"The foreign press isn't biased on Israel"

Luke Baker

Reuters reporter Luke Baker, who chairs the Foreign Press Association, says Border Guard police who harass journalists do the real damage to Israel.

The ongoing intifada in which Israel has found itself in the past few months has among other things caused the delicate relationship between Israel and the international press and media to deteriorate. Repeated claims from Israelis of unbalanced, not to mention false, reporting, by foreign reporters stationed in Israel covering the tense situation reached a peak last week with a debate on the matter in the Knesset. As proof of bias, reports from around the world were cited of the attack at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City at the beginning of February in which Border Guard policewoman Hadar Cohen was killed. The initial headlines spoke of "Palestinians Killed", without mentioning that they were the attackers.

Press and media headlines can anger the Israeli public, and Israeli politicians, even when they appear in Israel and are written by Israeli journalists. Explanations that the headlines on this occasion were initial reports that were updated later cut no ice. Israel Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen even announced that he would revoke the press cards of journalists whose reports were untruthful.

Two days ago, there was a further escalation in the hostile attitude to the foreign media, when "Washington Post" Israel correspondent William Booth was detained by Border Guard forces at the Damascus Gate when he was going about his work.

"The security situation in Israel is tense, and the foreign press and media are a scapegoat, or an easy target," Luke Baker, Reuters bureau chief in Israel, who also serves as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, told "Globes", "I wasn't surprised at what happened to Booth; the atmosphere in Israel is such that Border Guard personnel think they have political backing for what they do. If people in the government say that the foreign press is an enemy, then there's no question but that Border Guard police on the ground will translate that as backing for their acts."

This incident, which was condemned by the prime minister and the minister of internal security, and also ended in an apology, won wide coverage. But to what extent do such incidents occur regularly?

"As head of the Association, I hear about quite a few cases. When Bill was arrested I heard about it within seconds. There are many cases that I certainly don't hear about, because reporters often try to solve the matter on the spot. No-one should be in any doubt about the degree of harassment that reporters, chiefly foreign reporters, experience here, mainly working in East Jerusalem."

Have you also experienced such harassment

"Three months ago I accompanied a group that went up to the Temple Mount. The police came along and said that I couldn't be there. I had no equipment on me at all, just a notebook. I identified myself as a journalist and asked why I couldn't be there, but the policeman tore my shirt and threw me out of there, and tried to take my passport from me and prevent me from doing my work."

Do you believe that there's an instruction to attack journalists specifically?

"I don’t think the Israeli army or the police issue an order 'harass the foreign press', but people operating on the ground think they live in a country in which people speak in an unbridled way about foreign journalists and they feel they have political backing to behave in a way they don't behave in other countries."

"Things that happen in banana republics"

"On Tuesday, when Booth was held in Jerusalem, I was in Gaza," Baker says, relating another personal experience, one that is still fresh. "When I came out, I was taken to a separate room and the security people on duty at the Erez Crossing asked me to take of my shirt and put it through a metal detector. I refused, and still they demanded that I should lift the shirt. They put me in a bomb-proof room, where I was asked to lift the shirt and show my body, with them talking to me from the other side. Before I reached this post I had gone through a body scanner several times, and colleagues who were with me were allowed to pass through without any problem. The Palestinian accompanying me also explained that I was a journalist. It's humiliating."

So why did they pick on you in particular?

"They didn’t explain why, they refused. Harassment like that is trivial, I didn't make a big story out of it, but it's the kind of thing you get in banana republics. Things like that have happened to me only in Africa. It's an infringement of my civil rights. In Israel, there's an atmosphere in which people can infringe civil rights."

The Ministry of Defense said in response: "Hundreds of journalists pass though the Erez Crossing every year according to an orderly procedure, and all receive polite and professional treatment. When Mr. Luke Baker returned from Gaza to Israel, the advanced inspection systems at the crossing raised a suspicion that necessitated a short supplementary check, and the journalist was kept fully apprised of what was happening. Including the check, it took Baker only a few minutes to get through the crossing, during which time the attitude shown towards him by the security inspectors at the crossing was respectful and appropriate."

You cover the reality in Israel. Can you really not understand the security forces operating in the field under huge pressure to prevent terrorist attacks?

Baker: "No-one wants anybody to be stabbed or attacked. Israel has been dealing with these things for 50 years, and even before that, and still the behavior of the Border Guard in the field is as though they have no experience at all. They can't behave that way. To detain journalists shows a lack of field experience. We're dealing with nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who apparently don't use any intelligence information, and are supposed to maintain security, and instead of that they mess around with journalists, and those are the people you rely on? I wouldn't rely on them to maintain security. There are four people standing at the Damascus Gate, and they're occupying themselves by harassing journalists? This shows the low level of the security forces on the ground."

These are harsh words.

"The police and the army try to solve things, and they're rarely aggressive like the Border Guard troops, who have become a problem. They're aggressive, harassing, and they're very quick to resort to brutal tactics. They smash cameras, and there's a lot of testimony about that."

No comment was obtainable for the Border Guard.

So that's what you report about to the world?

Baker objects to the question. "But who does the harm? Who's responsible for the damage - Israel, which harms the press, or the press, which writes about it? The question undercuts the issue. If something happens and its worth covering, the journalists do so in the most balanced possible way. Many of the accusations against the foreign media are terrible and baseless. When criticism is voiced around the world against Israel for use of excessive force, the claims come from world leaders, not from the press. And the Israel press writes about it too, so what, is it hostile to Israel as well?"

"There's no lack of balance"

Baker has worked at Reuters since 1997, and this is the second time he has been stationed in Israel. The previous time, he covered Israel in the Second Lebanese War of 2006. He has done stints in, among other places, South Africa, Italy, London, Iraq, France and Belgium. He returned here in 2014.

"Israel is a lively democracy; I very rarely receive complaints about things I write from government spokespeople, who are always cooperative. The army also tries to be open and to cooperate. The problem is on the ground, and in entering and leaving Gaza. On the social media too, most of the criticism does not come from official spokespersons, but from pro-Israel pressure groups that have an agenda."

Have you ever encountered hostility from citizens on the street?

"Never. Occasionally on the West Bank from Palestinians or settlers in Hebron, but in general people are very open to the foreign press. The sensitivity over the foreign media is fed by social media and debates in the parliament."

Bottom line, are you prepared to acknowledge that there is any bias in coverage of Israel by the foreign media?

"I have been a professional journalist for twenty years now, and, like me, many of the journalists sent here are highly experienced. I work with very professional journalists who try to explain the complexity of the story to the international audience. The Israelis believe that it doesn't reflect their stance, but that isn't what the journalists are here for. I don't see lack of balance in the foreign press. There are stories that develop fast and the reports reflect developments on the ground - there's a report of fatal casualties and at first you don't know who's dead and from which side, and you try to explain what's happening as quickly as possible. The claims of bias in reporting are annoying. If there are mistakes, they are corrected as soon as possible. I reject the claim of lack of balance."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 18, 2016

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2016

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