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Access Issues

NRO’s Gutmann says the media ban in Gaza was justified
January 20, 2009

On Jan. 6, The New York Times published an editorial called “Incursion into Gaza,” in which it argued for media access into the Gaza Strip. “Israel must immediately allow foreign journalists access to Gaza, as the Israeli high court ruled on Dec. 31,” it read. “As in every war zone, reporting by journalists — and human rights monitors as well — can discourage abuse and is essential to full public understanding of the conflict.”

Stephanie Gutmann, writing yesterday at the National Review Online, thought the Times’s argument “sounds impeachable–until you learn what reporters are up against in the course of trying to do their job in the Gaza Strip.”

Gutmann’s argument is two-pronged: that Gaza is, in fact, very dangerous and journalists should think twice about demanding all access, and that irresponsible journalists can compromise war efforts. To illustrate both points, Gutmann delineated kidnappings of reporters in Gaza since 2005, and examples of “bad behavior” by reporters (say, releasing a video that messed up an IDF raid effort). Gutmann argues that, for both these reasons, Israel has been right to deny entry, and that the press “will have to suffer the indignity of restricted access.”

The argument that Gaza is too dangerous for journalists doesn’t hold water. Journalists who report from war zones put themselves at risk on a daily basis. No one denies that. But it’s foolish to portray the press corps as an entity that isn’t aware of those risks, as Gutmann seems to do in her proselytizing about reporter kidnappings in Gaza. And it is even more foolish to suggest that those risks justify Israel’s media ban. “The danger is not Israel’s problem,” Ethan Bronner, the Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote to us in an e-mail a day after finally gaining entry into Gaza.

The second argument that Gutmann presents—that past irresponsible behavior by reporters legitimized Israel’s media ban this go-around—makes only a little more sense. But even if journalists are a handful—and perhaps, in isolated moments, irresponsible—that fact doesn’t justify the complete clampdown on media access. “I could accept the idea that during war, the number of journalists needs to be limited for military operational reasons.” the Times’s Bronner wrote, “but the Israelis barred all journalists and did so for 7 weeks before the war.”

Gutmann also suggests that there was a false focus on Israel’s Erez checkpoint, underplaying the fact that journalists could have gained access to Gaza another way. “Reporters can also enter from Egypt, but most haven’t, presumably because they think they shouldn’t have to travel that far,” writes Gutmann. She makes it sound simpler than it is: Rafah, the Egypt border crossing, was closed for much of the time, and even when it cracked open last week to let some journalists through, there were others that were still turned away. To say that “most haven’t, presumably because they think they shouldn’t have to travel that far” is both unfair and misleading. (Talk to the BBC’s Christian Fraser.)

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Gutmann does allow that there are “good arguments on the other side,” noting in particular that keeping reporters out of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 did more harm than good. And she admits: “In the end, the quality of the reporting all comes down to the experience, the ethics, and, yes, the courage of the reporters in the field. There are many reporters working the Israel/Palestine beat who have these qualities.” It’s too bad that, for Gutmann, experience, ethics, and courage apparently aren’t enough to argue for allowing those very reporters access.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.