When your fixer’s a foot soldier

Khaled Abu Toameh Khaled Abu Toameh says many fixers and interpreters used by Western journalists in Gaza are foot-soldiers of Hamas. The Arab-Israeli journalist is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the CAJ conference in Vancouver later this week.  In a pre-conference e-mail interview, the outspoken reporter for The Jerusalem Post tells J-Source he believes that telling the truth is his best shield as he covers the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Q:  We know that foreign journalists who don’t speak local languages have no choice but to rely on local fixers and interpreters.  Is this situation in Gaza any more challenging than it is anywhere else?

K.A.T.:   The problem is that many of the fixers and interpreters working in the Palestinian territories see themselves as “foot soldiers” serving their cause. Their policy is to refrain from hanging the dirty laundry out. As such, many of them don’t tell the foreign journalists things that they see and hear and which, according to the judgment of these fixers and translators, may reflect negatively on the Palestinians or their leaderships. It’s hard to be a fixer or journalist in the Gaza Strip these days if you are not affiliated with Hamas. Hamas has imposed many restrictions on the work of Palestinian fixers and reporters there. At least 22 journalists and media outlets have been forced to stop operating as a result of these restrictions. Many of the prominent journalists and fixers who are free to work in the Gaza Strip are openly affiliated with Hamas.

Q:  But are those kinds of challenges much different in Israel? Most fixers or translators there, after all, are part time members of the Israeli Defence Force.

K.A.T.:   True, but the challenges facing journalists in Israel are different. No journalist in Israel has been thrown into prison for criticizing his government or prime minister or president or for writing about financial corruption. Of course the overwhelming majority of Israeli journalists are pro-Israel and I see nothing wrong with that. A Palestinian journalist is also entitled to be pro-Palestinian. But a journalist should not serve as a mouthpiece for the establishment and should keep a distance from his/her government.

Q:   So if you were a foreign editor in Canada looking for reliable coverage of the situation, what would you do?

K.A.T.:   I would try to rely on as many sources of information as possible. Never rely on one or two sources. Fortunately, today we live in the age of the Internet, where every editor could easily check facts and see another perspective through search engines like Google. The editors must always bear in mind that in a conflict there are rival parties that are interested in only telling their side of the story. In a conflict like the one in the Middle East, there’s always more than one side to a story.

Q: As an Arab working for The Jerusalem Post, do you feel that you’re in greater jeopardy than most reporters covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

K.A.T.:   Absolutely not. The Palestinians have always been very open to the Israeli press. In the past, I used to work for Israel’s Channel One TV and for a Hebrew weekly newspaper. I never ran into a situation where a Palestinian told me that he doesn’t want to talk to me because I work for an Israeli newspaper or TV station. In fact, I continue to talk almost every day to representatives of all Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas. Many Hamas and Fatah leaders continue to give interviews to Israeli media outlets.

Q:   In North America, you have an image as someone who makes no compromises in his reporting and has no favourites. How do you deal with the physical and emotional stress that must go along with this?

K.A.T.:   I believe that being a journalist in the Palestinian territories is one of the most difficult and sometimes dangerous jobs. Some of my colleagues have been killed or imprisoned or wounded or forced to abandon their profession after being targeted by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. But I really believe in what I’m doing and I love my work. For me, journalism is about telling the truth and reporting the facts as they are. I would be more afraid to go to Ramallah or the Gaza Strip if I were lying. But as long as I’m telling the truth, I will continue to work out of these areas notwithstanding the emotional and physical stress.

Q: When Barack Obama was running for president, he called on you for advice on how his administration should approach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.What was the most important thing you told him?

K.A.T.:   When I sat with Obama in his Chicago office, I told him that US support for corrupt Arab dictatorships was driving many Arabs and Muslims into the arms of Hamas, Hizbullah, Al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood. I told him that it was time for the US to hold these regimes accountable and to demand reforms and transparency. I told him that it’s the Americans’ right to demand something good in return for the billions of dollars that they are pouring on Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab leaders. I told Obama that he should not repeat the mistakes of the previous administrations, which used to fund the Palestinian Authority without holding its leaders accountable.

CAJKhaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning, independent Arab Israeli journalist who has worked for both Yasser Arafat and The Jerusalem Post. Last summer, Toameh was sought out to brief then U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, on the issues connected to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is a keynote speaker at the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) annual conference in Vancouver May 22-24. For more information and to register visit the CAJ website. Keep an eye out for freelance reporter Tom Hawthorn’s preview his CAJ conference workshop in an Ask a Mentor column on making run-of-the-mill story assignments exciting.