Independent journalists dismantling Israel's hold on media narrative
Abraham Greenhouse, Nora Barrows-Friedman
EI, June 15, 2010
"The systematic attempt and very deliberate first priority for the Israeli soldiers as they came on the ships was to shut down the story, to confiscate all cameras, to shut down satellites, to smash the CCTV cameras that were on the Mavi Marmara, to make sure that nothing was going out. They were hellbent on controlling the story," commented Australian journalist Paul McGeough, one of the hundreds of activists and reporters who witnessed the deadly morning attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on 31 May ("Framing the Narrative: Israeli Commandos Seize Videotape and Equipment from Journalists After Deadly Raid," Democracy Now, 9 June 2010). McGeough was one of at least 60 journalists aboard the flotilla who were detained and their footage confiscated.
Within hours of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla being intercepted and besieged in international waters by Israeli commandos, who killed at least nine -- some at point-blank range -- aboard the Mavi Marmara, news of the bloody attack had spread across the globe. Rage, condemnation and calls for an international investigation followed.
Meanwhile, Israel's campaign to spin the attack, distort the facts and quell an outraged public was already in full swing. Concurrently, activists and skeptical journalists began deconstructing the official story and assembling evidence to uncover the truth behind the violent deaths of activists on a humanitarian mission to the besieged Gaza Strip.
From the time the Israeli military apparently jammed the flotilla's communications, and for the next 48 hours as survivors were held incommunicado, their cameras and potentially incriminating footage seized, Israel's account of the raid dominated international headlines.
Central to Israel's media strategy was the rapid release of selected video and audio clips which, the government said, validated its claim that passengers had violently attempted to kill troops without provocation -- thereby forcing the soldiers to use live fire in self-defense. However, the initially and most widely-distributed clips bore signs of heavy editing, including the obscuring or removal of time stamps.
Although the clips apparently depicted passengers aboard the Mavi Marmarahitting Israeli troops with poles and other objects, the context of the images was completely unclear. It was impossible to determine at what point during the assault the clips had been filmed, raising questions about exactly which party had been acting in self-defense.
Al-Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal, among others, corroborated accounts by other flotilla passengers, including Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, that the Israeli commandos had allegedly started firing before commandos began rappelling to the deck of the ship ("MK Zoabi: Israel wanted highest number of fatalities," YNet, 1 June 2010; "Kidnapped by Israel, forsaken by Britain," Al-Jazeera, 6 June 2010).
These clips were quickly supplemented by footage put on YouTube, also heavily edited, which Israel said had been taken from the ship's security cameras and from the journalists whose equipment had been seized ("Flotilla Rioters Prepare Rods, Slingshots, Broken Bottles and Metal Objects to Attack IDF Soldiers," 2 June 2010). The Israeli military spokesperson's office also distributed numerous still images allegedly documenting fighting on the deck.
After the commandeered flotilla ships were brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod and were unloaded, on 1 June the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) began distributing via the Flickr website photographs of objects it said were found aboard. Materials the MFA classified as "weapons"-- thus supposedly supporting its claim that activists had planned to conduct a "lynching" of Israeli troops -- were identifiable to the public as standard nautical equipment and kitchen utensils ("Weapons found on Mavi Marmara").
In addition, the ships were inspected multiple times prior to setting sail for Gaza, both by Turkish customs authorities and by an independent security firm, and had been found at both points to contain no weapons, according to a Free Gaza Movement press release ("Did Israel deliberately murder civilians aboard Freedom Flotilla?," 3 June 2010). Participants also say that all passengers were subject to thorough security checks before boarding, regardless of where they embarked.
These photographs of "weapons" became the first flashpoint in the effort to analyze and expose inconsistencies in Israel's claims. Shortly after the release of the images which appeared on the MFA's official Flickr page on 1 June, commentators began calling attention to the fact that several of the images included digitally-encoded information indicating that they had been shot several years prior. The MFA responded to this by modifying the dates, and issuing a statement that one of its cameras had been incorrectly calibrated.
While this claim can be neither confirmed nor disproved, the gaffe exposed the fact that Israel's rush to promote its version of events in the media was leading to significant mistakes and oversights. As surviving flotilla passengers began to be released and expelled following detention in Israel, the accounts they gave of events aboard the ships -- and on the Mavi Marmara in particular -- clearly diverged from the official Israeli narrative.
