How bloggers became more dangerous than bullets for freelance imprisoned by Hamas

Journalist Paul Martin has been beaten up, shot at, detained and imprisoned over the course of a 35-year journalistic career mainly involved in covering the Middle East and Africa.

But he has told Press Gazette that the greatest danger he faces today doesn’t come from paramilitaries with guns – but from bloggers with laptops.

Google ‘Paul Martin’ and ‘journalist’ and in the first page or two of results you will find articles on a website called Electronic Intifada describing him as a ‘fraud’ and a ‘hoaxer’.

Martin’s contention is that EI has attacked him over a series of articles in recent months because it is effectively a propaganda organisation which dislikes some of the material his reporting of the Middle East has uncovered.

As its name suggests, EI writes about the Middle East from a position which is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

EI describes itself as “an independent online news publication and educational resource focusing on Palestine”. It is funded by donations under the umbrella of the US-based Middle East Cultural and Charitable Society.

Martin told Press Gazette: “I don't think any decent TV organisation is going to believe this radical website  especially as it also claims the BBC, the Guardian, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Reuters and a whole range of other international news providers, are displaying bias against the Palestinians.

“What I'm worried about is it restricts my ability to work safely in a region which I have been an expert on for 35 years. In that sense they make my life not only difficult but dangerous or even possibly fatal.”

Martin’s concern is that he could taken hostage by a paramilitary group and find his life endangered because of the sort of things his captors could read on Electronic Intifada -  via a quick Google search to find who he is.

Martin hit the headlines in Press Gazette, and around the world, in February 2010 when he was arrested in Gaza by Hamas and held without charge for 26 days.  He was seized after attending a court hearing to give evidence on behalf the young dissident about whom he was making a documentary – Mohamed Abu Muailek - who was accused by Hamas of collaborating with Israel and faced possible execution.

Martin’s problems with EI began in July last year after freelance writer for EI, London-based Asa Winstanley, attended a London screening of Martin’s new documentary Friends Under Fire. This was his second documentary telling the story of Muhamed, a Palestinian who had renounced violence after previously being part of a paramilitary brigade which fired rockets into Israel.

In a lengthy piece published on 26 July Winstanley accused Martin of having “a history of fabrication”.

The main allegations are as follows.

  • That Paul Martin is not his real name, because as an anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa in the 1970s he went under the name Paul Cainer. Martin says Paul Martin Cainer was his full name, and that in the 1970s and 1980s there was nothing  unusual about South African exiles who had fought against apartheid changing their names for security reasons. He did so, legally, soon after arriving in the UK, of which he was also a citizen.   On his return to South Africa in 1994 to report the end of apartheid he was given his old passport back, with his full name, and from then on used both passports.
     
  • That in 2002 he misquoted Hassan Nasrallah in a piece he wrote for the Washington Times in which Hassan Nasrallah encouraged Muslims to take suicide bombings worldwide. Martin’s piece was based on a disputed translation of a speech which he stands by. Martin notes that Hizbullah has been accused of involvement in fatal attacks abroad since then.
     
  • That in 2002 “he posed as a native informant” in another piece for the Washington Times  which apppeared under the name Sayed Anwar revealing how 13 Palestinian militants holed-up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity during a 39-day stage were gangsters who subjected residents to a “two-year reign of terror”. Martin said that he used a pen-name for the piece because it was largely the work of his local fixers whose identity he needed to protect from violent revenge by the gang members.

The clear innuendo running through the piece by Winstanley was that Martin is not a bonafide journalist at all.

Martin’s efforts to get the claims retracted have only led to more stories and more allegations being levelled against him by the same freelance writing for EI.

In response Martin has used his own website, Conflictzones.tv, to defend his record citing backers such as Desmond Tutu, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and senior journalists at the Daily Mirror, Al Jazeera International, the BBC and the Washington Times.

One of the biggest ironies of the case is that last month Martin obtained an exclusive interview with the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzook, in Cairo which appeared prominently in Time Magazine’s website

As Martin puts it: “It must be obvious that even at the most senior levels Hamas consider me a fair, honest and decent journalist, despite its operatives having wrongly arrested me. That speaks volumes. The arrest was not carried out by the senior leadership but by hard-line internal security personnel, pursuing a vendetta against the man I was reporting on…

“It is time that people like Winstanley admit their serious error and apologise to me. These unwarranted attacks were based it seems on the false 'logic' that since some Hamas operatives arrested me, I must therefore be in some way anti-Palestinian and so fair game for spreading any other misinformation.”

Paul Martin interviewing deputy leader of Hamas Moussa Abu Marzook

Another irony is that Martin has been similarly pilloried by websites sympathetic to the Israeli position.

In 2009 he was accused on Little Green Footballs of distributing a “staged” video which showed the death of the 11-year-old brother of his producer who was hit by an Israeli rocket whilst playing on a Gaza rooftop. 

The film appeared on Channel 4 News, NBC News and CNN and was a PR nightmare for Israel.

Eventually, CNN ran a “Back story” piece longer than the original film in which the footage was analysed by a doctor and a professor of medicine from Harvard University  and proved to be genuine.

Martin told Press Gazette: “These ludicrous implications that I'm some sort of pro-Israeli stooge – or pro-Hamas stooge in the case of Little Green Footballs – is very bad for me.

“The Israelis could ban me from the country or [make life difficult for me, and so can some radical Arab groups or regimes. If I were to be  held by a Jihadi group and they look me up on the internet, it could be  literally fatal.”

Martin says he felt it was his journalistic duty to give evidence at the military trial of his source, Mohamed in 2010. When detained, Martin says he told his captors: “‘What kind of spy goes around speaking openly to western journalists?’ I said; ‘maybe he is committing a crime under your laws by speaking to me, but don't execute him.’ I was trying to save the guy’s life by telling the truth.”

During the 26 days he was locked up, Martin says he had a gun put to his head, was threatened with death on various occasions, had a torture victim put in his cell and was subjected to the sound of torture happening nearby. “It was pretty nightmarish.

Describing the EI as a website which supports “a one state solution which is very close to the Hamas line”, Martin comments: “What they have said to themselves is we don't like Paul Martin because he is not toeing the line we advocate, or what we think is the right narrative for that story.”

Press Gazette asked Winstanley what had motivated him to cover Paul Martin in such a forthright way and whether EI was a propaganda organisation as Martin alleges.

Winstanley declined to be interviewed.  He said via email: “My reasons for writing the articles about Martin are explained in the articles themselves and I have nothing further to add right now.”

A third website called “Source Watch” described Martin as a “fabricator” in an article which linked to three Winstanley articles and had, the page said, been viewed 400 times.

The US-based site describes itself as a “collaborative resource for citizens and journalists” run along similar lines to Wikipedia.

When Press Gazette asked the editors of the site to justify the allegations they were making they took the piece down and after conducting a review said: “The page title and claims will not be restored, and the page has been removed from the site as inconsistent with SourceWatch standards.”

Meanwhile, Martin continues his bid to remove from the internet the claims made against him by the freelance.

He has twice asked Google to remove the offending items.  The search engine has indicated it will not do so unless he has a libel ruling in his favour.

“In the end libellous comments from propagandists may seem just another occupational hazard that real journalists have to cope with when reporting from highly contentious areas,” Martin concludes.  “But it is time we journalists worked out how to hold websites – and especially search engines – responsible and liable for allowing these libels to appear and remain online.”

 

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