Freedom of Press at War

This is a cross post from Yaacov Lozowick of Yaacov Lozowick Ruminations

Iman Al Hams was killed in Rafah on October 5th, 2004. She was 13 at the time. For her and for her family the rest of the story will never make things better.

For a lot of other people, however, the circumstances of her death were very important: Was she repeatedly shot in cold blood, or was her death the result of a tragic mistake in a complicated war? Was it the story of a callous Israeli officer, or perhaps of a general atmosphere of contempt towards Palestinian lives?

There was no lack of people willing to tell the facts as they were convinced of them. Here, for example, you can read the Guardian’s Chris McGreal investigation: he not only knew that Iman had been repeatedly shot in cold blood, but that the IDF would probably not seriously investigate the case, because they almost never do. Six months later, Iman was the poster figure for Ronnie Kasril and Victoria Brittain’s call for a boycott against Israel, also in the Guardian. Wikipedia has lots of links to the story, here.

So clear cut did the story seem to be, so obviously bad, that the mainstream Israeli media joined the Guardian and its ilk in describing it. True, the agenda of such a prime-time investigative television program Uvda (Fact!), anchored by Ilana Dayan, a Doctor of Law by training and one of Israel’s most respected journalists, was not that Israel is a fascist colonial monster, but rather that the potential rot of war was seeping into the IDF. Still, hers was a powerful voice of condemnation.

Then the story began to unravel. Some of the most damning testimony had come from the officer’s subordinates; they eventually admitted they hadn’t been accurate. The officer was eventually indicted on some minor charges, then exonerated in court. He then sued Ilana Dayan, the main purveyor of the damning narrative.

Yesterday the court gave a resounding decision in his favor, awarding him NIS300,000 in damages. Amos Harel, reporting in Haaretz, openly admits he doesn’t like the court’s decision:

Sohlberg’s 131-page ruling will become a landmark decision in the history of journalism in Israel, due to the case’s extensive publicity and Dayan’s prominence. It will also be remembered because Sohlberg, considered a specialist in libel suits and strict when it comes to the media, went too far in dealing not only with the facts of the program, but also going into great detail about the editing process. (For the purposes of proper disclosure, it should be noted that I have been interviewed by Dayan on the radio and on television, and two of my reports on the affair are quoted in the ruling.)

Harel’s column alludes to fundamental questions about how journalists cast their tales, and the liberties they sometimes take in editing the materials they have so as to be compelling.

Some of the other shortcomings the judge found and the weight he attached to them, will certainly result in another round in court. Had R. been so clearly damaged, in the mind of the reasonable viewer, by the scene with the jeeps? Was Dayan’s leaving 10 months off the age of the 13-year-old victim, as the judge ruled, a flaw or a technical matter? Is the combination of an image of Palestinians removing the girl’s body from the scene of the shooting, and a segment of field radio communication recorded on another occasion unacceptable, as the judge found?

Yesterday, watching the report again, I saw it differently than the judge. I saw that it was edited and broadcast somewhat hastily, in quite a dramatic and exaggerated tone. I also noticed mistakes, for example footage of machine-gun fire that was not taken during the actual incident. (Dayan admitted to this mistake, a week after the program aired.) Is the bottom line that the report deviated from the truth, as Sohlberg ruled? With all due respect, I am not convinced.

“Is the combination of an image of Palestinians removing the girl’s body from the scene of the shooting, and a segment of field radio communication recorded on another occasion unacceptable, as the judge found?” Shouldn’t the answer be a clear, flat, unequivocal, extremely obvious YES? The journalist took footage from two separate occasions which were in no way related, and strung them together to create a lie, and Harel thinks it’s legitimate?

The troubling part of the tale – beyond the death of the little girl, of course – is that democracy really needs investigative journalists; it really needs a press corps that is intelligently and professionally skeptical of the authorities. A society at war really does have to have voices that don’t automatically accept the narration of the powers that be; it even needs the knee-jerk contrarians, whose starting point is that the reigning narrative is all wrong. Even the contrarians, however, have to be able to recognize the supremacy of fact over ideology, of truth over agenda.

Then, there’s the matter that the authorities often have better tools than anyone else to fully investigate what really happened. In this case, the stampede to convict briefly threatened to send an officer of the IDF to jail for behaving as he didn’t.

Categories: Guardian

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14 replies »

  1. This is just more of the same, isn’t it, and yet another example of lies getting halfway around the world before the truth can get its trousers on?

    I note that McGreal (hardly noted for his even handed reporting about Israel in al-Grauniad) had the nerve to flout journalistic convention and state as fact what he presumed (hoped?) to be true. And of course he was allowed to get away with it.

    Medusa has written elsewhere here about the paucity of any sense of ethics in journalism in general and blog “journalism” in particular. Very few newspapers nowadays privilege ethical journalism and I would imagine that very few reporters could offer even a passable operational definition of what it is.

    I agree that democracy needs investigative journalists but those journalists need to have a sound sense of ethics and morality and not least to be able to distinguish between supposition and fact, as well as the reflective capacity to be able to realise when their own biases are getting in the way of their reporting.

