Peter Stefanovic exposes what passes for Middle East journalism − and doesn’t acknowledge that he is doing it
Aussie journalist Peter Stefanovic chases the bang-bang in a way that reminds me of a young Jeremy Bowen. That was not meant as a compliment.
News is only the first rough draft of history.Alan Barth 1943
Don’t honest journalists have an obligation to revise their first draft when new information comes to light?
In 2014 Stefanovic was nominated for a Walkely Award† for his coverage of the war in Gaza. This probably is the reason for leading his August 2016 HACK IN A FLAK JACKET Wars, Riots and Revolutions – Dispatches from a Foreign Correspondent with an out‑of‑chronological sequence chapter on the 2014 Gaza War. All that follows must be judged by it.
The Parachutist and the Fixer
Hack in the Flak Jacket is a story about parachute journalism although the author doesn’t use that term. Not surprising really. Wikipedia defines the term as the practice of thrusting journalists into an area to report on a story in which the reporter has little knowledge or experience. The lack of knowledge and tight deadlines often result in inaccurate or distorted news reports, especially during breaking news. If, as this case, the journo is based in London and takes his knowledge from the BBC he will probably be not just uninformed but misinformed on Israel.
There is an additional element to that definition. Let the story go to blazes. If a more ‘important’ story arises or the conditions become really dangerous the parachute journalist is out of there faster than Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.
As the parachutist knows little about the region, the culture or the conflict; nothing about the locality; doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t speak the language or languages, as Stefanovic acknowledges, he requires a fixer. ‘Without them you are useless’.
What he doesn’t acknowledge is the vital quality without which the Gazan fixer would be useless to him. He or she must be in good standing with Hamas.
… and there’s the rub. The real job of the fixer is to show foreign journalists what Hamas wants them to see and avoid what Hamas doesn’t want; arrange interviews with those who will say what Hamas wants the journalist to hear or to mistranslate in the event that person goes off script and avoid anything that departs from the narrative.
They needn’t necessarily be members or even supporters of Hamas. Perhaps that is even an advantage as it makes them look more credible. They know that when the journalist offends and leaves they stay and Hamas knows where they live. That is more than enough to keep them in line.
During the 2014 war Israeli troops captured a wealth of Hamas intelligence material including their directions to journalists. This confirmed what those following the reporting from Gaza had always suspected. Journalists were not to show rockets launching or even the sites they had been launched from or Hamas fighters, either in action, wounded or killed. However they were to show injured civilians especially children, always to be described as innocent victims, never referring to Hamas policy of human shields.
Polishing the journalistic halo
One should ask themselves because Peter Stefanovic doesn’t seem to have. If an enemy was firing rockets, even at relatively isolated areas like rural Queensland , how many would the Aussies allow before the modern Australian armed forces were called in and told to beat the cr@p out of them?
When planning how I would approach this review I wondered how Stefanovic would respond should he ever read it. I suspect his snappy comeback would be on the lines of “Don’t shoot the messenger. I only reported what I saw“.
That shouldn’t excuse him from correcting or modifying his dispatch, when he publishes it in book form, according to information that he wasn’t aware of at the time. Otherwise, the journalist halo, the presumption that what a journalist reports is actually what he saw and reported without bias converts what could be the fantasy of one side into history.
Which explanation seems most likely given what we know of the Hamas media plan? That, as he suggests, people took offence at the filming [of a destroyed building] or that they were obeying Hamas orders that rocket launching sites not be photographed?
Israeli missiles later hit several of these schools after it was claimed that Hamas militants had hidden weapons and rockets inside the classrooms.
Claimed? UNRWA acknowledged and condemned not once not twice but three times that weapons were found in their schools? You were a journalist in Gaza, Mr. Stefanovic. Why didn’t you check for yourself?
How do you justify striking a UN school though?
The rhetorical question is designed to make Israel look inhuman. Yet International Law does justify it. Geneva Convention IV Article 28 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV provides: “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”
Unless, of course, Israel doesn’t have to justify it because they didn’t do it? All casualties caused by Hamas rockets falling short inside of Gaza are attributed to Israel. A surprising number of missiles directed towards Israel land in Gaza. It isn’t always possible for someone on the ground to know who fired what.
However, the Israeli Iron Dome system does more than just knock rockets out of the sky. It tracks the missile from launch and decides, literally in seconds where it will land and therefore whether it needs to be stopped or can be allowed to explode harmlessly. Israel knows who fired what.
