For all of the things we already knew were wrong with that interview, here is another. It was bad enough that Shalit was held up from being reunited with his family, and it was bad enough that he was subject to one last round of psychological torment, surely wondering if saying the wrong thing while still in custody with Hamas gunmen in the room might somehow affect his release.
But the Egyptian media could not even wait for Shalit to be checked by a doctor. “Red Cross Doctors Did Not Examine Gilad Shalit Before Controversial Egyptian TV Interview,” by Richard Behar for Forbes, October 26:
Established journalists are loath to criticize their own: with jobs scarce, cowardice proves the better career path, especially when too many reporters sit blindfolded inside their own glass houses. Add in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the media community goes into a collective coma.
Such is the case in the aftermath of last week’s exclusive “interview” that Egyptian state TV conducted with Gilad Shalit (also spelled Schalit) — the Israeli soldier who”d been held hostage by Hamas for five years. You can watch the interview for yourself here; while only 9 minutes long, you may come away feeling like a hostage yourself — to one of the most egregious interviews of our era, conducted just moments after Shalit was released in exchange for more than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians. (The deal required Shalit to be turned over to Egypt — serving as a “neutral” intermediary — which, after the interview, sent the soldier to Israel.)
What’s extraordinary is that so few voices in the international journalism community — outside of Israel, Gaza or Egypt — have weighed in on it. Last week, I sent an email to the interviewer, Shahira Amin, Egypt’s most famous TV journalist — posted afterwards in a news story.
Three days ago, she responded at great length in an email, most of which she subsequently published in an open letter in the Jerusalem Post. In her email to me, Amin defends her decision to conduct the interview with Shalit — in part because she says the interview was conducted “AFTER [her caps] he had been released by Hamas and had a medical checkup by the Red Cross.”
But here’s the problem: Red Cross spokesman Hicham Hassan wrote me today that “ICRC representatives met Mr. Shalit briefly after his transfer to the Egyptian authorities. However, he was not met by an IRC doctor as this has [sic] not been solicited.”
This is no small detail: The issue of Shalit’s medical condition (physical and mental) lies at the very heart of why the interview should never have taken place. So does the fact that a masked Hamas soldier — from the group’s armed wing — stood with a camera in that interview room. Just how “released” could Shalit have felt at that moment — in an Israel-unfriendly country such as Egypt — to freely consent to an interview? Considering that masked Hamas men were the only people he could see for five years, did he feel he was in any position to say no?
“This was an illusion of choice,” says Dr. Nancy Zarse of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, an expert in hostage negotiations for the FBI, federal prisons, and the Chicago Police. “I watched the video of the interview. There was evidence of increased autonomic [nervous system] arousal, a lot of heavy breathing, and there were times that I thought he looked scared. This wasn’t really that you have the option to say no. I haven’t met or spoken with him, but I would understand that an individual like this still feels captive — that an interview like this would become part and parcel of the captivity.
Article 13 of the Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners calls for them to be protected from “public curiosity”:
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 have long been used to protect the human dignity of current and former war prisoners. While those laws apply to governments, and not media organizations, keep in mind that the Shalit interview was conducted for Egyptian state TV — an arm of government. Since 2003, the British Red Cross and the British Government have made efforts to provide an updated interpretation of the requirement to protect prisoners of war or civilian internees against “insults and public curiosity” by TV media. For one thing, the Red Cross notes, publicity can humiliate the person and make his return to his own country more difficult. And many of those interviews are done “under duress.”
Keep in mind that this is also the “new” Egypt. The modern, moderate one that is supposed to respect human rights (when it is not ramming crowds of civilian protesters with military vehicles).
The Red Cross recognizes that there can be difficult borderline cases, but I think it’s clear to anyone watching Amin’s interview that Shalit was still in a state of shock and very much under duress.
Amin kicked off the interview by saying, “Gilad Shalit, you look fine!” But in her letter to me, she noted that he looked “terribly tired and malnourished “¦ thinner than pictures I had seen of him and pale “¦ His voice was weak and he seemed to have difficulty concentrating, but was in high spirits “¦ .” In a discussion with another reporter, Amin was quoted saying that Shalit seemed “exhausted” and that she felt maternal and “held his hands a few times to calm him down.” She also said the interview had to be stopped several times because Shalit “felt uncomfortable.”
Readers and viewers, of course, can judge it all for themselves. I provided my email exchanges with Amin — plus the link to the video interview — to Gene Foreman, one of the most respected editors in the news business and the author of The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News — a book described as “a GPS for sound decision-making.”
Foreman’s take on the interview done by Shahira Amin? “It’s pretty clear even to a lay person that the soldier is not in physical condition to undergo that kind of interview,” he says, adding that, besides exploiting Shalit, she too might have been exploited by Egyptian state TV, especially by pointedly asking whether Shalit will now “help campaign for the release of the 4,000 Palestinian prisoners still languishing in Israeli prisons.” In her email to me, Amin noted that she “had” to ask that question. Just why she had to do that — she didn’t say.
The head of Egyptian TV said it was just too hot a news story to pass up. It was also too much of a propaganda coup, and an opportunity to heap more abuse on Shalit.
There are no instructive journalism lessons here — but budding propagandists would do well to take note of Amin’s odious work.