NEW YORK (Jul. 6)
Israel will investigate a charge by ABC News that members of the Shin Bet internal security service impersonated ABC camera crews in order to take into custody a Palestinian accused of throwing a firebomb at an Israeli bus.
Avi Pazner, press adviser to Premier Yitzhak Shamir, said Wednesday in Jerusalem that a full investigation into the incident would be carried out.
According to a report Tuesday night by ABC correspondent Dean Reynolds, Nizar Dakdouk of the West Bank village of Salfit was detained by two carloads of what appeared to be Israeli civilians carrying television cameras. The cars bore ABC News stickers.
Dakdouk was suspected of having thrown a firebomb last month, and on June 16, his family’s home was demolished by the authorities.
Reynolds reported that authorities apparently thought of the idea of impersonating news personnel to capture Dakdouk after the Palestinian and his mother appeared on Israeli television a week earlier and complained about the demolition of their home.
The ABC report said unidentified sources confirmed that the Shin Bet was involved.
ABC News President Roone Arledge wired a protest to Shamir over the incident, saying, “There are no circumstances that could justify security forces impersonating ABC news personnel. Such activity presents grave peril to the safety of legitimate journalists.”
He demanded that Shamir ascertain who authorized the action. The Shin Bet Chief, whose identity is secret, reports directly to the prime minister.
STATE DEPARTMENT REACTS
In Washington, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Near East and South Asian Affairs issued a carefully balanced statement on the matter Wednesday.
“We understand that ABC has protested to the government of Israel. We have also seen press reports indicating that the government of Israel plans to investigate the incident,” the spokes- person said. “Our strong support for freedom of the press and the maintenance of its integrity is well known.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli Consulate in New York said Israeli officials investigating the incident hope to produce a report by the end of the week.
“It would be premature to say offhand that such a thing did or did not happen,” said the spokesperson. “Presumably ABC heard about it from (Dakdouk’s) family. I would say an assertion made by a family should be checked very carefully.”
Members of foreign press watchdog groups said the practice of security forces impersonating journalists to gather incriminating information has long been deplored by bona fide news-gatherers.
According to Carol Drake of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been innumerable examples of the practice worldwide and corresponding incidents in which representatives of government-controlled press services have cooperated with the authorities.
In September 1985, for example, journalists spotted five South African police officers impersonating reporters at a funeral in a black township, she said.
Foreign journalists are concerned that the practice could hamper their ability to gather the news from confidential sources and, more seriously, endanger their lives.
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT GUIDELINES
In the United States, the Justice Department has established guidelines whereby law enforcement officials must seek permission from the Attorncy General’s Office before impersonating journalists. The practice has usually sparked complaints by the media, and some states have police guidelines which discourage the practice.
The ABC charge is the latest in a series of disputes between Israel and the foreign press corps covering the nearly seven months of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
NBC’s coverage of an Israeli incursion into Lebanon in May sparked an investigation into whether the network had violated censorship rules, and delayed the return of press credentials to correspondent Martin Fletcher.
Fletcher’s credentials were suspended in April, when the Government Press Office alleged he violated censorship rules in reporting on the assassination of Palestinian Liberation Organization military strategist Abu Jihad.
The press office also suspended the credentials of Washington Post reporter Glenn Frankel. Their passes were subsequently returned.
ABC became the object of protests by Jewish groups in New York and other cities earlier this year. The groups, led by the Zionist Organization of America, claimed ABC’s coverage of the unrest in the territories was heavily biased toward the Palestinian side.
(JTA correspondents Gil Sedan in Jerusalem and Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)