Still no movement from the Israeli government towards allowing the world’s press into Gaza to observe and report on the conflict raging in that troubled area.

This, despite a ruling from the country’s Supreme Court last month that the government should at least allow a pool of eight reporters through into the Gaza Strip. The official reason appears to be the very real danger, not only to the journalists involved, but to government media minders and officials manning checkpoints into the area.

Safety for journalists now appears to be the top reason for excluding the media from areas of conflict or unrest. We heard a similar message from the Chinese government last year when it sought to exclude the world’s press from Tibet where security forces were operating a crackdown on dissidents.

There are several Australian journalists in the area, frustrated at their inability to get close to the conflict zone and keep us informed as to what is going on there. They are well aware of the dangers of working in a conflict zone. But they are trained in what to expect and how to minimise the risk to themselves and their colleagues.

It may be that the following line uttered by the director of the government’s press office Daniel Seaman (and reported by the Associated Press) might hold a clue as to the real attitude of Israel’s government towards journalists. Seaman said Hamas routinely manipulates coverage to make Israel look bad, adding: “And they get away with it because of the unprofessional cooperation of the foreign press, which takes questionable reports at face value without checking”.

The sad irony of this is that because of the ban, the world is relying almost exclusively on reports by local journalists. It’s rather difficult to check the facts when you are not allowed close to the events.

The Alliance has written to the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, calling on the Australian Government to take all possible measures to urge the Israeli government, not just to honour the Supreme Court’s commitment to allow the pool journalists into Gaza, but to open the area to all accredited journalists.

Where there are reports of civilians being targeted in conflicts such as this, it is imperative that the media is allowed access to the facts. It is generally accepted that the presence of reporters often prevents tragedies such as the one being reported today about a UN school being shelled.

Bob Brown has already raised the matter in the Senate but lack of support from either the Government or the Opposition meant that his motion calling on the Government to make representations to Israel did not go to a vote last month. Instead he made a statement for the record highlighting Israel’s media ban as an important violation on press freedom.

More recently the New York Times had this to say in its leader column: “Israel must immediately allow foreign journalists access to Gaza, as the Israeli high court ruled on Dec. 31. 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.”

We hope that pressure from the international community will prevail and that Israel will reverse its ban as soon as is practical.

Meanwhile we hear from our colleagues at the International Federation of Journalists that there have been reports from the affiliated Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate of attacks on a vehicle owned by Al Aqsa TV which was clearly bearing “Press” and “TV” markings.

This follows the destruction of Al Aqsa’s offices on 28 December by Israeli fighter planes in clear breach of international law.

The media should never be seen as either a legitimate military target nor as acceptable collateral damage. Of course, when judging these reports we must remember that this is one of the world’s most heavily populated areas with a volatile mix of civilians and combatants where the two are often difficult to tell apart.

Then again, with most of the world’s press locked out, it’s hard to make an informed judgement.

Peter Fray

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