In the Palestinians’ Pocket: Journalists Doing PR For the PA

In a revealing episode, Italy’s state television network RAI has had to recall its correspondent from Jerusalem after he sent a letter to the Palestinian Authority stressing his support for the Palestinian cause. The journalist, Riccardo Cristiano, explained that, contrary to rumors, his station was not responsible for video of the brutal October 12th murder of two Israeli men by a Palestinian lynch mob at the Ramallah police station. The letter, apparently intended to be confidential, was published Monday in the official PA newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. (AP, October 18, 2000)

Cristiano asked that Palestinians be informed that it was a rival Italian network, the privately owned Mediaset, that had shot and broadcast the footage. He assured the PA that his network would never act in such a way:

My Dear Friends in Palestine. We congratulate you and think it is our duty to explain to you what happened on October 12 in Ramallah. One of the private Italian television stations which competes with us … filmed the events… Afterwards Israeli television broadcast the pictures as taken from one of the Italian stations, and thus the public impression was created as if we took these pictures.

We emphasize to all of you that the events did not happen this way, because we always respect the journalistic rules of the Palestinian Authority for work in Palestine …

We thank you for your trust and you can be sure that this is not our way of acting, and we would never do such a thing.

Please accept our dear blessings.


Riccardo Cristiano

(AP, AFP, October 18, 2000; Israel Government Web site)

After the letter was published Mediaset angrily denounced RAI and recalled its correspondent once it became clear that her life would be in danger if she tried once again to work in Palestinian areas. At the same time, the Israeli government “temporarily” pulled Cristiano’s press credentials, and RAI recalled him to Rome and disavowed his letter. But it seems the issue was not really the content of the letter – the obeisance displayed for the Palestinian cause is not at all rare for the foreign press in Israel, especially the European press. It could not have been news to editors in Rome that their reporters were in league with the Palestinians. No, the issue was that it became public, and therefore embarrassing.

The publication of Mr. Cristiano’s letter brings into rare public focus the very successful campaign by Palestinians to control western media coverage, whether by cajoling or by overt threats and assaults. The day of the lynching in Ramallah, for example, journalists had their cameras ripped away and smashed on the pavement, their film confiscated or ruined, lest they record the bestiality underway.

Mark Seager, a British photographer who makes no attempt to hide his pro-Palestinian sentiments, happened to be in Ramallah on the day of the lynching and reached for his camera when he saw the mob beating and kicking the burning body of one of the Israelis:

My God, I thought, they’ve killed this guy. He was dead, he must have been dead, but they were still beating him, madly kicking his head. They were like animals.

They were just a few feet in front of me and I could see everything. Instinctively, I reached for my camera. I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face by a Palestinian. Another Palestinian pointed right at me shouting “no picture, no picture!”, while another guy hit me in the face and said “give me your film!”.

I tried to get the film out but they were all grabbing me and one guy just pulled the camera off me and smashed it to the floor. … I was scared for my life. (Sunday Telegraph, October 15, 2000)

Another journalist, Nasser Atta, a Palestinian producer for ABC, was filming the carnage when “youths came to us and they stopped us with some knives, with some beating.” Interestingly, Atta did not tell his story on the main ABC newscast – Peter Jennings, well known for his hardline anti-Israel bias, never mentioned what happened to the ABC producer, or to the other journalists, on his World News Tonight telecast. Of course, had Israelis assaulted a cameraman, there is little doubt it would have led Jennings’ broadcast. Atta instead told his story on Nightline. While Ted Koppel too is often biased against Israel, his animus is not in a league with Jennings’.

Of course, the effort to erase the record in Ramallah was not entirely successful – some photographers got out with their film intact, as did the Italian video crew from Mediaset. But what happened to much of the press that day in Ramallah is the rule rather than the exception.

The same intimidation of the press happened during earlier riots on the Temple Mount, as recounted in a Toronto Star dispatch. Reporter Sandro Contenta described Palestinian women on the Mount piling up stones to be thrown at Jews. Seeing that the women were being questioned:

a group of young men then demanded to know where one journalist came from. When the reporter said he was American, they denounced U.S. President Bill Clinton and surrounded the reporter.