Journalists aboard the ship, some of whom had been able to broadcast via satellite for a limited time during the assault, told interviewers that they had been singled out for attack by Israeli troops. "We had cameras round our necks and our press cards in our hands, but the soldiers kept aiming the lasers of their guns at our eyes in order to intimidate us," Turkish journalist Yuecel Velioglu of the AA news agency told Reporters Without Borders ("As Turkish photographer is buried, other journalists aboard flotilla speak out," 9 June 2010).
In addition, much of the footage released by Israel (after heavy editing) was taken from journalists aboard the ship after their equipment had been confiscated. The move was strongly denounced by Israel's Foreign Press Association (FPA), which stated on 4 June: "the use of this material without permission from the relevant media organizations is a clear violation of journalistic ethics and unacceptable."
Determined not to allow the Israeli government to continue dominating public discourse on the flotilla attack with its questionable version of events, independent journalists around the world analyzed and identified inconsistencies with the Israeli narrative. This work played a pivotal role in making a more complete and accurate picture of the events available to an English-speaking audience: the vast majority of English-language corporate media outlets, with the notable exception of Al-Jazeera English, simply took Israeli statements at face value and conducted little or no investigative work to ascertain their validity.
Images and the elimination of context
Another photograph released by the Israeli military spokesperson's office aroused additional controversy when it began appearing in news articles about the incident. The image, which featured an anonymous, bearded man holding a curved knife, was generally presented with a caption, also sourced from the Israeli military, claiming that the knife-wielder was an activist aboard the Mavi Marmara photographed after Israeli troops boarded the ship.
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, immediately noticed clear inconsistencies with the context of the photo, casting its veracity into doubt. Abunimah pointed out on his blog that behind the man, natural light could be seen streaming in through a window -- despite the fact that the raid was conducted during pre-dawn hours. Additionally, the man was surrounded by photographers who seemed unusually calm for onlookers in the midst of a firefight ("Israeli propaganda photo in Haaretz of man with knife make no sense #FreedomFlotilla," 31 May 2010). Finally, a few days after the image first appeared, the image was re-used in a video montage, published on YouTube under the newly-registered handle "gazaflotilliatruth", but this time with less cropping. In the new version of the image, the bearded man can be seen to be sitting down, not standing -- again, an unusual physical position to display during a melee ("Gaza Flotillia - The Love Boat," 2 June 2010).
Investigative journalist Max Blumenthal reports that the Israeli military-sourced caption -- repeatedly used by media outlets such as the Israeli dailyHaaretz -- indicated that the bearded man was holding the knife after the commandos boarded the ship ("Nailed Again: IDF Description of Suspicious Photo It Distributed Is Retracted," 8 June 2010).
Following his query to the Israeli military spokesman's office, Haaretz"scrubbed its caption of the suspicious photo." Blumenthal adds that Haaretz"did not mention the retraction, probably assuming no one would notice. The retraction raises disturbing questions about the level of coordination between the IDF [Israeli army] and the Israeli media." Nor did they mention that the bearded man was Yemeni Minister of Parliament Mohammad al-Hazmi, who was displaying his ceremonial dagger -- an essential part of traditional Yemeni dress -- to "curious journalists and foreigners on the ship," as Blumenthal points out, obviously well before the attack.
New accusations instantly dismantled
As the accounts of surviving passengers began receiving increased attention in the mainstream Western press, Israel retaliated with a series of increasingly dire accusations to discredit them. The serious nature these accusations makes it difficult to understand why the Israeli government would have waited so long to issue them. As journalists began evaluating the new claims, they found Israel's supporting evidence to be flimsy and periodically even nonexistent.
One such accusation, published in a 2 June MFA press release, was that 40 Mavi Marmara passengers had been identified as mercenaries in the employ of al-Qaeda ("Attackers of the IDF soldiers found to be Al Qaeda mercenaries," 2 June 2010). Later that day, US State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said that his office could not validate Israel's story, and independent journalists on the ground in Tel Aviv promptly set out to investigate for themselves.
