CNN “International Correspondents” Interview with Paul Martin. CNN 01 APRIL 2010

In print, on air and on the web, this is International Correspondents on CNN. Hello, I’m Fionnuala Sweeney. Coming up: Arrested in Gaza, we talk to British journalist Paul Martin detained for a month by Hamas and recently released. …

A British journalist was recently released from a Gaza prison after being arrested by the Hamas authorities and held for a month. Paul Martin was the first foreigner to be detained in Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007. Martin was arrested on suspicion of serious security offences, as well as being in communication with Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. He was released without charge and shortly afterwards he came into our studio to discuss the dangers of covering the story in Gaza, along with senior CNN international correspondent Ben Wedeman. I first asked Paul Martin about the circumstances which led to his arrest.

Well, Fionnuala, it was a combination of unfortunate circumstances, in the sense that I had already to Hamas asking that I should be able to give evidence in the case of an individual who I’d previously been filming, I’d been making a story about. He had then been arrested, and I felt a moral obligation, as a journalist, to at least set out to the court what had happened, why he was making this film, and that he was clearly not making the film in some subversive role as some kind of spy, as they were alleging, because spies don’t go around being filmed by people, they do things quietly behind the scenes. So I was going to explain to them how it came about, why I was interested in this individual, and why he was a good story, why he was being filmed.

So you did this voluntarily, you volunteered to go to the court and testify?

Absolutely.

And what happened then?

Well when I got into Gaza, drove straight to the court, in the company of a Human Right’s Watch official, when I got to the court, handed in the letter, within a very short time I was summoned inside and told, ‘You are under arrest.’ Simple as that.

And to this day you’re not sure, or are you aware of why you were put under arrest?

Well I know what they then alleged after they put me in detention, kept me for 26 days, interrogated me, at first day and night, used all sorts of bullying tactics to try and get confession, as they put it, I know what they were alleging, but the basis of their allegations were so farcical and so ridiculous, and so easy to refute, that I’m not sure that this was the real reason.

Ben Wedeman, you spent considerable time and have considerable experience of Gaza, did you ever encounter problems, and if so, was it the Hamas leadership?

Well, anybody who works in Gaza is going to encounter problems, Fionnuala. Let’s remember that it’s an active war zone, it’s the Palestinians versus the Israelis, it’s Hamas versus Fatah, so you’re always going to have problems there. In general, my problems were not all were not with Hamas really, it was with Fatah. I was involved in the kidnapping which people widely believe, including myself, was probably orchestrated by senior leaders in the Fatah movement. I have had, not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank, Fatah militiamen point guns in my face and threaten to kill me, so Gaza is a very complicated place to work, but the dangers come from many different directions, and I think in general there is a tendency to focus on Hamas when it does things wrong, and sort of to give a sort of let Fatah and its indiscretions pass without too much notice.

Ben, in the run up to when Hamas took over in Gaza, a number of foreign journalists had been kidnapped for a time, and that’s stopped once Hamas took control. So how generally would you describe Hamas’s attitude to, first of all, international journalists, up until now, of course?

Well, their attitude has been certainly in the beginning after they took over Gaza in June of 2007, they were fairly welcoming; also in the problem is not necessarily the leadership, but it’s the rank-and-file in the street who don’t necessarily understand that foreign journalists will come to Gaza and be in touch with all sorts of people: Fatah people, people who might be thought of as collaborators with the Israelis, so, really it all depends who you’re dealing with.

Paul Martin, does what happened to you, do you think in your case that it was a once off, or is it a portent of a changing circumstances for journalists?

I think that Hamas initially, as Ben said, very much welcomed the idea of Western journalists coming there to show the plight of the Palestinian people and also because they wanted to show ‘We’re a party of law and order, and we can maintain order.’ There was chaos, there were kidnappings, there were attacks on people like Ben in the previous regime, and they wanted to show, ‘We’re strong, we can sort things out.’ But they started to realise that it’s a double-edged sword having journalists free to roam Gaza, because they can found out things that the authorities won’t necessarily like to be published, and, in my particular case, I had been covering subjects which, on occasion, brought me into conflict with their general line. For example, smuggling through tunnels, which everybody knew was taking place, so we filmed some of that, including weaponry going through tunnels. This wasn’t something they were pleased about, in fact it was raised by Dr Zahar, the foreign minister, as being defaming the Palestinian people.

And Ben Wedeman, I’m wondering about, we’ve been talking about international journalists, but what about the plight of Palestinian journalists in Gaza, your experience?

Well their position was much more difficult because we as international journalists, we come and go, we come under the name of organisations like the BBC, like CNN, and there’s a certain amount of hesitation to put pressure on us, even indirectly. Whereas I know that with Palestinian journalists who, many of them incredibly brave, they risk their lives on a regular basis, that they come under pressure, indirect and direct pressure on them and their families, sometimes not to do the sort of work that they would like to do, that they should be doing. So obviously they’re much more vulnerable than we are in these circumstances.

Paul Martin, finally a question, if whether or not this marks a turning point for journalists, what happened to you, I’m wondering if you had the option of testifying voluntarily again at a Palestinian’s trial in Gaza, would you be willing to do so?

Well I would certainly think twice. I do think it is a turning point, not necessarily meaning that every single journalist who tries to do any investigative reporting is going to automatically be locked up, I don’t think that’s the case.  But I think they are signalling that they don’t want Western journalists to step too far out of line, and I think they have now come to the conclusion that Western journalists need to be reined in – but not kicked out.

Paul Martin, Ben Wedeman, thank you both very much indeed.

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