This week, reporter James Brandon -- on assignment in Iraq from the Sunday Telegraph -- was kidnapped from his hotel by thugs who threatened to kill him on video. After his release, Brandon announced: 'I want to say thank you to the people who kidnapped me.'
Sound absurd? In his Aug. 15 column, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe describes how this skewed perspective is actually a pattern in Mideast news coverage:
Two days after the liberation of Baghdad, a senior news executive at CNN disclosed that his network had for years been sanitizing its reports from Iraq. In an op-ed column titled "The news we kept to ourselves," Eason Jordan confessed that CNN routinely chose not to report on the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's regime. To have revealed the truth, he wrote, "would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."
Suppressing news by threatening reporters with violence or death is one of the dirty little secrets of Middle East journalism. In his 1989 memoir "From Beirut to Jerusalem," Thomas Friedman wrote that "physical intimidation" was a major impediment to honest reporting from Beirut during the years when southern Lebanon was in the grip of Yasser Arafat's PLO.
"There were...stories which were deliberately ignored out of fear," Friedman admitted. "How many serious stories were written from Beirut about the well-known corruption in the PLO leadership...? It would be hard to find any hint of them in Beirut reporting before the Israeli invasion." Instead of reporting what they knew, journalists censored themselves. "The Western press coddled the PLO," Friedman acknowledged. "For any Beirut-based correspondent, the name of the game was keeping on good terms with the PLO."
That was more than 20 years ago. Has anything changed?
Recent events would indicate that no, nothing has changed in the Palestinian areas. Violence and threats against journalists working for foreign news agencies -- and Palestinians who dare to report independently -- remain all too common. Here are some of the violent incidents in 2004 alone:
January 2004 - Reporter Seifeddin Shahin of Dubai's Al Arabiya television network is beaten at gunpoint by masked Palestinians. Shahin had reported on internal divisions within Arafat's Fatah party.
February 2004 - The offices of Al Quds Educational Televison in Ramallah are ransacked and staff members are threatened by masked Palestinians. Also, Munir Abu Rizek, bureau chief of the PA daily Al Hayat al Jadeeda, has his car torched after reporting on corruption within the PA.
March 2 2004 - Khalil al Zaban, editor of the monthly Al-Nashra, is murdered in Gaza City while working on an article critical of Gaza leader Mohammad Dahlan.
April 22 2004 - An Agence France Press photographer has both arms broken by two masked Palestinian gunmen from Yassir Arafat's Al Aksa Brigades.
May 19 2004 - New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief James Bennet is a victim of an attempted kidnapping by Palestinian gunmen in Gaza City.
July 20 2004 - The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate warns that any reporter caught covering clashes between rival groups in Gaza will be 'punished severely.'
August 9 2004 - Armed Palestinian militias in Gaza threaten to attack journalists working for Arab satellite stations due to their continued focus on the power struggle in the Palestinian Authority.
WHAT THE MEDIA MISSED
The ongoing intimidation of journalists removes the presumption that media coverage is fair and unbiased, as Jacoby writes: 'Journalists like to cultivate a reputation for fearlessness, for a publish-and-be-damned commitment to putting out the story no matter what. The reality is not always so heroic.'
With the magnitude of this problem, one can't help but wonder if some important stories are being suppressed, for example:
August 2: Palestinians accused of aiding Israel are attacked first in a PA prison, then gunned down in their hospital beds. Imagine the outcry in the media and from human rights groups if Israeli troops were to storm a hospital and open fire within! But was this story even mentioned on your local news?
July 22: When a Palestinian teenager tries to prevent Palestinian terrorists from using his family's backyard as a base for rocket fire into Israel, the teenager is shot dead by the terrorists. The Palestinian delegate to the UN then includes this boy among 59 "martyrs" recently "killed by the Israeli occupying forces." Did this story make your local news?
August 11: After terrorists from Yassir Arafat's Al Aqsa Brigades detonate a bomb at the Kalandiya checkpoint, killing two Palestinian bystanders and wounding more than 10 others, the head of the Jenin branch of the terrorist group apologizes, explaining, 'We didn't expect people to be killed.' And the PA cabinet secretary shows callous disregard for innocent life by stating, "These groups must avoid every spot where there is a possibility that a Palestinian will be there."
Yet news outlets such as Reuters ignore these statements, choosing instead to print PA Prime Minister Qureia's boilerplate announcement that the attack merely 'harmed Palestinian interests.'
With journalists in danger of harm should they report negatively on Arafat's PA or terrorist groups, concerned readers should redouble efforts to ensure that these important stories make their local news outlets nonetheless.
How can you keep track of what's happening on the ground? Check in regularly on HonestReporting's weblog, MediaBackspin.com, for important news items, and then contact your local or network news editor, asking that these items be given the coverage they deserve.
HonestReporting intern Rachel Glaser contributed to this report.
Thank you for your ongoing involvement in the battle against media bias.