Should the Newseum consider cameramen for Hamas-run TV to be journalists?


The Newseum building in Washington, D.C. (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

In November, two cameramen with a Gaza-based news outlet known as Al-Aqsa TV were killed in an Israeli airstrike during fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, a Gaza-based militant group that also governs the Palestinian territory and runs Al-Aqsa as its official media arm. Last week, the Newseum announced that it would include the two men in a special event Monday night honoring journalists killed while reporting the news.

On Monday morning, bowing to pressure, the D.C.-based museum announced it will "re-evaluate" including them in the event, in language that suggested it might be pulling them outright. The Newseum explained that "questions have been raised" as to "whether they were engaged in terrorist activities." But some much bigger questions about who counts as a journalist have also been raised. And while we probably won't answer those questions this week, they're worth considering.

There are two, somewhat-overlapping arguments that the Al-Aqsa cameraman should not have been granted the museum's honor for slain journalists. The first is that, even if they did the things that journalists do, they were not really journalists because they were employed by Hamas, a terrorist group. In this thinking, the cameraman necessarily and primarily served the Hamas's larger mission of militancy and terrorism, and should thus be considered terrorists first and journalists second. The second argument, which seems to have been less prevalently discussed, is that they may have been literally and directly acting as terrorists or at least combatants, for example by carrying weapons, inciting violence or helping to relay information to Hamas fighters.

The second of these two arguments – that the Al-Aqsa cameramen were militants who also happened to carry cameras – seems more clear-cut. Militaries extend, or are supposed to extend, some special privileges of safety and access to journalists in conflict zones. If the two men with Al-Aqsa were acting as militants first and foremost, then the fact that they also carried cameras and traveled in a van marked "Al-Aqsa" would not seem to obviate that they were combatants on a battlefield. While I was not there and can't say what the two men were doing, and while it may well emerge that this is what happened, this does not seem to be the line of argument that critics of the Newseum decision are largely pursuing.

The first argument, that the Al-Aqsa cameramen were employed by a terrorist organization and were thus terrorists before they were journalists, seems to rest on the premises that Al-Aqsa is a terrorism propaganda outlet (not a difficult case to make given its past celebrations of terrorist bombings) and that its employees are thus primarily terrorists or at least propagandists.

When you look at Al-Aqsa in isolation, it's easy to see the case that its employees, who produce segments, for example, cheering on the bombing of a Tel Aviv city bus, have crossed a line from journalism into something else. But that argument – and that line – might look less convincing when applied to other outlets or journalists. As The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg asked on Twitter, "Would you include the name of an Israeli army spokesman's office cameraman on the journalist memorial?"

I was recently on a panel at the National Press Club about the rise of foreign, state-run media outlets such as Al Jazeera and Beijing-run CCTV, where a variation of this question came up. Journalists from those networks, also on the panel, complained that Americans often assume that they are primarily propagandists for foreign governments, that their networks could not possibly produce real journalism. Don't reporters at the U.S. government-funded Voice of America count as journalists? And why do we trust the reporters at, for example, NBC News to put their journalistic values above the interests of corporate ownership?

Could that logic extend somewhat to Al-Aqsa TV? After all, we trust Brian Williams to put his journalistic values before General Electric corporate interests, we trust BBC reporters abroad not to be tools of U.K. foreign policy and, increasingly, a number of American viewers seem to trust that Al Jazeera English reporters can do the same with the policies of state owners in Qatar. Why should we treat these Gazan journalists any differently? Why begin with the assumption, which we don't seem to apply to other outlets, that they were first and foremost tools of their ownership? That's the argument of some observers who support the Newseum's initial decision to include the Al-Aqsa men, or at least are skeptical of the grounds on which they were removed.

But there are three important caveats to that case for including them in the Newseum honor. First, sometimes we do consider journalists with state-owned outlets to be serving the interests of their ownership over journalistic principle; for example, few would argue that the scribes at Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency are much more than propagandists (al-Aqsa is not KCNA, but neither is it the BBC). Second, journalists in the employ of combatants are sometimes considered components of that military force: this might include, as the writer Andrew Exum has argued, Serbian state media that helped incite ethnic violence in 1999; it might also include uniformed army soldiers who carry cameras, such as Goldberg's hypothetical Israeli military cameraman. Third, though the Al-Aqsa cameraman were not uniformed, both Hamas and Al-Aqsa are classified by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations, so perhaps the line between journalist and combatant is easier to cross when you're employed by such people.

Regardless of what you think about the particular case of Al-Aqsa and the Newseum, it touches on larger, important questions about where we draw the line between journalist and non-journalist. Those questions, as if they were not difficult enough to navigate already, are being litigated this week as part of both a museum's public relations crisis and the separate, often-emotional debates about Hamas, Gaza and Israel. I don't claim to have the answer as to whether or not these two cameramen with Al-Aqsa crossed the line separating journalists from non-journalists or what in particular might have pushed them over. Whatever the result of their particular case, though, these larger issues are likely to surface again.

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Max Fisher · May 13, 2013