BBC Arabic’s Jerusalem Correspondent Ahmad Budeiri describes the testing journalistic environment his team faced in May when reporting the storming of the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara by Israeli troops, part of a flotilla of six vessels carrying aid for Gaza
Standing on a hill overlooking the port of Ashdod in Israel and waiting for the Gaza aid flotilla was an opportunity to experience and be part of how the BBC really works at time of breaking news.
At the beginning we thought it would be a short story without much interest, but it became headline news for a week, with another ten days of repercussions and reactions after the deaths of nine people aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara.
While our team and other networks were busy broadcasting from the hilltop on a hot and humid day, an angry mob arrived and started shouting at us, threatening every reporter who was broadcasting in Arabic. They called us ‘Nazi’ reporters and two crews from Arab networks were beaten. As for me, perhaps because I had been on the BBC’s hostile environment training course, I managed to avoid being punched. I used to think those courses were a waste of time, but I am grateful to the instructors who taught me how to save my face and chin.
I remembered what I was trained for in a kidnap situation and used the exact process during the mob incident. The cameraman and I had a password that, if used, he will start packing and I would be on the phone for more than ten minutes. By doing this the mob lost interest in me and gave us a gap to leave the location without being spotted. Other Arab crews were beaten when they all left as one big group and were slow departing because of their equipment.
The course also taught me to avoid any confrontation, but at the same time not to be seen as a weak person. While I was on air, the mob tried to distract me and some then even blocked the camera. I tried to get them to speak on air and show I was not weak, but also fight back in a positive way to gain respect for a moment - other reporters did not do that which resulted in more fury.
The hostile environment course was clear that the priority is safety and not being on air. If I had stayed in the location things would only have become ugly, so I decided it was time to leave, a decision was supported by my editors without question. The lesson is not to think that leaving a breaking story location is a bad thing when it is a hostile place - a mistake may have resulted in blood being shed.
There were some Israeli policemen nearby, but they never reacted to nor stepped in to prevent the threats – although one Israeli official did later apologies for the chaos.
Editorially, the amount of information we were getting from the Israeli side was thin and communication with the activists on the ships had been cut off. Rumours were all over that hill top and, as a BBC reporter, I had to be cautious as many other broadcasters were airing pure speculation, for which they had to later apologise. We had enough scoops and breaking news of our own, at the end of the day, on what was a testing story for everyone involved.
I had to be cautious as many other broadcasters were airing pure speculation, for which they had to later apologise.
BBC Arabic’s Jerusalem Correspondent Ahmad Budeiri
Many reporters moan about the multimedia side of the BBC newsgathering and in the field it is indeed very exhausting to work for three platforms on a breaking news day. One consequence was having to charge my mobile phone four times a day.
Was it 16, ten or five dead? That was a question none of us had the answer to in those first few difficult hours. It was also an emotionally difficult story, not really knowing what had happened to those people aboard the six ships out at sea.
Moving south to Beersheba, for the next stage of the story, was a different challenge in the 42-degree heat of the Negev Desert. There, we waited patiently for the buses that would take the now imprisoned, surviving activists to the airport and out of Israel. Luckily, it paid off and we were live on the air as the prison gates opened and the last bus left. We followed them all the way to the airport to finish what had been an amazing story.
When I covered the illness of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon for two weeks, I felt like I was a medical reporter. When I covered the two recent regional conflicts I felt like I was a war reporter. When reporting on the controversial digging near Jerusalem’s holy places, I felt I was an archaeology reporter. On this occasion, the feeling was one of now being a naval specialist, trying to talk with authority about ships, marines and naval tactics. This is what we have to do – covering any story asked of us with knowledge, clarity and understanding. Then we pack up, go home and move on to another story and another day.
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