As the spinning wheel turns

Suzannne Goldenberg, the British Guardian’s correspondent in Israel till recently, laughs off charges by the Government Press Office that she and some of her colleagues received instructions from the Palestinian Authority and that she was removed from her posting here due to demands made by the government. She’s very happy at her new posting in Washington, thank you - and aside from some obstacles put in her way by the GPO, she described Israel as a heaven for foreign correspondents, because everything is so small and open.

“Increasingly, Israelis are resistant to hearing or seeing anything that challenges their version of events, a nationally adopted cant that basically says: “We are the victims, they are terrorists, and the whole world is against us,” Goldenberg wrote in a long personal essay published in the Guardian after having left Israel. That sentence explains, from her perspective, what she went through as a European reporter covering Israel during the intifada: from attempts to strip her of her press card and delays entering Israel at the airport to explicit accusations that GPO chief Danny Seamen made against her after she left the country.

Goldenberg’s story reflects what many foreign correspondents in Israel are going through these days if the GPO is not happy with their coverage. They are sometimes designated as libeling Israel and are forced to deal with daily difficulties imposed by the GPO, including limiting their freedom of movement.

Last month, in an interview with the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’Ir (which belongs to the Schocken Group, and which also owns Ha’aretz), Seamen said Goldenberg and three other foreign reporters were transferred by their home offices to other countries after the GPO expressed dissatisfaction with their work. “We simply boycotted them,” said Seaman, explaining that “their editors got the hint” and replaced them.

The Guardian’s editorial officers were infuriated by the comments, and the editor issued a statement expressing full confidence in Goldenberg, explaining she was not removed. In an interview with Ha’aretz a few days ago, Goldenberg was scornful of the GPO’s claims, explaining that she was delighted to get the Washington posting. “If I was doing sort of a dream-career path, this is the way I would want it,” she said. “Being in Washington is a great job for a British foreign correspondent.”

Goldenberg, now getting acclimated to working in the U.S. capital, was a correspondent in India and south Asia before reaching the Middle East. She spent two years in Israel, coinciding with the outbreak of the intifada, in which she found herself rushing in her car, which was plastered with the word PRESS, from terror attack venues in Israel to blown-up buildings in the territories.

The battle over the spin

Government public relations officials are full of complaints against the foreign media covering the intifada. The darts of criticism are usually aimed at the foreign TV networks (for taking pictures of Israeli tanks aiming their cannons at Palestinian homes and streets), and toward the European print media (of whom they complain that it emphasizes Israel’s responsibility for the occupation in every report about every incident in Israel or the territories).

According to Seaman, the pro-Palestinian tendencies in the foreign press, particularly the TV networks, are due to the fact that they are forced to hire Palestinian producers and directors. As a result, they cover the conflict in the territories through the Palestinian prism. The networks claim they have no choice but to hire Palestinians, since Israelis are not allowed to move freely into and through the territories.

Goldenberg believes a lot of the hostility toward the foreign press comes from pro-Israeli groups around the world that work along the lines of the CAMERA model, putting every report from Israel under the microscope in search of anti-Israeli strains. Such organizations conduct letter-writing campaigns to editorial boards and publish their conclusions about the objectivity of foreign reporters and their news operations in Israel.

But beyond that, she says, the last two years have been characterized by efforts by the Israeli government - and the Palestinian Authority - to control the message in order to win international support.

“After the start of the intifada, the situation became very tense, and the governments and the interested parties on both sides began to look at what journalists are writing and TV stations are broadcasting. It’s been clear from the start that this conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not just a ground conflict, it’s not just a diplomatic conflict, it’s about information and about spin, and therefore, there was pressure by each side to get their spin of the story.”

In Israel, that has been evident in the way conditions were made more difficult for foreign reporters, particularly those whose reports displease the government. Goldenberg found out she was part of that group when in May 2001, the Foreign Ministry tried to cancel her press card. The credentials were never stripped, but she admits that if they had been, it could have been a major obstruction to her work, since she would have been denied access to official events and passage through checkpoints to and from Israel and the territories.

