Grim toll of attacks on press freedom: 3 weeks of Israeli occupation of Palestinian towns

Reporters sans frontières

Grim toll of attacks on press freedom: 3 weeks of Israeli occupation of Palestinian towns

Reporters sans frontières, 18 April 2002

7 journalists wounded

4 journalists detained

15 journalists arrested

60 journalists targeted by gunfire

20 journalists roughed up or threatened

20 journalists who had passports, press cards or equipment confiscated

10 Arab media offices occupied or ransacked

1 journalist deported

The policy of the Israeli authorities towards the international media, especially Palestinian journalists, must be condemned for what it is : a massive, deliberate and conscious violation of press freedom and an unprecedented low in the history of Israel.

The figures show the brutality of the Israeli army and its discriminatory, even racist attitude towards the Arab media and Palestinian journalists. They have included repeated obstruction of working journalists, arbitrary arrests, physical threats and a determination to belittle and humiliate – an aggressivity that has led to several journalists being wounded by gunfire and one even killed.

These have not been blunders but a deliberate policy of hiding from the world the truth of the Israeli army’s violence and abuses, which must be clearly condemned and met with international sanctions.

Fifteen journalists have been arrested since Israel began its occupation of Palestinian towns and cities on 29 March. Ashraf Farraj and Jalal Hameid, of the local Bethlehem TV station Al-Rouah, were arrested by Israeli soldiers at the Bethlehem press centre on 3 April and taken to the Beitunia detention centre near Ramallah. Ahmed Assi (see picture), a cameraman with ANN, was arrested in Ramallah on 2 April and imprisoned at a detention centre in Ashkelon. Maher Hussein Romanneh, a presenter on Palestinian radio, was arrested in Ramallah on 30 March and taken to the Ofer detention centre.

At least seven journalists have been wounded by bullets, some seriously. Carlos Handal, a cameraman for the Egyptian station Nile TV, was hit by an Israeli sniper’s bullets on 29 March in Ramallah while travelling in a car marked “Press.” One bullet came through the windscreen and seriously wounded him in the throat.

These events have been sadly all too common since the second Intifada began in September 2000. RSF has counted 56 cases of journalists wounded by gunfire during that time, more than half of them Palestinians. The great majority of the incidents, after on-the-spot investigation, have been found by RSF to be shooting by Israeli forces. Yet some journalists were clearly identifiable as such and were standing some distance away from clashes when they were hit. Only rarely have these incidents been seriously investigated and very few of those responsible punished. An Italian photographer, Raffaele Ciriello (see picture), was killed on 13 March by shots fired from an Israeli tank in Ramallah.

Incidents of shooting to intimidate have been numerous. Warning shots were fired and five stun grenades thrown at a foreign press convoy of seven armoured vehicles on their way to cover US mediator Anthony Zinni’s visit to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah on 5 April. When the convoy turned back, the CNN vehicle was hit by a bullet that broke the rear window.

On 16 April, a Swedish TV crew were fired on in their vehicle in Ramallah. One of the crew, Peder Carlqvist, said the shots came as the vehicle was turning round in response to orders from soldiers. Two days before, the Israeli army had said journalists could enter the West Bank again, except for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Jenin refugee camps and Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.

Many Palestinian journalists have reported being roughly treated or threatened. Two of them, Maher Shalabi and Majid Sawalha, were arrested by soldiers in the centre of Ramallah on 16 April and taken into a building where they were blindfolded and their handcuffed behind their backs. They were insulted and hit in the stomach, legs and back before being released a few hours later during the curfew.

The same day, an Associated Press stringer, Mohammed Daraghmeh, was arrested at his home and taken to a detention centre where he was held for 20 hours blindfolded and handcuffed. When he was freed, he faced the same problem as Shalabi and Sawalha : how to get home to Nablus six miles away in the dark during the curfew. As he was walking towards the town, shooting broke out nearby. He asked Israeli soldiers posted along the road to protect him. “If you stay here, I’ll shoot you,” one soldier said. The journalist only managed to reach home the next morning.

The Israeli army has targeted many privately-owned Palestinian and Arab media. On 8 April, four Israeli soldiers smashed their way into the Ramallah offices of Abu Dhabi TV and Nile TV, ordered journalists to lie on the floor and broke desks, doors and chairs.

So far this year, many Palestinian journalists have not been able to get their press cards renewed by the Israeli government press office, whose chief, Danny Seaman, has cited “security reasons.” Jassim al-Azzawi, Abu Dhabi TV’s special correspondent (see picture), was deported on 7 April after his press card was confiscated.

In the past three weeks, many foreign journalists have had their passports, press cards or even equipment seized. A dozen of them were arrested by the Israeli army in Ramallah on 7 April while travelling in a three-vehicle convoy. Passports and press cards were confiscated. Ten days later, some of the documents had still not been returned. On 13 April, at a checkpoint near Jenin, Israeli soldiers arrested Walid el-Omari, the Ramallah bureau chief of the Qatari TV station Al-Jazeera, and seized his equipment.

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