Israeli censorship of CNN's Gaza coverage exposed by The Intercept

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 6 Jan 2024

Under the shadow of the Israeli Defence Ministry censorship, CNN's Jerusalem bureau dictates coverage of the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, The Intercept news website revealed.

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"Whether reporting from the Middle East, the United States, or anywhere else across the globe, every CNN journalist covering Israel and Palestine must submit their work for review by the news organization’s bureau in Jerusalem prior to publication, under a long-standing CNN policy," the nonprofit news organization said.

The Intercept quoted a member of CNN’s staff who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal who said: "Every single Israel-Palestine-related line for reporting must seek approval from the [Jerusalem] bureau — or, when the bureau is not staffed, from a select few handpicked by the bureau and senior management — from which lines are most often edited with a very specific nuance.”

The CNN staff member described to The Intercept how the policy works in practice.

“‘War crime’ and ‘genocide’ are taboo words,” the person said. “Israeli bombings in Gaza will be reported as ‘blasts’ attributed to nobody until the Israeli military weighs in to either accept or deny responsibility. Quotes and information provided by the Israeli army and government officials tend to be approved quickly, while those from Palestinians tend to be heavily scrutinized and slowly processed.”

The network also hired a former soldier from the Israeli army’s Military Spokesperson Unit to serve as a reporter at the onset of the war, said The Intercept. 

The first byline by the former soldier, Tamar Michaelis, appears on 17 October. Since then, her name has appeared on dozens of stories citing the Israeli Defence Ministry and relaying information about the Israeli army’s operations in the Gaza Strip. 

This "long-standing" policy means that the CNN coverage of the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza has been shaped in the shadow of the Israeli military censor.

The Jerusalem bureaus for all foreign news organizations operating in Israel are subject to the rules of the Israeli army censor "which dictates subjects that are off-limits for news organizations to cover, and censors articles it deems unfit or unsafe to print," according to The Intercept. 

Foreign reporters must sign a document agreeing to abide by the dictates of the censor, in order to obtain a press pass in Israel.

Recently, the Israeli army censors restricted eight subjects, including "security cabinet meetings, information about captives, and reporting on weapons captured by fighters in Gaza," The Intercept said in a report published last month. 

CNN’s practice of routing coverage through the Jerusalem bureau "stands in contrast to other major news outlets, which in the past have run sensitive stories through desks outside of Israel to avoid the pressure of the censor," said The Intercept. 

According to The Intercept, CNN, like other American broadcasters, has repeatedly agreed to submit footage recorded in Gaza to the military censor before airing it in exchange for limited access to the strip, drawing criticism from those who say the censor is providing a filtered view of events unfolding on the ground. 

Jim Naureckas, the editor of the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, told The Intercept that "CNN’s team in Jerusalem are the people closest to the Israeli government.”

Early in the war, on 26 October, CNN’s News Standards and Practices division sent an email to staff outlining how they should write about the war, The Intercept said.  

“Hamas controls the government in Gaza and we should describe the Ministry of Health as ‘Hamas-controlled’ whenever we are referring to casualty statistics or other claims related to the present conflict. If the underlying statistics have been derived from the Ministry of Health in Gaza, we should note that fact and that this part of the Ministry is ‘Hamas-controlled’ even if the statistics are released by the West Bank part of the ministry or elsewhere,” CNN's email said according to The Intercept.

The email goes on to acknowledge CNN’s responsibility to cover the human cost of the war but couches that responsibility in the need to “cover the broader current geopolitical and historical context of the story” while continuing to “remind our audiences of the immediate cause of this current conflict, namely the Hamas attack and mass murder and kidnap of Israeli civilians.”

In a separate directive dated 2 November, The Intercept said that Senior Director of News Standards and Practices David Lindsey cautioned reporters from relaying statements from Hamas.

“As the Israel-Gaza war continues, Hamas representatives are engaging in inflammatory rhetoric and propaganda. Most of it has been said many times before and is not newsworthy. We should be careful not to give it a platform.”

He added, though, that “if a senior Hamas official makes a claim or threat that is editorially relevant, such as changing their messaging or trying to rewrite events, we can use it if it’s accompanied by greater context.” 

The language of the directives mirrors similar orders from CNN management at the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, when Chair Walter Isaacson ordered foreign correspondents at the network to play down civilian deaths and remind readers that the violence they were witnessing was a direct result of the attacks on 11 September, said The Intercept. 

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