Israel also began demanding work permits from foreign reporters, toughening the conditions to receive such a permit. Although before the intifada, foreign correspondents were required to obtain work permits from the Interior Ministry, they were never really examined, and the authorities made do with examining the visa in their passports. Now foreign correspondents are required to receive work permits, which are re-examined each time they enter the country. Goldenberg says that on three separate occasions, while waiting in a relatively speedy line at the airport, she was taken aside to wait about another hour while her papers were checked. Only after she complained did the practice cease.

Along with the stricter work permit rules, the number of work permits for foreign technical crews was reduced on the grounds that they were denying Israeli professionals work. The foreign correspondents say Israelis cannot replace foreigners, since the former are not allowed to move freely in the territories.

Stripped credentials

Reporters without Borders, the international press freedom organization, published a ranking of countries according to their degree of press freedom. Israel was ranked 92 after the organization noted various attacks on press freedom, including limits on their activities and stripping some of their credentials, especially during the coverage of incidents in the territories. In the Kol Ha’Ir interview, Seaman said the foreign correspondents, particularly TV news crews, work under instructions from the Palestinian Authority and are under its influence. He even claimed the Palestinian producers are tipped off in advance to violence, including when shooting will began at Gilo.

“I think that’s kind of laughable,” says Goldenberg. “I don’t know of any foreign journalists who are based in the West Bank and Gaza. They are based in West Jerusalem primarily. My office was three floors up from Danny Seaman, so how am I under continuous surveillance and control of the Palestinian Authority?” Besides, she says, most of her work was covering terror attacks inside Israel, and that clearly did not serve Palestinian interests.

Seaman went so far as to claim that the European press reports every slur against Israel as if it is fact, and that “their irresponsible reporting contributed to the anti-Semitism on the continent.” He said an example of this was a report during the siege of the Church of the Nativity that the Israelis shot a priest. According to Seaman, the European media never bothered to verify the report before broadcasting it.

“I think this is a very serious charge to talk about critical coverage of Israel in terms of anti-Semitism, responds Goldenberg. “I think it is fair to say, if you look at most of the European coverage, it’s probably less critical than Ha’aretz and not more critical, on occasion, than Yedioth Ahronoth or other commentators. So are you going to say that all criticism against Israel is anti-Semitism?”

But despite the friction with the authorities and the mutual accusations, Goldenberg admits that in many respects, Israel is a heaven for foreign correspondents. “In many ways being based in Jerusalem is ideal because it’s small and it’s so open,” she says. “You can wander into the Knesset and talk to any politician, and they’ll talk to you - that’s terrific. It doesn’t happen here in Washington. People in Israel will always call you back - that’s great.”

Goldenberg also has praise for the IDF Spokesman’s Office and police and government ministries, which always respond quickly to questions asked by foreign correspondents. There are disputes regarding the quality of the information, but the correspondents agree the responses always reflect Israel’s perspective.

Goldenberg believes that despite efforts by both sides to influence the foreign press, she managed to get to the truth in some controversial incidents. For example, right after the publishing of the photos of Mohammed Dura, the youth shot dead in the arms of his father at the Gaza junction near the start of the intifada, she went to the area and interviewed residents who witnessed the incident. According to Goldenberg, she has no doubt from these interviews that soldiers at the nearby outpost shot the boy.

While Israel uses the bureaucracy to make things difficult for the foreign press, when it comes to the PA things are quite different. Goldenberg says that access to senior officials in the PA largely depends on personal contacts with their aides, and that in any case, to interview a Palestinian official means going into the territories, because it is nearly impossible to reach them by phone.

In Israel, she says, she never encountered real hostility from the general public, except during some isolated cases when she visited particularly extremist settlements. However, she says, she understands why Israelis have reservations about the way the foreign press covers the conflict. “I think that the foreign press coverage of the conflict is presenting people with the facts they don’t want to see. I think it’s hitting to close to home - people just don’t want to be confronted with what’s going on.”