He was violently swarmed by dozens of people. When a Canadian reporter tried to intervene, he was thrown to the ground and attacked before breaking free. The American was rescued by ambulance attendants who managed to extract him from the angry mob. (Toronto Star, October 7, 2000)

The Palestinian Authority’s intimidation of journalists who are not already on its side, or who stray, is not a new development. And the intimidation is not always explicitly violent; sometimes it is merely the granting of favors or the threat of withholding them. Thus, two years ago, after 60 Minutes had broadcast a report by Ed Bradley critical of the PA’s human rights abuses and corruption, Arafat aide Bassam abu Sharif informed CBS News that the network would:

no longer be given unrestricted access to either our officials of government or the territories under our control. (New York Times, January 6, 1998)

The next day, after a lengthy telephone call with Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes, abu Sharif stated that:

CBS had a privilege of unrestricted access that other networks did not have, of unrestricted access to Palestinian leaders and the areas we govern. My recommendation was to stop those special privileges. (New York Times, January 7, 1998)

Abu Sharif also stated that CBS’s privileges could be restored only by Yasir Arafat.

Since reporting critical of the Palestinians cost CBS its special privileges with the PA, it seems inescapable t
hat these privileges were earned by reporting favorable to the PA and critical of Israel. And, in fact, such reporting was the rule at CBS under its longtime Jerusalem bureau chief Bob Simon. Certainly the Palestinians could only have had deep appreciation for Simon, who was notorious for his virulent anti-Israel bias.

In the days of the PLO state-within-a-state in Lebanon, PLO intimidation of journalists was flagrant, though rarely reported by the self-censoring Beirut-based press corps. As described by Zeev Chafets in his book Double Vision, Western journalists in Beirut were almost uniformly pro-Palestinian, those who were not having been driven out under threat of death. One particularly chilling episode detailed by Chafets concerned a 1981 ABC documentary reported by Geraldo Rivera. “The Unholy War” featured interviews in Israeli jails with unrepentant PLO terrorists who gloried in their acts of violence. Rivera had also filmed interviews in Beirut with PLO officials.

According to Chafets the documentary was not well received by the PLO or its sympathizers:

The storm of criticism in the United States was more than matched by the reaction in Lebanon. Geraldo Rivera, the correspondent on “The Unholy War,” recalls: “I know that there was a high degree of displeasure with the story in Beirut. The PLO hierarchy had seen a cassette of it and some of the more radical elements, like the PFLP-GC, were extremely angry. I was told never to come back to … West Beirut.” (Double Vision, p 113)

The documentary’s producer Barbara Newman, had similar experiences:

While on assignment to the Sudan, she met an ABC camera crew from Beirut. “They told me never to go back there, that it was dangerous,” she says. “One guy said he and his wife had had to stay inside their house for ten days after ‘The Unholy War’ aired. They were afraid they’d get killed because of the anger in Beirut over our piece.

Before the filming in Lebanon, ABC’s Beirut correspondent Jerry King had vouched for Rivera to PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi. Right after the documentary aired, King left Lebanon, never to return. While King might have saved his skin, his ABC colleague Sean Toolan was not so lucky – Toolan was murdered a few weeks after the documentary was broadcast. While there was no proof that the murder was a result of the PLO’s displeasure – where would proof come from in lawless Beirut – many observers thought that the killing was pure retaliation for Rivera’s documentary.

ABC apparently got the message. Not two weeks after Toolan was buried, ABC did a softball interview with Arafat that even the segment’s producer apologized for. (Chafets, p 116) Three months later World News Tonight did an extended two-part report on the PLO, portraying the organization, according to Chafets, as “a benevolent group dedicated to peaceful struggle and welfare programs.” (Chafets, p 116)

The ABC program 20/20 then aired “Under the Israeli Thumb,” as blatant a hit piece on Israel as could be imagined. (Chafets, p 117-125)

The Beirut press corps developed a symbiotic relationship with the PLO and almost uniformly refused to report the PLO’s intimidation tactics or the truth about the PLO’s brutal rule in Lebanon. Now the same thing appears to be happening in PA territories, as manipulation and assaults against journalists have intensified. If this is allowed to continue, the results will be predictable: deepening bias against Israel as the press accommodates itself to the ever-harsher ground rules of the Palestinian Authority.

The Western press, especially leading outlets that have so far failed to cover this story – CNN, The New York Times, NPR, and ABC World News Tonight – must report the increasing trend of PA intimidation of journalists if it is to be stopped and reversed.

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