Sunday, July 06, 2008

Journalists under attack? - The case of Mohammed Omer

"From triumph to torture" is the title of a piece by John Pilger in last Wednesday's Guardian about an ordeal recently undergone by Mohammed Omer, a young Palestinian journalist from Gaza. Pilger writes:
Two weeks ago, I presented a young Palestinian, Mohammed Omer, with the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Awarded in memory of the great US war correspondent, the prize goes to journalists who expose establishment propaganda, or "official drivel", as Gellhorn called it. Mohammed shares the prize of £5,000 with Dahr Jamail. At 24, he is the youngest winner. [....]

Getting Mohammed to London to receive his prize was a major diplomatic operation. Israel has perfidious control over Gaza's borders, and only with a Dutch embassy escort was he allowed out. Last Thursday, on his return journey, he was met at the Allenby Bridge crossing (to Jordan) by a Dutch official, who waited outside the Israeli building, unaware Mohammed had been seized by Shin Bet, Israel's infamous security organisation.
According to this account, Omer was held for hours by the Shin Bet with no good cause, stripped naked, humiliated, and physically abused until he passed out. When he was eventually released and allowed to return to Gaza, he was taken to a hospital there.

I would not normally disseminate a report of this sort by the despicable John Pilger, whose credibility in such matters is not great. (Sure enough, Pilger couldn't resist tossing a few dishonest claims into his wider discussion, as noted in a thoughtful piece by Mira Vogel of Engage.)

But what's really appalling is that, in this case, Pilger's description of the treatment suffered by Mohammed Omer, which is based on Omer's own account, may actually be true. If so, this sounds like a disgraceful case of gratuitous harassment and brutality--and one where Omer may even have been singled out for mistreatment precisely because the security people knew he was a journalist.

I notice that the Dutch Foreign Ministry takes these allegations seriously enough that it has demanded an explanation from the Israeli government. And Reporters Without Borders has issued a protest about this incident, along with a more general condemnation of "abusive behaviour by Israeli security agents towards Palestinian journalists moving around the Territories or returning from visits abroad."

The Israeli government has promised to investigate what happened. It had better undertake a serious investigation, for the sake of both justice and Israel's own national interest. If these accusations are true, then Omer deserves an apology (and compensation) and the people responsible should be punished. And if the Israeli security services are, indeed, routinely abusing and harassing Palestinian journalists just for doing journalism, then they should be made to stop it. This kind of stuff is wrong, sickening, and indefensible.

--Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE (7/7/2008): According to an Associated Press report, "Israel's Government Press Office said in a statement that Omer was never subjected to physical or mental abuse. It said his account was full of contradictions and was without foundation." (Some further details here.) This sounds like a preliminary statement from the Israeli side, and for the moment we await further information and clarification about this whole affair.