in such trips are allowing themselves to be seduced by an apartheid state. By ignoring Palestinian calls for a boycott, they are siding with the oppressor against the oppressed – the last thing that a journalist should do.