Politics & Policy

Censorship, So Far

Blame America first.

It was inevitable. Like antibodies released before the disease even sets in, journalists, activists, and civil-libertarian worrywarts in general started right in fretting over the loss of freedom that would come as a result of this disaster. To date, I can’t really figure out what the vast majority of them are talking about. Longer lines at airports do not a police state make. And the prospect that the roughly 100 or 200 wiretaps currently in place might — dear God, no! — double, is not a very slippery slope from my point of view. Meanwhile, no one’s been rounded up. No one’s been subjected to unreasonable searches or seizures. And, no one’s been told they can’t publish or print whatever they want.

Oh, wait. That’s not true.

You might have learned from the back pages of your newspaper that Western news agencies have been told that if they release any more pictures of Palestinians cheering like Lotto winners over the attack on the United States, then the journalist or journalists responsible might be assassinated.

On Tuesday, a spontaneous rally broke out in Nablus on the West Bank. As the Trade Center towers collapsed, killing thousands of Americans, revelers honked car horns and young men fired their guns in celebration. You may have seen similar pictures from East Jerusalem, but you didn’t see any from Nablus, because Palestinian militia members stopped photographers from taking pictures.

One cameraman from the Associated Press did manage to film the celebration. He was ordered not to release the footage. Later, rather than apologizing for harassing the journalist, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a high-ranking Palestinian official, called the Jerusalem AP bureau chief and told him that the cameraman’s safety could not be ensured if the footage were released. “[We] cannot guarantee the life” of the cameraman, he said.

The AP decided not to release the tape.

It’s hard for me to figure out which is the most infuriating aspect of this story.

Let’s start with the Palestinians. At best, the Palestinian Authority is a police state; at worst — and more accurately — it’s a mini-terrorist state. Either way, when given a choice between stopping the celebrations and censoring the coverage, they chose to censor. Surely it was in their power to stop the celebrations. After all, only Fidel Castro outranks Yasser Arafat as an architect of “spontaneous” rallies.

“These measures were not against the freedom of the press but in order to ensure our national security and our national interest,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, explained to the Washington Post. “We will not permit a few kids here or there to smear the real face of the Palestinians. This is a real insult to our people and our nation.”

Well, then, stop the “kids” (who numbered in the hundreds and were of all ages) from celebrating. And in any case, if I burn an American flag, I’m the one insulting America. It’s not the cameraman filming me.

But let’s press on. The more interesting, i.e. appalling, part is that the Palestinian government is officially threatening a journalist’s life. It would be one thing if their police were ill equipped to protect the cameraman from the mob, and so warned the AP to be careful. But that’s not what’s going on here. The mob isn’t threatening anyone. They aren’t ashamed of their joy at the deaths of Americans — if they didn’t want the world to see their glee, they would have dispersed when the cameras showed up. Or, they would have attacked the cameraman. Instead, they flocked to the cameras and pranced around like American senators in an election year.

But the people doing the actual threatening are the officials themselves. This should tell you something about the way the Palestinians approach problems. Literally, they shoot the messenger.

And this is not an isolated incident. On Friday, Palestinian militia arrested five journalists for covering a rally for supporters of the terrorist group Hamas, commemorating a dead suicide bomber. Reporters noticed that a giant portrait of Osama bin Laden was being waved around. After the rally, the Palestinians arrested the reporters and confiscated some of their cameras. The Palestinians explained that since the rally was unauthorized, it was illegal to film it. Again, by this logic, every employee of the TV show Cops should be in jail for filming unauthorized criminal activity.

And now let’s turn to the American response. Call me crazy, but I could have sworn American journalists were fanatics when it comes to free speech. I was even pretty sure the organizations and journalists that make up the Associated Press were infuriating desk-pounders on the topic. Journalists love — love! — to be cited for contempt of court for refusing to divulge their sources. They grab a toothbrush and some spare underwear, and march off bravely to jail to calculate how big a book advance their heroics will garner.

But apparently, when it comes to the tough decisions — the decisions with real consequences and grave inconveniences — it turns out that the press folds. Yes, it’s an awful situation for the cameraman, who is apparently a local hire — but he and his family can be moved. The Associated Press operates all over the world.

To be honest, I’m not sure I would run the footage myself if it were my decision. But then, I’m not a First Amendment absolutist. I don’t think the press is an international priesthood immune from the rules of conventional morality, national allegiance, and human decency. Remember, it was Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings who admitted (during a Columbia University seminar) that if they were war correspondents, they would stay silent while American troops were ambushed and killed by an enemy in battle.

Mike Wallace pontificated, insisting that as a journalist “your job is to cover what’s going on in that war” — even if that means Americans die in a preventable assault. (In response, a Marine officer on the panel expressed his “contempt” for Wallace and other journalists who expect American soldiers to rescue war correspondents when they get in trouble. Why should I rescue them? he asked. After all, they’re not Americans, they’re “just journalists.”)

It goes without saying that if the Israelis attempted anything like this, we would be warned of such “troubling” and “grave” developments by the likes of Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace. Even the New York Times op-ed page would get its knickers in a twist over the Israeli police state.

But the same people who are willing to snap their pencils in solidarity with “censored” artists for being deprived of an NEA grant, or go to jail rather than name a criminal they talked to, or bloviate about the heroism of Salman Rushdie — are willing to shut up and follow orders when the reality for once is equal to their rhetoric.

Blame America First

One group which at least has had the courage not to shut up is the gang over at Lewrockwell.com. I encourage those of you who have found comfort in their writings in the past to go visit the site now. I won’t get into another argument with them, there’s no point. Rather, I merely invite you — especially those of you who found them amusing prior to the WTC attacks — to take a look at their offerings now. As I say, they have the courage of their convictions and have stuck to their guns, or rather their plowshares. Hell, they even seem to be implicating Abraham Lincoln in the destruction of the World Trade Center. As they say at Fox: I report, you decide.


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