Blumenthal and his colleague Lia Tarachansky were told bluntly by the Israeli army's press office that the military didn't "have any evidence" to support the MFA's contention. By the morning of 3 June, all references to al-Qaeda had been removed from the online version of the press release ("Under Scrutiny IDF Retracts Claims About Flotillas Al Qaeda Links").
More significantly, on 4 June, Israel released a YouTube clip which it claimed was an excerpt from radio communications between the Israeli navy and theMavi Marmara. The clip included a voice telling the Israelis to "go back to Auschwitz," and another voice stating "We're helping Arabs go against the US," in response to Israeli statements that the vessel was "approaching an area which is under a naval blockade" ("Flotilla Ship to Israeli Navy: "We're Helping Arabs Go Against the US, Don't Forget 9/11 Guys," 4 June 2010). The latter statement was made in an accent resembling that of the American south, despite the fact that no one from that region was present aboard any of the ships. Numerous bloggers commented that the accents sounded as though they had been faked, and ridiculed the quality of the apparent forgery.
One of the flotilla organizers, US citizen Huwaida Arraf, was astonished to find that the clip included her own voice as well -- even though she had not been aboard the Mavi Marmara, but was on a different vessel. Tel Aviv-based journalist and blogger Mya Guarnieri noted that Arraf told the Bethlehem-based Maan News Agency that the clip of her voice, saying "we have permission from the Gaza Port Authority to enter," seemed to have been excerpted from communications during a previous flotilla trip (there have been nine trips since 2008) ("Israel under fire for doctoring flotilla recordings," 5 June 2010). "When they radioed us [on this trip], we were still 100 miles away," Arraf remarked.
Blumenthal called attention to the mysterious presence of Arraf and other discrepancies in the clip in an article he posted on 4 June. The following day, the MFA issued a statement admitting that the clip had been substantially edited ("Clarification/Correction Regarding Audio Transmission Between Israeli Navy and Flotilla on 31 May 2010," 5 June 2010). However, the clip including the "Auschwitz" statement remains on the MFA website in a new "unedited" version of the alleged transmission.
High-tech sleuthing uncovers a web of deceit
Perhaps most damaging to the credibility of Israeli accounts was a map published by Ali Abunimah on his blog and which was produced by using archived transmissions of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to plot the position of the Mavi Marmara as it sailed on the morning of the raid ("Did Israel press on with bloody attack on Mavi Marmara even as ship fled at full-speed?," 7 June 2010). Using the map, Abunimah was able to determine the location and heading of the ship as it broadcast updates on its status. The map also plotted the position of the Mavi Marmara at the exact points when surveillance camera footage from the ship -- which Israel had released without obscured time stamps -- was apparently recorded.
According to AIS data, the Mavi Marmara had been heading south -- parallel to the Israeli coast and more than 80 miles from the shore -- until approximately 4:35am local time. At this point, the ship abruptly turned west, heading away from the Gaza coast.
The attack, which surviving passengers say began shortly after 4:00am, was reported to Greek activists in direct communication with the ship at some point before 4:51am. However, the time stamp seen in the released security camera footage and described in a caption as being the point at which "rioters initiate confrontation with Israeli soldiers," indicates that the clip was filmed at 5:03am. This is reinforced by the fact that the sea is apparently lit by natural light, which would not have been possible an hour earlier.
This evidence directly contradicts Israeli claims regarding the sequence and timing of events, and throws its overarching narrative into doubt. While the vast majority of footage of the raid has been seized by Israel, along the flotilla's Voyage Data Recorders (VDRs, the nautical equivalent of aircraft's "black boxes"), activists have been diligently archiving all available evidence to prevent Israel from altering or destroying it. As more time stamped data becomes available, it will be aggregated by activists and plotted on mapping applications not only to help reveal what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, but guarantee a greater level of accountability when Israel responds to future flotillas.
A significant amount of data is already emerging. Several of the survivors managed to conceal memory cards from their Israeli captors, the contents of which they proceeded to make available to journalists upon their return home. Some photos, published in the Turkish newspaper HaberTurk, depict passengers administering medical care to wounded Israeli soldiers and even protecting them from being photographed -- which seemed to contradict Israel's claims that passengers were intent on a premeditated "lynching" of the Israeli commandoes ("İsrail'den kaçırılan fotoğraflar," 4 June 2010).
