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5 Shevat 5763 - January 8, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Dishonest Reporting Awards of 2002

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

The worldwide media have much to be embarrassed about this past year. Disturbingly, the problems noted here do not seem to be driven by incompetence, but rather by ideology.

HonestReporting, an independent media watch organization that claims 55,000 members, has again awarded its Dishonest Reporting Award of 2002. The winner was selected from hundreds of entries of bad reporting about Israel and the current conflict with the Palestinians.

HonestReporting says that it took many factors into account: Was there a policy of deliberate bias? Were reports based on unreliable sources or no sources at all? Did the reporter or publication refuse to admit its errors? The organization took nominations from all its members.

The winner of the Dishonest Reporting Award 2002 is the British media for its coverage of the fighting in Jenin.

A huge number of nominations expressed alarm over media coverage of the Jenin battle in April. Most notably, the British media reported "facts" of IDF massacres, atrocities, summary executions, and mass graves -- which in the end were shown by United Nations and Human Rights Watch reports to have been fabricated by "overzealous" Palestinian "witnesses."

Here are a few examples of how the British media reported on Jenin:

* "We are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide . . . " -- London Evening Standard

* "Rarely, in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life." -- The Times of London

* Israel's actions in Jenin were "every bit as repellent" as Osama bin Laden's attack on New York on September 11. -- The Guardian

* "Hundreds of victims `were buried by bulldozer in a mass grave.' " -- Daily Telegraph

Why the overzealous reaction based on spurious evidence?

Alon Ben-David, a veteran military correspondent for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (and currently at Harvard), told UPI (which did a thorough investigation of the problems soon after the fact): "A large part of the European media regards itself as not just reporters but as ideological crusaders. They are in the business of journalism not just for the business. They want to do good in the world. They have agendas."

This bad reporting has had consequences as well. Looking back, the alarmist Jenin coverage has since impacted the Mideast conflict in three key respects:

1) Palestinian Mythology

By allowing unfounded rumors to be reported as factual, the media has helped create a false Palestinian mythology over the battle of Jenin: the few fought the many and bravely chose to die in battle rather than surrender. Just as plenty of people are willing to believe that the Israeli Mossad was somehow behind September 11, plenty are willing to believe that the IDF got away with murder in Jenin, too.

This slipshod coverage adds fuel to the fire of those who falsely accuse the IDF of using excessive force. In reality, by using ground troops instead of an aerial assault, IDF troops put themselves in danger in order to spare Palestinian casualties -- and lost 23 soldiers in Jenin.

Since these myths are now part of Palestinian lore, true reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians becomes more difficult. Palestinians will resurrect and spuriously compare Jenin to Sabra and Shatilla (where Christian Phalangists indeed massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees), proving how poor media coverage of events can further widen the Israeli-Palestinian gulf.

2) Residual References

Even after the allegations of a "massacre" were proven false, some of the media can't seem to let go. In August, Peter Cave of Australia's ABC insisted:

"I personally saw 30 Palestinian corpses at the hospital on April the 20th, and with dozens of other foreign reporters, watched them being buried at a mass grave just up the road from the hospital... Just as in Tiananmen Square, the power of the gun and the tank ensured there was no proper body count or accounting. Just as happened in Tiananmen Square, the uninformed and those with their own agenda, are now claiming there was no massacre. There was a massacre, a considerable number of human beings were indiscriminately and unnecessarily slaughtered . . . "

The media continues to trump up the Jenin charges in other ways. In November, when former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz was appointed Defense Minister, the BBC reported that Mofaz "directed some of Israel's most controversial operations in the West Bank earlier this year, including Jenin -- where Palestinians claim a massacre took place -- and Ramallah."

After HonestReporting complaints, the BBC subsequently changed the wording to "Jenin -- where a Palestinian refugee camp was all but demolished . . . "

This, too, is biased wording, as fighting only took place in a 200-square-meter area -- no more than about 6 percent of the total area of the camp.

3) Credibility of Palestinian Spokesmen

HonestReporting has encouraged the media to challenge specious and inaccurate claims made by Palestinian spokesmen, particularly the charges of massacres. On April 14, Saeb Erekat was challenged by CNN's Bill Hemmer: "You said specifically, and others said, 500 in Jenin . . . Where are you getting evidence that shows 500 people were killed there? . . . If [Israel's] numbers are right and your initial numbers are wrong, will you come back here on our network and retract what you said?"

Erekat: "Absolutely."

(We're still waiting.)

With so many Palestinian spokesmen issuing false accusations about Jenin, this calls into question the general advisability of the media relying on Palestinian claims.

In April, Palestinian spokesman Nabil Sha'ath went on CNN to report that 30 Palestinian women died in labor at Israeli checkpoints. The canard joins other Palestinian claims of Israel using radioactive ammunition, Nazi tactics, and nerve gas, along with the charges that Jewish settlers tortured Palestinians (though investigations later revealed they had actually died in traffic accidents or were executed by Palestinians as "collaborators").

Also in April, Palestinian spokesmen claimed that documents confiscated from Arafat's compound in Ramallah detailing Arafat's senior advisors' involvement in suicide bombings and terrorism, were fraudulent forgeries. Abdel Rahman told CNN: "This is a fraud by the Israeli intelligence, sir. The Israelis have a department that specializes in putting out lies." And Nasser Al-Kidwa (Palestinian representative to the UN) told CNN: " . . . some kind of James Bond activities . . . bits and pieces of rumors and unsubstantiated claims."

If Palestinian spokespeople repeatedly use the media as a platform to promote outright lies, doesn't the media have a responsibility to ban that spokesperson, and to generally be wary of unquestionably swallowing Palestinian claims?


It may take years for the Jenin dust to settle. But one thing we have learned: The British media will not hesitate to promote a biased anti-Israel agenda, whether or not the facts are there to back it up.

We recall how the global chorus of condemnation prompted UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to call on Israel to halt its military operations. "Can the whole world be wrong?" he asked.

In fact, the whole world was wrong. Phil Reeves of The Independent, known as a frequent critic of Israel, wrote of Jenin: "Even journalists have to admit they're wrong sometimes."

But it was too little, too late. The damage had been done. And for that, the British media deserves the Dishonest Reporting Award 2002.

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