Israel makes U-turn over warning to flotilla journalists

AFP , Monday 27 Jun 2011

Tel-Aviv recants on intention to use force against foreign journalists covering the Gaza-bound flotilla after rights groups condemn move as a violation of press freedoms

Israel on Monday backtracked on its warning to foreign journalists covering the Gaza-bound flotilla, saying they would not face the same punishment as other participants in the convoy.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the authorities to draw up a special procedure for dealing with foreign journalists sailing on the flotilla that will enter Israel illegally," said a statement from Netanyahu's office.

On Sunday, Israel's Government Press Office warned that journalists sailing on the flotilla could be barred from the country for up to a decade and have their equipment confiscated.

The move was condemned by rights groups and the Tel Aviv-based Foreign Press Association as a severe violation of the freedom of the press.

Netanyahu's office said he had been unaware of the original warning.

"When this was brought to the prime minister's attention, he ordered that normal procedures taken against infiltrators and those entering illegally not be applied to journalists," the statement said.

Netanyahu also said he would allow reporters to accompany the naval vessels sent to intercept the flotilla "in order to allow transparent and trustworthy coverage of the events."

About 10 boats are to take part in the so-called Freedom Flotilla II.

Its departure was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of an earlier attempt to break the blockade, during which Israeli troops stormed the lead ship, leaving nine Turkish activists dead.

Israel's security cabinet on Monday authorised the navy to intercept the boats and not allow them to reach Gaza.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a number of governments, including Washington, have warned the flotilla not to set sail.

Israel imposed a blockade on the territory in 2006 after Gaza-based militants including members of the Islamist Hamas snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

A ban on civilian goods and foodstuffs was eased last year, but many restrictions remain in place.

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