Israel versus the U.N. press corps
The Israeli government butted heads Thursday with the U.N. Correspondent’s Association, protesting the group’s decision to organize a press viewing of a film shot by a passenger on the aid ship Mavi Marmara as it was raided by Israeli commandos. Israel claimed it was prohibited from showing its own film version of events and making ...
The Israeli government butted heads Thursday with the U.N. Correspondent's Association, protesting the group's decision to organize a press viewing of a film shot by a passenger on the aid ship Mavi Marmara as it was raided by Israeli commandos. Israel claimed it was prohibited from showing its own film version of events and making a statement at the press conference.
The Israeli government butted heads Thursday with the U.N. Correspondent’s Association, protesting the group’s decision to organize a press viewing of a film shot by a passenger on the aid ship Mavi Marmara as it was raided by Israeli commandos. Israel claimed it was prohibited from showing its own film version of events and making a statement at the press conference.
But the U.N. press club’s president, Giampaolo Pioli, shot back hours later with a letter saying that Israel’s spokeswoman, Mirit Cohen, turned down an offer to show Israel’s film, presumably because she did not want to answer questions from the press attending the event. "Allow us to remind you that it was you who turned down our offer to present your Israeli film," Pioli wrote. The press club also released an email exchange between Pioli and Cohen as corroborating evidence; the exchange is posted below.
The disagreement stems from last week, when the U.N. press club arranged to screen an "exclusive preview" of a film by Iara Lee, a Brazilian-American filmmaker who was on-board the Mavi Marmara when Israeli navy commandos boarded the ship on May 31 in an effort to prevent it from breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israeli troops came under attack by passengers wielding pipes. Israel subsequently opened fire on the passengers, killing nine people. The film was shown on June 10.
Lee’s hand-held film shows an Israeli helicopter hovering over the Mavi Marmara as Israeli commandos rappel down onto the ship’s deck. A small group of passengers, wearing orange safety vests and wielding wooden slingshots, are seen firing rocks at the Israelis. The sound of pops, possibly gunfire, is heard in the background as wounded passengers are carried below deck. One man is shown unsuccessfully trying to revive a fellow passenger.
The Israeli film opens with a passenger vowing to make his third attempt at becoming a Martyr, then segues to images of men gathering on the ships’ deck wearing gasmasks and wielding pipes, a broken bottle and slingshots. The group throws objects at Israeli boats approaching the Mavi Marmara. The scene then switches to an Israel night-vision film showing passengers attacking the Israeli troops with pipes as they board the ship from a helicopter.
Cohen approached the press club on June 8, after the event was announced, to seek an opportunity to make Israel’s case at the press briefing and to show its own film version of the incident. One week after their talks, which took place over the next two days, Cohen wrote a formal complaint to Pioli, saying Israel had been denied an opportunity to show its five-minute film and to make some comments. Cohen also said that she had negotiated an agreement to appear after Lee’s showing but that the press association reneged on the agreement two hours before the press event.
"After we already had an agreement the day before to show the Israeli film right after hers, the president of UNCA called me two hours before the start of the event to tell me that my presentation is canceled and that I can do it on another day," Cohen said. "When I mentioned writing a letter of complaint, he decided less than an hour before the event to call me again and invite me to show the film half an hour before the journalists would arrive to see the original film, meaning half an hour before the start of the event. For that, I of course didn’t agree."
The Israeli delegation released its formal complaint on Thursday, June 17:
Dear Mr. Pioli,
I write this letter of complaint to officially protest your mishandling of the events surrounding the screening of footage by Ms. Iara Lee on 9 June 2010 at United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Offering UN media facilities to screen video produced by a one-sided activist while actively preventing a Member State of the United Nations an opportunity to respond in real time is severely unethical. In the current circumstances, your decision to ban the Permanent Mission of Israel from offering any feedback or comment during the aforementioned screening ensured that the reporters invited to the event would be offered only part of the story rather than a more complete set of facts so that they themselves could have made an informed analysis of the events in question. Furthermore, the fact that you cancelled the participation of the Permanent Mission of Israel only two hours prior to the commencement of the screening raises grave doubts as to the reasons behind this decision.