The arithmetic of the death was about 20:1 – twenty dead Palestinians to one Israeli. But civilians in Gaza made up about 75 per cent of the victims.
The halo is burning bright here. One thing is certain Stefanovic didn’t observe this. Nor is there a BBC-style disclaimer, ‘Hamas claims’. He repeats the figures provided by the Hamas Health Department (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the United Nations figures) as if he had personally verified them.
There are strong reasons for doubting these figures. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center painstakingly analysed every name that could be identified. This wasn’t an easy task as Hamas were aware of their activities and delayed identification whenever possible. Journalists, likewise were directed not to release names or group membership. However names dribbled out as so-and-so was celebrated as a shahid‡.
The Meir Amit conclusion was that of those who could be identified, about 55 percent were combatants. Even based on the Hamas Ministry of Health figures men ages 20 to 29, a subgroup representing 9 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided. Not coincidentally this is the age and gender most likely to be fighters.
By the way, in reporting other areas of combat the Hack in a Flack doesn’t mention the civilian-combatant death ratio. 4:1, that is for every soldier who dies four civilians also are killed is considered about standard in modern warfare conducted in an urban setting.
During July and August, fifty-one days of war, an estimated 3,839 rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza. That’s an average of seventy-five a day. Journalists on the ground in Gaza, including the ‘Hack’, seemed to have missed just about all of them. Somewhat hard to believe that they could report seemingly every incoming projectile but no outgoing. Unless, of course they were following Hamas directives not to report any instance of Hamas rockets.
Then Stefanovic slipped up (or his fixer) and reported one. Threats followed. BTW being dragged behind a motorcycle is a notorious Hamas punishment. Things became (more) dangerous and he left. He left without even a single speculation about how intimidation may have been directing the reports of those who remain.
About those flak jackets
Israel-Palestine is a photojournalist’ paradise. What are fixers for if not to fix photo opportunities? They direct journalists to the best place to capture action shots of ‘heroic’ youth ‘attacking’ tanks (if you miss the shot they will gladly repeat it); colourful, hysterical, ethnic, old women just coincidentally agonising in front of the ‘Apartheid’ Wall (seen in seemingly every West Bank photograph, like the Eiffel Tower in stereotypical Paris shots) and heart-wrenching injured children (not always easy to find so Palestinian propaganda frequently recycles archive photographs or even those from other battlegrounds as Iraq or Syria).
Uniformed Israeli soldiers tend to be photographed from a distance, threatening and anonymous,
Here’s a hint. The greater the quality of the image the more likely it is to be posed or at least set up.
I don’t recall a flak jacket at a Black Lives Matter riot. Domestic vs. foreign correspondents and different uniforms?
Occasionally a photographer zooms out and we see the journalists in their own uniform. Flak jacket and helmet. Like the leather jacket of a Hells Angel the flak jacket says look at me I’m a tough foreign correspondent facing danger for the sake of the story. Perhaps.
Or perhaps Israel and Palestine are much less dangerous than the media and the correspondents would like you to believe?
Not quite Sweden although Sweden seems to be becoming far more dangerous than the media would like you to believe. Nothing to do with Islam.
Peter Stefanovic has left the follow-the-bang-bang business to read news and presumably dropped his flak jacket. It’s too late to take back his dispatches – the damage has been done. Nor do I realistically expect him to pulp his book. Perhaps the most we can hope for is that when he is leveraging his image as a brave foreign correspondent he could admit that he might have been manipulated in Gaza. Then he can eventually drop the hack part, as well. And, yes, I was meaning to be rude.
- Hamas’ media policy and treatment of journalists, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12 August 2014
- Captured Intel Reveals Hamas’ Explosive Plans, IDF Blog, 27 July 2014
- Captured Hamas Combat Manual Explains Benefits of Human Shields, IDF Blog, 4 August 2014
- Hamas Media Policy, Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 10 August 2014
- What’s So Wrong With ‘Parachute Journalism’?, Justin D. Martin, Columbia Journalism Review, 26 May 2011
- Who killed the four boys on the Gaza beach?, Thomas Wictor, 29 September 2014
- Gazan Casualties: How Many and Who They Were, Lenny Ben-David, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, undated
† A little bit like the UK Labour Party leadership process (Jeremy Corbyn ~ WINNER) and the Republican Presidential primaries (Donald Trump ~ WINNER) members of the public, outside the industry, can nominate for the Walkleys.
‡ Shahid is a honorific for Muslims who have died fulfilling a religious commandment, especially those who die waging jihad, or historically in the military expansion of Islam.