A year ago, former AP journalist Matti Friedman wrote an article about Western media coverage of the summer 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas:
“In previous rounds of Gaza fighting, Hamas learned that international coverage from the territory could be molded to its needs, a lesson it would implement in this summer’s war. Most of the press work in Gaza is done by local fixers, translators, and reporters, people who would understandably not dare cross Hamas, making it only rarely necessary for the group to threaten a Westerner. The organization’s armed forces could be made to disappear. The press could be trusted to play its role in the Hamas script, instead of reporting that there was such a script. Hamas strategy did not exist, according to Hamas—or, as reporters would say, was “not the story.” There was no Hamas charter blaming Jews for centuries of perfidy, or calling for their murder; this was not the story. The rockets falling on Israeli cities were quite harmless; they were not the story either.”
Hamas censorship of both local and foreign media did not of course begin in the summer of 2014 but that conflict provided some particularly outstanding examples of the phenomenon – including the BBC’s failure to report on the terror group’s use of human shields. The subsequent verbal gymnastics employed by various BBC bodies to justify that lack of reporting when called to account by members of the public making complaints were particularly remarkable.
It was therefore all the more notable that when the topic of Hamas censorship of the media came up recently in a BBC World Service radio broadcast, it was addressed very superficially.
In a programme called ‘The Conversation’ broadcast on December 1st, two women working in the media discussed their experiences with presenter Kim Chakanetsa. One of those women – Ameera Ahmad Harouda – is a fixer working in the Gaza Strip. From 13:00 the discussion went as follows:
KC: “Ameera; I’m curious about your work because you have to really maintain good relations with the authorities but you also have to hold them to account. How do you maintain that line?”
AAH: “This is the issue here in Gaza; that you can’t deal with them as [though] they are not the authority even if they are not legal, you know, or even if they finish their election time and they just need to quit. They are the authority; they are controlling Gaza and they are doing their job here so you have to be in a good contact with them.”
KC: “And by the authorities we mean Hamas who control Gaza.”
AAH: “Eh…of course sometimes I’m facing some difficulties in this aspects because it’s not easy, you know, and specially when I start and when they taking over of Gaza, I faced serious difficulties with them because they want to prevent me of working: to stop me of working as a freelancer producer here in Gaza and to work under their umbrella, which I completely refused because I have my ideas, I have my beliefs and, you know, I can’t just work through their umbrella and under their ideas or the stories we want to work on it. You know, some journalists they ask for this story and even if it’s against them [Hamas] or it’s not with them, always I find the door, you know, to talk with them about it. It’s not easy but at the same time it’s not difficult.”
KC: “When you say working under their umbrella, you mean they wanted to make the suggestions of what stories you should cover?”
AAH: “Stories we should cover, people we should talk and some other stories we shouldn’t talk about at all.”
KC: “So it’s important to you to remain independent?”
That part of the conversation ends there: listeners did not gain any insight into why Hamas tries to censor some stories or what sorts of topics are deemed out-of-bounds. Likewise, they received no concrete information on how local and foreign media function under Hamas censorship or what sort of pressures are applied to ensure compliance. The opening question of how the Hamas authorities are ‘held to account’ was not answered.
Given that audiences worldwide have their opinions shaped by the quality and content of reporting coming out of the Gaza Strip, the issue of Hamas censorship of the media is obviously one which deserved much more meaningful examination.
Later on in the same programme (from 19:30) listeners heard Chakanetsa ask Ameera Ahmad Harouda “what is the one story that stands out for you that you’ve covered?”
AAH: “…we were filming with Al Jazeera and we were filming a film about journalists here in Gaza and they call it ‘Shooting the Messenger’ – it’s like three parts. And during that time when we were filming, we filming with one of the cameramen – his name is Fadel Shana’a, he works for Reuters in that time – and we cover, you know, his work; to be a cameraman working in the field like this. Eh…Fadel also get attacked by the Israeli army and he was killed.”
The highly partial Al Jazeera programme concerned can be found here. Following that context-free presentation of the story, Kim Chakanetsa presented a seven and a half year-old statement which listeners could also have found on Wikipedia.
KC: “At the time of Fadel Shana’a’s death the Israeli Defence Force said ‘the IDF wished to emphasise that – unlike terrorist organisations – not only does it not deliberately target uninvolved civilians; it also uses means to avoid such incidents. Reports claiming the opposite are false and misleading’.”
After that, Harouda was allowed to continue with more context-free portrayal of that incident in particular and the Gaza Strip in general, with Palestinian actions and terrorism being completely erased from the portrayal presented to World Service listeners.
AAH: “So it’s very hard, you know, to being with people that you know them very well and sometimes you work with them then suddenly you just find out that they disappeared – they just go on, you know, because of this attack or that attack. [….] It’s not easy, you know, to go [get] over this feeling because you live with it all the time when there is an attack, when there is a war or when there is any invasion. You just lost some people that you know or some people that you love. Or a place: you get used to go to it; suddenly you can’t find it because it just disappeared; it just, you know, vanish.”
The background to the April 2008 incident in which Fadel Shana’a was killed is obviously completely absent from the account presented in this programme.
“On the morning of April 16 an IDF force operating along the border fence near Kibbutz Be’eri (4 km, or about 2 ½ miles, southwest of the Karni Crossing) observed two armed Palestinians attempting to place IEDs near the security fence. In trying to prevent their actions the force entered the Gaza Strip and was ambushed by a squad of six terrorists. The squad, which had been in hiding, shot at the IDF force, exploiting the fog covering the area. In the exchange of fire three IDF soldiers were killed and three more were wounded. The terrorist operatives apparently managed to escape into the Gaza Strip. Hamas claimed responsible [responsibility] for the killings. […]
On the same day, during an action in the northern Gaza Strip in the Nahal Oz area, and IDF force identified and attacked ten armed Palestinian terrorists. During the exchange of fire mortar shells and anti-tank missiles were fired at the IDF soldiers, from, among other places, inside a mosque on the outskirts of Sajaiya, where large quantities of explosive devices and weapons had been hidden. During the attack an IDF soldier was moderately wounded.
After the clash the Israeli Air Force carried out a number of strikes against suspicious vehicles and individuals suspected of being terrorist operatives. The Palestinian media reported that the strikes had killed 12 Palestinians and wounded 25. Among those killed was Fadel Shana’a, a Reuters photographer, who went to the area to document the events and was killed by mistake. The IDF expressed regret and examined the circumstances of his death. […]
At the same time as the aforementioned attacks, the terrorist organizations fired massive barrages of rockets at the western Negev towns. On April 16 and 17 more than 30 rocket hits were identified in Israeli territory.”
In other words, Fadel Shana’a was accidentally killed whilst the IDF was engaged in action against Palestinian terrorists who initiated attacks against Israeli targets almost three years after Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip. Listeners to this programme, however, were denied that all-important context and were left with the materially misleading impression that ‘attacks’ and ‘wars’ are exclusively Israeli initiated events.
Hamas’ media department could hardly have wished for more.