Baltimore Sun

Seeing bias, Israel bars contact with BBC network

JERUSALEM - The television documentary that was rebroadcast twice the last weekend in June by the British Broadcasting Corp. was titled Israel's Secret Weapon, and its intent, with the help of hidden cameras, was to expose Israel's clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The documentary, originally aired in March, criticized what it characterized as Western hypocrisy that allows Israel to develop weapons of mass destruction while demanding that other countries end their own such activities under threat of force.

Israeli officials have reacted strongly, in effect barring official government contact with the news organization that reaches viewers in 256 million homes around the globe.

The prime minister's office is prohibiting government aides, spokesmen and Cabinet ministers from being interviewed on the BBC. The top liaison to foreign news organizations said punishment will extend beyond a boycott: The network's reporters will find it difficult to renew visas, cross Israeli borders and navigate the country's sometimes-confounding bureaucracy when it comes time to deal with permits and other matters.

"Our feeling is that they have a policy that is biased against Israel," said Dan Seaman, head of Israel's Government Press Office, who complained that skewed BBC reports feed anti-Semitism in Europe. "Our appearing on their show allows them to give the appearance that they are professional and objective. They have no intention of doing an honest piece of work."

The dispute has been portrayed as Seaman's personal fight, but it also can been viewed as the Israeli government taking a stand against what it perceives as a daily battering of the truth and its image on front pages and television screens around the world.

The unusually harsh reaction to the BBC stunned local news commentators who are used to working in a media-saturated environment, where a vibrant press actively encourages criticism and fights for exclusives, sometimes at the expense of fairness and accuracy.

'In good company'

Meir Schnitzer, a media columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv, called the BBC documentary - first aired in Britain before the Iraq war and rebroadcast this week on its world service - a "hackneyed and gratuitous report." But he criticized the Israeli government.

"There are international precedents to decisions of that type," he wrote in Tuesday's column. "Events of this nature used to happen in Albania and East Germany. Then in Iran and Afghanistan. Once again, Israel finds itself in good company."

The BBC said Israel's actions would "not prevent us from continuing to cover events in Israel, the occupied territories and the Middle East region with due professionalism and impartiality."

"Whether or not official Israeli spokesmen are allowed to appear on air, BBC programs will continue to ensure that the Israeli view is heard alongside others in the region," the statement concluded.

Last year, Israel's primary cable company yanked the BBC from its package and replaced it with the more Israel-friendly Fox News, pointing to financial reasons. The BBC is still available here on the more expensive digital cable and via satellite.

Israel has one of the highest concentrations of journalists in the world, feeding what seems an insatiable appetite for news of the conflict with the Palestinians. There are 350 foreign news organizations based in Jerusalem, a city about the size of Baltimore, with 800 reporters, cameramen and technicians. This year, 1,300 other journalists have visited.

Yet the Israeli government often feels demonized by the foreign press corps, with Israel portrayed as the aggressor and Palestinians projected as helpless victims. Perhaps nowhere is a story more covered and more scrutinized; at least two Internet sites are devoted to catching mistakes or perceived bias against Israel.

Despite the overwhelming news coverage, Israeli officials can keep secrets, especially when they revolve around security. The army maintains a censorship office, and reporters can be required to submit stories dealing with the military and troop movements.

Foreign reporters must sign an agreement to adhere to the censor's rules in order to receive credentials needed to attend briefings and travel freely. However, few reporters ever submit articles for prior review and they rarely if ever hear from the censor's office. Before the Iraq war, the censor met with the foreign press to impose restrictions on reporting the precise locations of any missile strikes against Israel.

Israeli reporters, though, are strictly bound by the rules. Newspaper and television correspondents receive security clearance, have routine access to field commanders and are privy to military briefings that are closed to foreign colleagues.

Tight restrictions

The main complaints of foreign reporters are the relative lack of access to combat areas and the difficulty of obtaining credentials for Palestinian translators and aides. The rules for moving about the West Bank and Gaza Strip are changed regularly, often without notice. During a military sweep through the West Bank last year, reporters were barred from most areas. Two of the many who found a way in were shot.

Rules were tightened again last month after an Italian journalist unwittingly helped two suicide bombers cross into Israel from Gaza. And as a result of complaints that soldiers were targeting reporters in Gaza, journalists are now required to sign a waiver acknowledging that the area is classified as a war zone and absolving the military in case of harm.

Israeli officials point to security reasons for the restrictions. But the Foreign Press Association has complained that Israeli authorities unhappy with coverage find ways to complicate reporters' lives by singling them out for harsh questioning at the airport, stripping their Palestinian translators of credentials, restricting the use of foreign camera crews and periodically dispatching tax inspectors.

Seaman denies that his office purposely hinders the work of reporters, maintaining that Israel is one of the easiest places for journalists to work. Despite a daily flood of reporters, he said, his staff usually gets them credentials within 15 minutes of their showing up at his office.

The press office assists reporters in obtaining work visas and other permits, documents that might otherwise take months to be issued by government ministries. The press office also provides letters to ease reporters through laborious airport security checks.

It is that sort of help that the BBC correspondents will no longer get.

"If they get stuck at the airport, we won't be offering them any assistance," Seaman said.

Seaman said the BBC story on Israel's nuclear program was merely the catalyst for the harsh punishment. He said the network has a history of biased reporting over the past three years.

"According to the BBC, Israel is a country that abides by no international law, is a rogue nation," Seaman said. "They put is in the same category as Iran, Iraq and Libya." He said the program on nuclear weapons contained no information that hadn't already appeared in the Israeli news media.

It was the program's premise and the fact that the BBC rebroadcast the show that irked Israeli officials.

The documentary - produced by Giselle Portenier and reported by Olenka Frenkiel - said that as the United States and Britain were "preparing to wage war on Iraq for its undisclosed weapons of mass destruction, Israel's nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities have remained uninspected."

The program focused on Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli who has been imprisoned here for 17 years for, in the program's words, "exposing Israel's secret nuclear bomb factory to the world." Israeli censorship laws bar local newspapers from quoting Israeli officials on the country's nuclear capabilities and Vanunu's secret trial, but publications have gotten around that by using sources in the United States and Europe.

The BBC statement says the network stands by its reporting.

The Foreign Press Association warned that taking punitive action against a news organization puts Israel on a "slippery slope that can lead to illegitimate attempts to exert political pressure ... on organizations or journalists whose reporting is deemed unfavorable to a government's policy."