I have shared these concerns with you directly, though I believe that the members of the UN Correspondents Association deserve a more comprehensive set of facts regarding the events that took place onboard the Mavi Marmara on 31 May 2010. As such, I have decided to share with the members of UNCA the footage prepared by Israel.
In conclusion, I certainly expect that you will look into the decision that led to Israel’s nonparticipation in the event on 9 June. Furthermore, I expect an official apology from you and your association regarding this mistake. I – along with fair-minded journalists – expect that you as the President of the United Nations Correspondents Association would exercise responsible journalistic practices and demonstrate a commitment to balanced and objective news.
Thank you for attention to this unfortunate matter.
Spokesperson, Mission of Israel to the UN
In response, Pioli accused Cohen of distorting the nature of the discussions.
Dear Ms Cohen,
Your letter of protest came as a surprise to members of the United Nations Correspondents Association. It is factually incorrect and distorts the exchanges that took place on June 10 (not June 9) between UNCA and your mission.
Contrary to your claim, at no time were we "actively preventing a Member State of the United Nations an opportunity to respond in real time" to the screening of footage by Ms. Iara Lee at United Nations Headquarters in New York. You know very well that that’s not what happened. Even more preposterous is your insinuation that we have some kind of ulterior motive: "(T)he fact that you cancelled the participation of the Permanent Mission of Israel only two hours prior to the commencement of the screening raises grave doubts as to the reasons behind this decision."
Instead it was you who turned down our offer to screen your Israeli film and make your statement directly before or after Ms. Lee’s presentation, you who refused to take the stage alongside Ms. Lee to present your side of the story, you who declined to take questions from UNCA journalists — a requirement for all UNCA presentations.
What was your reason for turning down our offers? You were tired out by our discussions during which you raised your voice with me and rejected all of our proposals for how you could participate. As you put it in your email: "I have to admit that I am exhausted from all this process and we won’t take part at this one sided event." (see our email exchange below)
UNCA sees no reason to apologize. UNCA Executive Committee members behaved fairly and professionally, offering both sides the chance to present their version of what happened on May 31. We wanted a balanced event but you were not willing to take part in one. Your approach to our organization was both undignified and unprofessional. If anyone is owned an apology it is the United Nations Correspondents Association.
We hope to have better cooperation in the future based on mutual respect.
on behalf of the UNCA Executive Committee
The press club also offered an email exchange from June 10 with the Israeli mission.
From MIRIT COHEN:
Please find bellow the link to the short film from the IDF spokesperson unit re the events on the Mavi Marmara, which we ask to screen today after the other film. We will make a short statement as well.
From GIAMPAOLO PIOLO:
We must show the IDF film after the Q and A with Iara Lee. UN correspondent will attend your event and you will have the same Q and A time.
From MIRIT COHEN:
That won’t going to happen, I’m sorry. It’s only five minutes that I insist to screen right after her film as a comment. If you won’t allow it the Israeli mission will consider to send a formal letter of complaint to the SG[Secretary General] and you should know that the Israeli press going to write about this saga.
Please let me know what you decide.
From GIAMPAOLO PIOLI:
Do you think it would work to show your film and make your statement at 10 minutes before 4pm(1550)? we can send out an email now to all unca members so that we get back-to-back film showings. The advantage is that you would get the first word.
We would like to repeat our request that you take questions. Unca members agreed after a problematic climate change event last year that everyone using unca as a forum for presentations must take questions. If you do not, that’s up to you, but you will get a few questions thrown at you and there’s nothing we can do to stop this.
Pleas let me know asap if you can live with that.
From MIRIT COHEN:
But I have to admit that I’m exhausted from all this process and we won’t take part at this one-sided event. Thank you anyway and I do hope for better cooperation in the future,
Later on June 17, Cohen wrote a response:
Your response to my letter conveys a total misrepresentation of the sequence of events on, and before June 9th.
While it was clearly not your goal to show a complete version of the facts regarding the incident onboard the Mavi Marmara, I find solace in the fact that the reporters of UNCA have now seen the complete picture.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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