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ISRAEL LIFTS BAN ON FOREIGN JOURNALISTS INTO GAZA

Foreign journalists are now being let into war-ravaged Gaza, only after Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire, IFEX members report.

The Israeli authorities said journalists would be free to enter and leave Gaza starting on 23 January - two days before the Israeli Supreme Court was to declare the restrictions illegal, as requested by the Foreign Press Association. In light of the official end of hostilities on 18 January, the Supreme Court instead announced that international journalists must be allowed total access to Gaza.

Only when the ceasefire was declared did Israel begin opening its borders, but access improved only marginally, with 24 journalists out of more than 1,000 getting through to Gaza from Israel in the first three days, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The government maintained the security situation made it unsafe for journalists to visit.

Israel imposed restrictions on entry to Gaza in early November as a ceasefire with Hamas began to break down. It tightened the rules after launching a military offensive on 27 December and ignored a Supreme Court order days later to allow limited access to international reporters.

The ban drew strong criticism from IFEX members ARTICLE 19, CPJ, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and others, who accused Israel of managing the story. RSF delivered a petition to the Israeli embassy in Paris on 20 January signed by 160 international news organisations, many of them fellow IFEX members, that put pressure on the government to lift its "news blockade" in Gaza.

Despite the ban, events in Gaza were covered extensively by Gaza-based journalists. "For more than three weeks of the conflict, the task of getting news out of Gaza to a worldwide audience fell on the shoulders of local Palestinian reporters and less than a handful of foreign reporters who were in the territory before the ban was instated," said CPJ.

IFEX members are now turning their attention to demanding an impartial investigation - potentially led by the UN - into Israel's targeting of journalists and media facilities in Gaza.

They are seeking an explanation for the bombing by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of the Al-Johara and Al-Shuruq towers, on 9 and 15 January respectively, which house dozens of international media organisations. The attacks destroyed communications equipment and injured at least three journalists.

A two-day emergency mission to Gaza, comprised of IFJ, the Federation of Arab Journalists and a number of media leaders from Europe and the Arab world, concluded last week with a call for urgent action to improve the safety of journalists working in the region. Measures that are immediately needed include safety training and equipment for journalists, humanitarian aid to the families of journalists and media workers affected by the violence; and a detailed investigation to determine if Israel violated international law, which gives explicit protections for journalists and media installations during armed conflict.

RSF plans to visit the Gaza Strip soon to investigate journalists' working conditions and the impact of the news blockade.

Meanwhile, ignoring pressure from the Archbishop of Canterbury, more than 50 MPs and thousands of protesters in London, the BBC is refusing to broadcast a charity appeal for funds for people in Gaza, reports ARTICLE 19.

The publicly-funded BBC says it will not air an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), made up of charities including the British Red Cross and Oxfam, because it says it could compromise the BBC's impartiality. As part of its rationale, the BBC also questions whether aid can be delivered efficiently in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians say more than 1,300 people died during Israel's 22-day offensive.

Visit these links:
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/cq9cub
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/beaqy6
- IFJ: http://mena.ifj.org/en/articles
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30038
- IFEX Israel/Palestine page: http://tinyurl.com/dgowc3
(28 January 2009)

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