behind the news

Steven Erlanger Forgets He’s a Journalist

But Hamas doesn't
September 10, 2007

Steven Erlanger, The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief reports this morning on the difficulties journalists have encountered trying to cover the now Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Reporters trying to broadcast or write about the protests by the opposing Fatah party have been arrested or simply beaten by the Hamas police force. This has inevitably led, as Erlanger described it, to self-censorship, to reporters unwilling to write critically of Hamas for fear of their lives.

As I was reading this article, one, glaring, obvious question kept insistently jumping up and down in front of me: What about Erlanger himself? Is he not a journalist? What problems has he encountered? Has he, too, resorted to self-censorship? And if not, what makes him different? How has he or his bureau gathered information on Gaza?

At first glance one could assume Erlanger is writing about intimidation directed only at local Palestinian journalists, but this is not true. The central anecdote in the piece is about Abu El Oun, a reporter for Agence France-Presse, the European wire service. Not only was El Oun nearly beaten to death in 2001 by Hamas security forces, but he was almost arrested again in the wake of the recent Fatah protests. El Oun was saved only with the help of 70 journalists and human rights workers who came to his house and prevented the police from dragging him away.

What makes El Oun different from Erlanger? Agence France-Presse is no less international than The New York Times. The only obvious distinction is that El Oun is Palestinian and lives in Gaza while Erlanger does not. But if Hamas is only targeting Palestinian journalists, it is a fact not mentioned in the piece.

By leaving their own situation out of the story, the Times made me wonder about their coverage of the Palestinians and how it is being effected. I suppose the excuse Erlanger would give for not including himself is that it would compromise his “objectivity.” Ironically, it is exactly because they are not “objective” enough that Hamas claims it has to persecute some journalists (making just as much a mockery of the term as FOX News does when it claims to be “fair and balanced”).

But if Hamas wields objectivity like a bat, Erlanger is holding it in front of his face like a mask. Yes, it would be breaking slightly from precedent to make himself part of the story, but for me, at least, it will be impossible from now on to read an article with a Gaza dateline without wondering whether Erlanger, too, is scared of the Hamas goons and what facts this is causing him to leave out of his stories.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.