With Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig still being held hostage by Palestinian terrorists, the Western media has received a potent reminder that broadcasting certain truths from inside Arab territory can result in devastating consequences.
While it is not clear the kidnappers’ motivation—they have yet to state any demands—this is just the latest in a string of abductions, which is in and of itself only part of the arsenal of heavy-handed media intimidation present in the region.
Thuggery helps explain the obscenely low volume of negative press coverage of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others. But it doesn’t account for all, or even most, of the persistently slanted coverage.
As any veteran of Middle East media coverage knows, many Arab stringers and free-lancers—hired on the cheap by Western outlets, ostensibly because of their superior knowledge for local leaders and events—see it as their duty to demonize Israel, while exalting fellow Arabs or Muslims.
But while the widespread use of Arab locals in covering the Middle East and the frightening level of threatened and real violence are both deeply troubling, more concerning is that the Palestinian propaganda machine has enjoyed tremendous success over the years hoodwinking supposedly sophisticated Western journalists. And Hezbollah has done just that over the past month.
In short, almost nothing that is purported to happen in the Arab world can automatically be taken at face value. Not even if it’s captured in a photo.
Problems with “fixers”
When Reuters was forced to sever ties with freelance photographer Adnan Hajj and remove over 900 of his photos from its database earlier this month, long-whispered questions about the reliability of Arab stringers and freelancers came to the forefront.
Nowhere is the use of Arab “fixers” (as they are known) more common than in the Palestinian territories. And yet despite the extensive reliance on locals who presumably enjoy greater familiarity with the terrain and key players, negative press coverage of the Palestinian Authority or various Islamic terrorist organizations operating in the territories has long been scant.
This void in coverage is not because such evidence does not exist. The Palestinian Media Watch, a nonprofit that operates on a tight budget, has easily reported more on PA incitement and indoctrination, for example, than all Western media outlets combined.
The revelation that Hajj had digitally manipulated his photos left at least one prominent Arab journalist was unsurprised. “Sadly, things like this happen a lot, especially when your local fixers are openly affiliated and have a clear agenda,” explains Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh. He adds that some of the Arab stringers and freelancers contracted by Western media outlets are “people who see themselves as foot soldiers for the cause.”
Violence against Arab journalists
Toameh is careful not to paint with too broad a brush, and he stresses that there are Arab journalists who do their best to get the story out. But the record is well-established that reporting certain truths in the Palestinian territories can result in intimidation or sometimes severe violence.
Whereas most of the Western journalists kidnapped before Centanni and Wiig have been released within hours, threatened and actual violence against their Arab counterparts has been far more brutal.
After being arrested and detained for six days because he didn’t give Yasser Arafat the desired coverage in the run-up to the 1996 election, Maher al-Alami, editor of Al Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper in Jerusalem, said that “the Palestinian media follow his (Arafat’s) instructions out of fear.”
When an Associated Press camerman filmed Palestinians in Nablus rejoicing the 9/11 attacks, he “was summoned to a Palestinian Authority security office and told that the material must not be aired,” according to the AP’s own account. Threats from Islamic terrorists on Arafat’s payroll quickly followed. One PA cabinet officer even stated that the PA could not “guarantee the life” of the cameraman if the footage was released.
The Associated Press never officially released the footage.
How the “stage” is set
To get an idea the lengths to which Palestinians have gone to manufacture sympathy for them and outrage against the Jewish state, consider a production from April 28, 2002. During a funeral procession, the stretcher carrying the “victim” was dropped. Oops. No problem, though, as the “victim” sprung up quickly and was able to shake it off.
The only reason the public learned of the funny, phony funeral was because it was captured on video by an Israeli drone. Given that almost everything done by the Palestinian propaganda machine is for the media, why did it only come out after the Israeli government released its grainy footage? Good thing for the Palestinians, though, that productions for Western consumption typically have gone much smoother.
Examples abound of Western reporters being duped or threatened. In April 2002, Israel Defense Forces raided the Jenin refugee camp, a known terrorist breeding ground and safe haven. Palestinians immediately accused the Jewish state of systematically committing war crimes, and the buzzword soon tossed about by the Western press was “massacre.”
That no massacre actually occurred—not even the United Nations, the Palestinians’ best friend, found any evidence to suggest one had—received only a fraction of the earlier, largely uncritical reporting. Ditto for the incident this June where many family members died on a beach in northern Gaza. Originally covered as an Israeli shelling of innocent Palestinians, it turned out that Israel almost certainly played no role in the tragedy. The media mea culpa, though, was essentially mute.
In a widely-circulated photo taken last month and distributed by Agence France Press, two older, hijab-clad Lebanese women are wailing in front of caskets. Dozens of caskets, actually. The caskets were lined up against a wall, and numbers were spray-painted on the wall. Somehow, the women had wedged themselves into the narrow space between the coffins and the wall, and the numbers conveniently appeared directly behind them—guaranteed to be in any photo.
The problems with the photo are obvious. Why would the women force their way into a crevice, when they could more easily face both the caskets and the wall? Quite simply, that shot wouldn’t capture both the mourning faces and the numbers signifying the enormity of the tragedy. And on the topic of the numbers, the ones spray-painted on the wall were the kind used in the west, not in South Lebanon, thus erasing any doubt about the photo-op’s intended audience.
This photo, though, was not taken by an Arab freelancer or some hack Westerner. It was shot by award-winning photographer Marco Di Lauro, who won praise for his work with Marines in Iraq. The benign—and probably correct—interpretation is that he just wasn’t suspicious enough.
Yet given that thugs from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Arafat’s Fatah control almost everything in the most “newsworthy” areas of the Arab world, any scene or event encountered by Western media outlets must be viewed with supreme skepticism.
But it’s not as if this is news to the Western media. They know it. Yet pretend as if they don’t. That’s the real travesty.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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