There is a contradiction between Israel completely blocking off access to the Gaza Strip for journalists, and the growing protests of officials in Jerusalem about the way in which many international media representatives are covering the events there. After all, if there is no way for we journalists to get to the points of conflict personally, and hence no chance for us judge the facts with our own eyes, we have no choice but to rely on the reports coming out from victims and witnesses in the Strip. For the most part, they will be are mainly Palestinians or sources close to them. There is no alternative.
You want balanced reporting of events? Then it's necessary to ensure the freedom of the press and restrict censorship. With no possibility of directly checking the veracity of facts, and against the background of the inevitable frustrations that stem from the censorship restrictions, journalists (particularly those from the Western media) will tend, almost by reflex, to adopt the most dramatic versions, the most shocking stories, and the most extreme explanations. The logic behind this is simple: If you hide something from me, that means first and foremost that you want to hide it, and secondly, that you have done something wrong.
Thirty years of experience in areas of confrontation, 20 of them as correspondent for Corriere della Sera in Jerusalem, have taught me to relate with maximum caution to reports about the number of casualties and the dynamics of the events.
I recall the exaggerated data about victims among the Palestinians during the first intifada, the perpetual comparisons between the military repression and the Holocaust, and the baseless reports about civilians dying of hunger during the previous siege of Gaza. Yasser Arafat and Palestinian sources in Beirut and Tunis were grand masters in the dissemination of this kind of disinformation.
The spokesmen for Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War were the same. They were eager at that time to show us what they claimed as victims of the use of bombs containing depleted uranium, and children suffering from cancer, had not received treatment because of the American-instigated embargo on Iraq. But not one of them spoke to us about the victims of the Iraqi military repression, about the mass graves, about the fact that the hospitals belonging to the Republican Guards were equipped with the necessary appliances and medications.
Three episodes from earlier campaigns I covered illustrated for me just how important a free press is in Israel.
The first took place in the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. Do you remember? The camp was surrounded, and the media was not allowed in. From a distance, one could see pillars of smoke and hear occasional shooting. The Palestinians spoke about 1,500 dead - a toll that later dropped to 500. There were rumors of mass graves, of entire families that had been shot in the streets by Zionist soldiers.
On April 13, I succeeded in crossing through the army barricades on foot and reached the hospital bordering on the refugee camp. I was prepared to see scenes of a bloodbath. Anyone who follows what takes place in the arena of war knows that generally speaking, the ratio of dead to wounded is one to three. That is to say, if there are 500 dead, there will be at least 1,500 wounded. What did I find? Absolutely nothing. The hospital was almost deserted, doctors were playing cards in the emergency room, there were two women in labor and one old man who had had an appendectomy.
In one of the wards I finally saw wounded - 25 people who had been lightly wounded. And the stories they told were indeed heart-rending. "I saw a woman and three children who were shot close by here," one of them told me. Nonetheless, when they were asked for the names of the dead and to show where the bodies were, the responses became evasive. In short, it was all talk and nothing could be verified, nothing was concrete. At the end of that day, I wrote that the death toll was not more than 50 and that most of them were combatants. And indeed, a few weeks later, following a UN investigation, it was reported that there had been 53 dead. The second episode took place in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, at the end of a prolonged siege by the Israeli army in April and May of that same year. On May 10, three hours after the fighting ended, I went to the church with a small group of Italian journalists, with the assistance of Franciscan monks. Here are the opening lines of my dispatch that appeared the following day in the Corriere della Sera: "It is not true that there was systematic desecration of the Christian holy places by Muslim extremists, and it is not true that the Palestinians who were under siege inside lacked food." After a whole month of disinformation, conflicting reports and propaganda, our presence at the site made it possible for us to examine what the actual facts were, especially the second point. Inside the church and in the halls of the Franciscan hostel, there was a plethora of food, as I described it in the article; there were bottles of water, and no one had died of hunger, contrary to the claims of some of the local church spokesmen.
Finally, there was the case of Kafr Qana in southern Lebanon, on July 30, 2006. We the media representatives, who that day were in Tyre in order to follow what was happening in the war, were well aware of the massacre that had taken place at the Unifil base there in the spring of 1996. The reported death toll in that incident stood at 107, victims whose names had been engraved on a memorial stone at the entrance to the village, and whoe were of course mentioned in the ongoing reports filed by all of us.
We arrived at the village during the few hours of hiatus promised by the Israeli army - until 5 P.M., the Israeli army spokesmen made it clear to us. On the way there, in the area where the bombing had taken place, there were heart-rending scenes and the villagers were shocked. The Hezbollah people told us that the death toll in the two families, Shalub and Hashem, was at least 63, and that almost all of them had been children. The entire village was covered with green Islamic flags and yellow Hezbollah flags. But it was from these sites that one of the Hezbollah leaders had acted to get missiles from Syria and Iran, as one of the Unifil heads told us off the record.
Three days later, the director of the hospital in Tyre, Mustafa Jeradiyeh, said in an interview with me: "The total number of dead at Kafr Qana was 27, and 17 of them were children, some of them very small. A day-old baby was one of them. The number of wounded was 18."
I bring up all these details in order to stress the importance attached to having a free press. I well remember how, in 1989, then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir claimed that had the media not been in the occupied territories, the intifada would have been over within 48 hours. And I know that in Israel, like in many other places in the world, in the West as well, there are people who sympathize with his opinion. With all due respect, I do not. Israel's strength, especially in the Middle East, one often rightly flaunted by its diplomatic representatives, is that it is a democracy. But there is no democracy without a free press, and there is no public debate and no intellectual incentive without it. There is no freedom.
The conclusion is self evident - open up Gaza to the media. Allow us to do our work. Sometimes it will be one sided, most of the time superficial, always not in perfect fashion. But there is no doubt that it is preferable to propaganda, to rumors and to blatant fabrications.
The writer is a journalist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Haaretz.com, the online edition of Haaretz Newspaper in Israel, offers real-time breaking news, opinions and analysis from Israel and the Middle East. Haaretz.com provides extensive and in-depth coverage of Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East, including defense, diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the peace process, Israeli politics, Jerusalem affairs, international relations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli business world and Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.