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Israel's losing media strategy; Keeping journalists out of Gaza hurts more than helps its cause—A Commentary by Jonathan Finer ’09

The following commentary was published in The Los Angeles Times on January 14, 2009.

Israel's losing media strategy; Keeping journalists out of Gaza hurts more than helps its cause.
By Jonathan Finer ’09

During Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah, reporters had the run of southern Lebanon, restrained only by their tolerance for the great personal risks involved. On the Israeli side of the border, where I spent three weeks covering the war that summer, it was a different story altogether.

Israeli officials allowed full access to civilians living under Hezbollah rocket fire. To interview Israeli soldiers, however, we had to evade a battalion of public affairs minders, some of whom seemed to see their role as warding off paparazzi. Occasionally, we were brought to see troops preparing to enter Lebanon -- but told not to speak with them. Public roads along the border were choked by checkpoints. And all journalists were forced to sign a list of "censorship" rules as a precondition for obtaining an Israeli press card.

Who would have thought those would be the glory days for war-zone press freedoms? Through more than two weeks of fighting in the current conflict in Gaza, Israel has relegated the international news media to the cheap seats despite a high court ruling that called for greater access. Unable to enter Gaza, correspondents peer in from beyond a security buffer two miles from the border.

Just as they did in 2006, Israeli officials justify the draconian restrictions on two grounds: the reporters' own safety and Israel's national security.

The former is laughably paternalistic. Around the world, in conflicts far bloodier than this one, journalists and their bosses make their own decisions about how to stay safe.

The latter rationale is also dubious at best. Recent U.S. experience illustrates why. After decades of employing an arm's-length approach to media coverage of conflicts, the Pentagon changed course and allowed reporters to accompany U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to traverse the battlefields independently. The result, according to most media analysts, has been not only more favorable coverage than might have been expected but also more consistently evocative war reporting than we have had since Vietnam.

No doubt the Israeli government is worried about sympathies generated by stories of Palestinian suffering. But it cannot be enjoying media coverage from Gaza dominated by a context-free stream of images of the wounded, disseminated by people with unknown agendas. Claims from Palestinian officials of more than 900 people killed and a humanitarian crisis underway have been left to stand unverified, as have Israeli reports that Hamas militants are deliberately drawing fire to hospitals and schools.

To be sure, the presence of foreign journalists on the ground is no guarantee of accuracy. During the 2006 war, journalists in the Lebanese city of Qana initially reported that an Israeli airstrike had killed at least 60 civilians, more than half of them children. Later, Human Rights Watch found that 28 people had died. The fog of war is thick and real, and even experienced journalists make mistakes.

But on balance, the closer journalists are to the events unfolding, the clearer the picture that will emerge. Reporters in South Ossetia this summer quickly dispelled Russian claims of "genocide" by Georgian forces. Embedded journalists during the Iraq invasion in 2003 raised prescient doubts about the Washington-spun mythology of American soldier Jessica Lynch "fighting to the death" against her captors. And after being denied access for weeks during a 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank town of Jenin, foreign reporters disproved Palestinian claims that more than 500 people had been killed. The final death toll was about 50.

Left to their own devices, both sides in a war will twist the truth for strategic gain. Whatever one thinks of Israel's operation in Gaza, a grossly distorted view of the conflict is currently being presented. We have very little sense of what this war looks and sounds like on the ground, what tactics are being employed by each side and what those living in the line of fire are enduring. Instead, we see plumes of smoke on distant horizons and correspondents wearing flak jackets more as costumes than out of necessity.

Reporting on wars is hard enough these days. As news organizations' bottom lines plunge, pricey foreign coverage is often the first place the ax falls. But just outside Gaza, dozens if not hundreds of journalists are in place and ready to go. Israel should let them do their jobs.

Jonathan Finer is a foreign correspondent on leave from the Washington Post.