Foreign press intimidated by Israeli and Egyptian security

Israeli airport security and Egyptian border control prevent Roee Ruttenberg and his cameraman from filming a simple assignment for an international media outlet in Sharm el Sheikh.

It should have been a regular day and an easy assignment. I was asked by an international news broadcaster to travel from Tel Aviv with a cameraman to Sharm el Sheikh to film a piece about tourism carrying on despite the unrest in the Egyptian capital. Step one: hire an Arabic-speaking videojournalist. Step two: book two tickets from Tel Aviv to Israel’s southern border city of Eilat, and travel accordingly. Step three: cross the Egyptian border into the city of Taba. Step four: hire a local driver to take us to the resort city where we would film for 2-3 hours before returning with him to the border. Step five: cross back into Israel. Step six: fly back to Tel Aviv from Eilat. Step seven: feed the material to the broadcaster.

Again, it should have been a regular day and an easy assignment. It was neither.

Even before I address the chaos in Egypt and thus the additional frustrations in trying to get there, I will recall the events of the day as they happened chronologically. We arrived at Tel Aviv’s domestic airport, Sde Dov, at 6am to catch our morning flight. Security at Sde Dov usually takes 30-45 seconds. Unless you are travelling with an Arab cameraman.

I walked into the airport, passed through the magnometer, was asked a few security questions and then proceeded to check-in. My cameraman was a few steps behind me. But upon seeing his Israeli-issued East Jerusalem ID card, security agents immediately raised the alarm bells. He was told to step aside and wait. I was called back and questioned again.

“How do you know him? How long have you been working with him? Is he married? Does he have children? Where was he last night?” Needless to say, by third or fourth question, I was perturbed by the line of questioning (and the fact that we would now be missing our flight).

I began being less than cooperative. After about thirty minutes of questioning, in which we were joined by another plain-clothes security agent, we were informed that we would be required to undergo additional security checks (which one assumes is code for a stripsearch), and that our camera would require an “extensive” security scan. That scan, we were told, would take longer than our personal security check, and therefore we were instructed to take the next flight to Eilat and told our camera would come on the following flight. Knowing from the experience of colleagues that we would likely receive our camera in pieces — if at all — as can be the case when Israeli security attempts to harass and intiminate foreign media, I responded, “However long the camera scan takes, we prefer to stay with our video gear and travel with it.”

My logicial position was followed by an absurd response from the security agent. “No matter how long the security procedures take, you will not be allowed to travel with your camera and whatever flight you take, the camera will come on a later flight.” I was told the decision came from the “higher-ups.” Foolishly, I asked to speak with one. I waited another forty minutes to do so, only to receive the same response and the same default of source. (It should be noted that while we were waiting, a TV news crew from Israeli Channel 1 arrived to check-in for the same flight. Their Ashkenazi-looking Jewish cameraman passed through security in the usual 30-45 seconds and boarded the flight with his camera.)

We decide instead to leave Sde Dov airport, opting to try flying from the larger and more sophisticated Ben Gurion airport. During the thirty-minute drive, I spoke by phone with the new director of the government press office. To his credit, he sounded infuriated (if for no other reason that having to deal with this at seven-thirty in the morning) and immediately took up the case. Five minutes later, the head of security at Ben Gurion’s airport called me and promised to expedite our screening and to treat us with integrity. His security details did just that and within an hour we were in the air (for our forty minute flight).

We finally arrived in Eilat, headed to the border and crossed into Egypt. Technically. An Egyptian custom official informed us that we are free to enter the country, but not with our camera. We were told that the only way to enter the country with a camera was to get a permit from the Ministry of Information in Cairo, which was obviously closed due to the national unrest. We argued with him for quite some time, but eventually gave up.

We returned to Eilat and decided to make use of our time by filming generic footage of the city for future use. Then we headed to the airport in Eilat, where (as we expected) the process started all over again. The questions were shorter, the staff were admittedly politer, but the harassment was equally frustrating and unnecessary. We were forced to screen our footage for the security agents. One of them asked why there was no date stamp on the video, to which we responded, “We do not use a date stamp. We know the date.” She became suspicious. “Something does not sound right here. Nowadays every camera has a date stamp on it.” True, if you choose to activiate it. I praised her for having achieved a level of expertise in both the fields of security and video production. I do not think she appreciated my sarcasm. But either way, we eventually got through and made it back to Tel Aviv.

During the flight, I could not help but wonder: what is it about TV camera crews that make the Israeli security apparatus so nervous?

The following day in Egypt, a number of journalists came under attack. Among them were former colleagues of mine from Al Jazeera English, many of whom hold Western passports. Then came the international headlines: Anderson Cooper comes under attack in Cairo. The CNN crew was mobbed by pro-Mubarak protesters. Suddenly, Americans were outraged. How could Egyptians so shamelessly try to silence our media?

I wondered where were the American cries for press freedom when the US military destroyed Al Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad and Kabul.

I wondered where were the American cries for press freedom when President George W. Bush and his British counterpart refused to allow journalists to cover the invasion of Afghanistan as anything but “embeds,” literally embedded with American and British troops.

I wondered where were the American cries for press freedom when the Israeli military launched an air bombardment of Gaza for three weeks and refused entry to international media.

The truth is: The camera is a dangerous weapon. They know it and we know it. It can record events much better than the mind and relay them much quicker than the mouth. It is a threat to anyone who does not want you knowing or seeing what he is doing. But it just so happens to be one of humanity’s greatest assets. The world would have never seen the June 1989 image of the lone man stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square if Chinese officials would have confiscated the camera of the Associated Press’s photographer Jeff Widener who captured the memorable image.

Journalism is not going anywhere, and thus journalists are here to stay. More must be done to protect our ability to work and to ease the increasing barriers we face. Even if you sometimes disagree with what we are showing, protecting this freedom is in your interest just as much — if not more — than ours.