Mitchell: detained at airport
Israel’s hardened attitude towards foreign journalists remained in sharp relief this week, as the journalist who produced the controversial interview with Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu attempted to reclaim belongings confiscated by the authorities.
Chris Mitchell – producer, director and partner in Magnetic North Films – had 35 tapes, a mobile phone and documents seized as he was arrested and detained by Israeli security staff on 23 May, while attempting to leave the country.
Mitchell was commissioned by the BBC to film the Vanunu interview, aired as a BBC Two This World special last Sunday.
Vanunu, barred from speaking to foreigners by Israeli authorities under the terms of his release from jail after 18 years, was interviewed by local journalist Yael Lotan.
Mitchell declined to discuss how the film was smuggled out of Israel, in order to protect the confidentiality of the persons involved.
After the interview, Sunday Times journalist Peter Hounam – who broke the original Vanunu story in 1986 – and freelance editor Sadi Haeri, both employed by Mitchell to work on the film, were arrested.
Hounam managed to break free temporarily as he was led away from the Jerusalem Hotel, and pleaded with a member of Amnesty International to inform The Sunday Times of his plight.
On Wednesday (2 June), after 10 days and numerous telephone calls to the Israeli Embassy in London, Mitchell still remained in the dark about when he would get his belongings back.
“I was told – promised in fact – that they would be back to me within a few days. I’ve phoned the embassy and they say it is in the hands of the [Israeli] Prime Minister’s office,” Mitchell told Press Gazette.
“If they guarantee that my possessions will be returned to me then I won’t take any action.
“If they stall, then I will have to start taking action through my lawyers and the BBC.
“I wasn’t cited any kind of law under which this was being done. It was the kind of thing you’d expect in old-style Romania or East Germany, not a country that calls itself a democracy.
Democracies do not arrest journalists,” said Mitchell. Mitchell then relayed the events that led up to his own arrest at the airport.
“I was detained by the [airport] security people and then the police. What was so evident was that they were waiting for me. This was not a random search. Someone alerted them,” said Mitchell.
“The reason I thought that was because I had come out of Israel a month before, on the first shoot, when we filmed coverage of Vanunu’s release. The kind of treatment I got then was very different to the treatment I got last Sunday,” he said.
He added that in his experience of working in Israel – he has been a filmmaker in the Middle East for 15 years – foreign journalists leaving the country were normally subjected to rigorous questioning before being searched, but he was not on that particular day.
He said: “It was a kind of cursory engagement before they put me on to the search. I was whisked away as soon as my stuff entered the security search area.
“I was then intercepted and whisked off to a separate room, where I was detained without any reason being given for why my stuff had been confiscated.
“The detention went on for rather more than two hours. It was very obvious that I was being detained so that there was no chance to make a phone call before I left, because I was allowed out only minutes before the plane left, accompanied by one of the security people straight to the departure lounge.
“This gave them another six or seven hours in which they could do what they wanted, by going through my mobile phone, my address book etc.”
Mitchell said there has been a noticeable increase in the harassment of journalists over the last few months and he thinks it unlikely that he will be allowed back in to Israel.
“And that’s a shame”, he added.
By Wale Azeez