Feet in both camps (2)

When you arrive in Israel as a journalist, you have to make your way to the Government Press Office in Jerusalem to get a press card. It’s a pretty routine bit of bureaucracy – a few forms in exchange for official accreditation.

Among the forms you sign is one promising that you’ll obey the rules of Israel’s military censor. Normally, you just skim it, sign it and forget all about it. But, this time, as the conflict began, Israeli officials began to race around, telling us that we were all legally obliged to comply with Israeli military censorship regulations.

Even if we didn’t like it, they reminded us, we’d all promised to obey the rules anyway when we signed the forms.So here are some of the regulations we have to follow: We’re not allowed to report any Hezbollah hits on military bases. We’re not allowed to broadcast news of ministerial visits to the frontline until the ministers are safely back in central Israel, out of Hezbollah’s range.And, if Hezbollah rockets land whilst we’re live on air, we have to be vague as to where they fall – the theory being that, somewhere in Lebanon, Hezbollah may be watching BBC World or equivalent, and using our information to help them calibrate their rocket launchers.

Also, we’re not allowed to report on military casualties until the Israeli censor says so. Israel says this is to ensure that the army has time to inform soldiers’ families before the relatives hear the news on the radio.But, Israel finds this rule very hard to enforce. This is a small, talkative country – the media usually finds out about military casualties as soon as they happen. But it’s often 10-12 hours before the censor allows the news to be broadcast.

For rolling news networks covering a war, 12 hours is an extremely long time to wait. Often, during this time, the news is broadcast outside Israel by channels which have picked up the information by themselves and are under no obligation to Israel’s censor. Once one channel broadcasts the news, other TV and radio stations tend to follow – using the first channel as a source. The BBC and its competitors then face a decision – follow suit and break the censorship rules, or stick to the rules and risk losing credibility and being left behind.

Beyond the rules and regulations come the frustrations. We tend to believe that the embedding of the Iraq war in 2003 proved a no-turning back point for Western armies fighting wars. I.e. if you go to war, you have to take a bunch of hacks along with you – whether you like it or not. But, so far, this conflict is proving an exception. As the conflict began, Israel delayed offering facilities with its forces – citing legal concerns, we were told, about the status of journalists crossing into southern Lebanon.

Then, a handful of embeds were offered  to the international media – apparently at random. The reporting rules have been strict – no broadcasting whatsoever until the unit and the journalist are safely back inside Israel. So far, I’ve written about all the bad points. But it’s worth saying that in Israel, the default rule is that there is always someone willing to talk, and someone willing to to let you film.

Throughout the conflict we’ve had pretty good access to soldiers, generals and ministers – all extremely keen to put Israel’s case to the international media. By and large, we’ve been allowed to go wherever we want on the Israeli side of the border. We’ve often driven straight into Israeli bases right next to the frontline – in the middle of battle preparations – and nobody has kicked us out.

A few days ago, my colleagues and I came aross what appeared to be a fairly sophisticated missile launcher hidden away in the bushes next to the border. Two soldiers rushed up to us and told us not to film. So we drove on a bit but then decided to have another look. We walked past another group of soldiers, up to the missile launcher and began filming. Sadly for us, it was no exclusive. A crew from Reuters was already there filming away. In Israel, even in war, nothing stays hidden for long.