  2. Good article, well-thought through and an instance of how the instant accession to the scene of any crime or violence that we have has changed the way we demand news and even more profoundly changed the way news is reported.

    When one considers that for Watergate two or even three sources were required before one fact was printed and here, facts were cobbled hastily together in order to present a fluid case then one has to worry about the morality of what journalists are doing.

    Ilana Dayan no longer presents her programme on Israeli television and that I feel, is all to the good.

  3. Excellent piece hawkeye. Undoubtedly the media is corrupt. Not in the sense in which they can be bribed (which also may be true in some cases), but in the loss of ethics in reporting. Anything to get the story, anything to make the story. The rush to the scoop, instant news and the internet, and the availability of anything on the web means that those who “report” are willing to do anything to get the clicks and keep the viewers. Its a tragedy of reporting, its the tragedy of Israel.

    Its one thing when the media uses its platform as a weapon against us. Its another when our own media is guilty of fanning the flames of hatred through questionable practices. Its about time there was a journalistic code of ethics.

  4. The late Richard Dimbleby is for me the epitome of an ethical broadcaster/journalist.

    He recorded for BBC radio his impressions of the liberation of Belsen and spared his audience nothing.

    The spineless BBC, in time honoured fashion, preferred him not to broadcast it – they found it unbelievable – and threatened not to until he in turn threatened to resign if they did not.

    What might be make of the antics of the BBC today and of journalism in general?

  5. I can only hope this is one of many suits against the media that will finally create some accountability in this anti Israel circus. I just can’t wait to see suits brought against the bbc and the guardian and finally the local quislings at haaretz.
    When they are held accountable they will finally have to shut their lying pie holes.

  6. In order to have an enforcible journalistic code of ethics, Richard, there need to be professional qualifications for which journalists need to meet at least minimum standards which are clearly defined, and there needs to be a body which can hold hearings and enquiries and can issue penalties and bar journalists from conducting their profession if they are sufficiently in breach of their ethical code.

    There is of course the PCC, but people like Rustbucket are members of it (or at least he was until he left under a cloud) therefore it’s a pretty useless body.

  7. Brittain’s used of the death of the girl to advocate a political agenda (“Both Palestinians and Israelis will benefit from a boycott”, 2004). She related the killing of the girl to Israel’s general treatment of the Palestinians which she called an apartheid state possibly even worse than apartheid South Africa (according to Tutu).

    The brutal killing of the child – who was “gunned down by the unit commander” – was just the way the “ethno-religious supremacist” Jews treat the Palestinians. She advocated an academic boycott (based on the lie of apartheid) against Israel.

    It would have been beneficial to see this article by Brittain (2004) before commenting on her latest article this past week. Her motives would certainly have been exposed.

    The killing of the 13 year old girl was an absolute tragedy.

  8. Serendipity said “In order to have an enforcible journalistic code of ethics, Richard, there need to be professional qualifications for which journalists need to meet at least minimum standards which are clearly defined, and there needs to be a body which can hold hearings and enquiries and can issue penalties and bar journalists from conducting their profession if they are sufficiently in breach of their ethical code.”

    In the time of the blogosphere where anybody can print their beliefs whether part of a media organization or independent, I think it unrealistic to expect expect “journailists” to adhere to a firm set of rules. Journalists who are paid employees need to write to match their editorial line. And what a reporter submits is usually very different from the final product. Media outlets take great liberties during the “editing” process.

    I was thinking more like a movement by the people, in which we encourage the large media outlets to adhere to some central code of ethics, and vocally decry those outlets (like the Guardian), that blur the line between opinion and fact, or that misrepresent events by using footage and reporting from a different event to illustrate, without making the public aware.

    We can see this happening for example with the case of Muhammed Al Dura. Esther Schapira just came out with a second in-depth investigation into what really happened, and had some harsh words for the mainstream media. But reporters like her can’t do it alone, and when they do, their work needs to be distributed on the internet to increase awareness.

    I can’t find a copy of the video online, but here’s an article announcing it.

    I know it sounds next to impossible, but I firmly believe that we, the readership, the consumers, must take the initiative, the only way that there will be a change is if it comes from us. Readers need to first understand they are being decieved and lied to, and then call out the media outlets when the cross the line, and let them know that if they do not adhere to this code, their readership will not sit and be passive.

    It has to be remembered that most media consumers will only take action if they feel they are being lied to. So its very important that when biased, unfounded reporting takes place, that it be exposed.

    I think its about time we started demanding accountability:

  9. Margie, That’s the older piece that she put together a few years ago. There’s a new one which was broadcast on Israeli TV just last week. From forensic investigation of footage and interviews, they now say there were two boys, and the one that was shown hiding with his father behind a barrel is not the one that was paraded through the street and buried. They believe they were cousins.

    They also show, through snapshots of watches of individuals in different clips, that the shooting show took place at 2:30 pm, while the funeral took place two hours earlier.

    There’s a lot of commentary and its a very interesting piece.