Only part of the Gaza story

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You saw civilians dying and suffering in Gaza. You saw the destruction Israel’s military operation against Hamas has caused.

You’re hearing from Israel that Hamas fired rockets from crowded neighborhoods, using helpless Gaza civilians as human shields, forcing them to stay in their neighborhoods in defiance of Israeli warnings.

Why weren’t you hearing that from Gaza? Why are only a few news organizations only now releasing a few video clips of Hamas rockets fired next to hospitals and hotels, but the rest remain silent?

This is a tale that can’t be told in full. If it is, people will be harmed.

But if it isn’t told, you’ll be harmed. You won’t know the whole story.

One explanation is – reporters are afraid. They have every reason to be. But if I tell you exactly why, there will be knocks on their doors — and worse. Much worse.

Let’s proceed like this: I will draw on my 40 years as a foreign correspondent in this region, telling you how it works, giving some examples — but I will not tell you exactly who is involved, and I may take some steps to cover their tracks. So don’t try to figure it out.

Here’s the reason: News organizations make the safety of their reporters their top priority. Whatever it takes to keep them out of harm’s way — that’s what is done. I applaud that and I support that, though everyone understands that the policy can be and is exploited by tyrannical regimes to your detriment.

For example, a news agency refused to release video of Palestinians celebrating the 9/11 attacks against the US because the photographer and his family were threatened with murder.

It runs the entire range from serious to silly. Fearing injury to its staffers from rocks thrown by Palestinians, a news organization ordered armored cars to drive in the West Bank and Gaza. They cost a fortune and kept breaking down. Then the organization allowed reporters and photographers to drive around the West Bank in their own cars — but they had to wear helmets. Plastic bicycle helmets. That’s the silly part.

Here’s the serious part. A typical news report from Gaza during the summer conflict described the destruction, interviewed Gazans who related in heartbreaking detail the deaths of their relatives and loss of their belongings, listed the hardships and travail the civilians are facing because of the Israeli military operation. Halfway through the long story was a single paragraph that said Israel claims Hamas fires rockets from civilian areas and so on. That’s how they protect themselves from charges that they didn’t tell “the other side.”

But in fact, they didn’t. They didn’t report from Gaza about where the Hamas rocket launchers were, where the ammunition is stored, where the openings of the tunnels are — if they mention the tunnels at all, which in this case, they didn’t.

A reporter for a European news outlet told a friend that he saw Hamas gunmen firing rockets from outside his hotel, but he didn’t take pictures, certain that if he did, they would have killed him.

News agencies, newspapers and TV networks employ local Palestinian stringers to do most of the work on the ground. In this era of cutbacks in my industry, there aren’t enough reporters, and those they send in are not fluent in Arabic and don’t know their way around.

Besides the budgetary limitations, news organizations hesitate to send reporters into Gaza at all because of the danger. In 2007, BBC reporter Alan Johnston was kidnapped by Palestinian militants and held for more than three months. Many other foreign journalists were kidnapped there and held for a day or two. The message was clear — foreigners are fair game. The message was heard and understood. For lack of an alternative, news organizations began to rely more and more on local stringers, giving the regime considerable leverage through intimidation.

These stringers have wives and families. On several occasions, frightened stringers have pleaded to have their bylines taken off stories. Some are “evacuated” from Gaza for a time for their own safety, after an article critical of the regime is published or broadcast. Families are spirited out for a while.

So when the stringer returns home and gets back to work, it’s pretty clear how he’ll behave. Everyone in the home office knows that and accepts it.

Even now that the fighting is over, the dangers persist. That means that news organizations with permanent stringers in Gaza can never tell you the whole story, even once the reporter has left the area — for fear that their stringers will be targeted for retaliation.

And while some news organizations have insisted that they faced no intimidation in Gaza — while failing to explain, then, why they didn’t cover aspects of the story unfavorable to Hamas – the Foreign Press Association, which represents reporters in Israel and the Palestinian areas, glossed over nothing in a rare statement covering a general issue rather than a specific incident:

“The FPA protests in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month.

“The international media are not advocacy organizations and cannot be prevented from reporting by means of threats or pressure, thereby denying their readers and viewers an objective picture from the ground. (Yes, they can, and yes, they were — ml)

“In several cases, foreign reporters working in Gaza have been harassed, threatened or questioned over stories or information they have reported through their news media or by means of social media.

“We are also aware that Hamas is trying to put in place a ‘vetting’ procedure that would, in effect, allow for the blacklisting of specific journalists. Such a procedure is vehemently opposed by the FPA.”

Clearly it’s not just in Gaza. This is the situation all over the Mideast, except for Israel. During my two years in Egypt, I saw some of my friends beaten, harassed and arrested. The military-backed regime jailed reporters for Al-Jazeera in December, charging them with belonging to or assisting a terrorist organization. The three, including bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, have been sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, “Broken Spring,” about the issue:

“It’s like that across the region, and it colors the coverage – what you see and what you hear, or mostly what you don’t see or hear. Rarely do we tell you about this. The reason should be obvious. If we’re writing about one of those places, we can’t very well say, ‘um, we can’t bring you the whole story, because, you know, we don’t want our local reporter hanging upside down by his heels in a dungeon.’ Because just writing that could bring about such a result.”

The problem is that video and pictures seem to flow freely out of Gaza, but critical elements of the story itself can’t, and neither can all the pictures and video. It gives the impression that the story is being covered, when only part of it is being covered.

And all we can do is keep this in mind — the world does not operate according to our democratic standards of free speech. What we see may not be the whole truth.

In fact, you can be sure it isn’t.

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