Recently-released video clips from flotilla survivors show Israeli soldiers kicking, beating and shooting passengers, including footage which Turkey's Cihan News Agency says depicts the close-range killing of Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old US citizen, with automatic weaponry ("Israeli Soldiers Murdering Man Identified as Furkan Dogan," 10 June 2010). An autopsy determined that Dogan was shot five times, including once in the back and twice in the head from almost point-blank range. Other footage shows helicopters hovering above the flotilla, with apparent muzzle flashes and sounds of gunfire, supporting the survivors' contention that commandos were already firing before boarding the vessels, thus prompting the limited resistance demonstrated by terrified passengers.
International vs. internal investigations
The Israeli government continues to reject the idea of an international investigation in favor of pursuing its own. On 5 June, the United Nation's Secretary General proposed an international panel to examine the killing of nine flotilla passengers, but Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, announced on FOX News the next day that Israel would refuse "to be investigated by any international board" ("Transcript: Amb. Michael Oren on 'FNS'," 7 June 2010).
Those who demand an international probe have good reason to doubt Israel's ability to investigate itself. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which cited statistics from the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, between 2000 and 2008, "Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories killed more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians not involved in combat. Of 1,246 criminal investigations initiated during the same period into suspected offenses of all kinds by soldiers against Palestinian civilians, only 6 percent (78 cases) resulted in indictments. Only 13 of those indictments charged soldiers with killing civilians. As of September 2008, five soldiers had been convicted for the deaths of four civilians" ("Why No Justice in Gaza? Israel Is Different, and so ...," 1 October 2009).
HRW found a similar pattern in cases stemming from Israel's infamous three-week attack on Gaza beginning on 27 December 2008. The invasion, which caused the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians, resulted in only one criminal conviction -- for the theft of a credit card belonging to a Palestinian family after soldiers looted their home.
Regarding the flotilla attack, some sources in the Israeli government have indicated that they would consider permitting one or more international "observers" to be included in their internal investigation. Governments around the world have insisted that this is not an acceptable alternative to a genuine international investigation. However, even a completely impartial group charged with investigating the raid would be analyzing "evidence" (such as seized footage and VDRs) that had been under the full control of the Israeli military since the time of the assault.
Accountability and independent journalism
With little hope for a formal investigation with any degree of credibility, independent journalists around the world have recognized the need to mount their own. The work of independent journalists is achieving a growing level of influence in the mainstream. And the story of the Mavi Marmara killings, despite the unwillingness of many professional reporters to publicly challenge Israel's version of events, is no exception.
"This is an issue where, in the flotilla incident, the legal and moral circumstances of Israeli abuse were so flagrant and visible that independent media have a greater opportunity of being heard," said Richard Falk, international law expert and United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Should the UN or another impartial body mount an international probe, it would "benefit greatly from [independent media's] active undertaking to reinforce whatever investigation took place," Falk commented for this story.
Independent journalists were able to crack the wall of Israel's narrative in the corporate media, like how they were able to circumvent Israel's restrictions on establishment journalists during the winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza. For nearly an hour on the morning of 5 June, most mainstream reports about the status of the delayed fourth ship in the flotilla that had included the Mavi Marmara relied almost exclusively on information gleaned from messages shared between activists and independent journalists via Twitter. The work of Abunimah and Blumenthal in debunking much of the Israeli narrative was cited extensively in a post by The New York Times blogger Robert Mackey ("Photographs of Battered Israeli Commandos Show New Side of Raid," 7 June 2010).
On 10 June, a United Nations press conference was devoted to presenting uncensored footage of the assault captured by filmmaker Iara Lee, which promises to make global headlines with countless images contradicting the Israeli version of events.
Paul Larudee, a San Francisco Bay Area-based activist who participated in the flotilla and endured a severe beating which required him to him to be hospitalized, believes that the success of independent journalists in unraveling Israel's disjointed narrative has had a transformative effect on the popular consciousness.
"Something's happening here. Perceptions begin to move," Larudee said. "People are getting it -- they understand that a humanitarian aid convoy was attacked, and the passengers were defending themselves, despite the spin that Israel is creating in the media. Israel is not going to be able to keep this up much longer. It's all starting to crumble."