Thursday, January 8, 2009

When the News Media Gets it Wrong … Or Doesn’t Even Try

On Tuesday (January 6), while driving home, I found myself listening to NPR’s coverage of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. While I am a big fan of NPR, I have always been left cold by their one-sided, poor coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yesterday’s coverage proved the rule, rather than the exception. During All Things Considered, co-host Melissa Block interviewed Ahmed Abu Hamda, a Palestinian News Producer who works with NPR and other organizations (I’ll return another day to the use by Western media of Palestinian news producers). During the interview, Block asked Abu Hamda about the use by Hamas of the Palestinian populace as human shields (alluding, apparently, to the Israeli strike against the United Nations administered school in Beit Hanoun):

BLOCK: The claim from the Israeli military has been that Hamas uses the population within Gaza basically as human shields, that they infiltrate what would be civilian sites. And that's why some of these places have come under attack. What do you think about that?

HAMDA: I think this is totally wrong. It's a war media. It's an advertising for themselves. Why? Because UNRWA School has been targeted by the Israeli fighters.

BLOCK: This would be the United Nations school that was targeted.

HAMDA: Exactly, exactly. And innocent people, most of them are wounded and killed. There are no fighters in the UNRWA schools. I challenge them if they have - they say that even they have on tube - that they shoot each rocket and they have it on video, on the YouTube why they shot that rocket or whom they were targeting. I bet them, if they can't approve that if there was a militant or a rocket launched from that school.

Neither NPR nor Block followed up on the “challenge” posed by Hamda. Which is truly unfortunate. Why? Well, watch this:

The building in this video is the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun that Israel targeted yesterday. Yes, the video is a year old, but the fact remains that Hamas has used the school as a place from which to fire at Israel. Moreover, given the efforts to which Israel goes to minimize civilian casualties, it seems highly unlikely that Israel would have launched a strike against a school, let alone a UN-administered school, without sound reason.

(I know that many will disagree with the basic prospect that Israel seeks to minimize civilian casualties. But think about it for a minute. If Israel didn’t care about minimizing civilian casualties, couldn’t it or wouldn’t it have already inflicted far, far worse damage with far higher civilian casualties?  More than 1.5 million people live in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, yet in 12 days of fighting, there have only been several hundred deaths. That is less than half the total number who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Israel could flatten Gaza if it didn’t care about civilian casualties; but it does…)

Later in that same interview, Hamda described going to the Shifa Hospital in Gaza and talked about the wounded that he saw. Block asked him about seeing “militants” in the hospital:

BLOCK: You saw young men. You did not see Hamas militants. How do you know when a young man is or is not a Hamas militant?

HAMDA: OK, when someone, Hamas militant, is targeted, where do you think he'll be targeted? Now they are on alert, on war alert. Each Hamas member will be wearing his weapons, will be wearing his war uniform. It will be very clear. But what I see, a mother crying next to a young guy, OK? So it's very, very clear. Very obvious. You can recognize that. A fighter is a fighter.

Again, rather than following up on any of this, Block ended the interview. She did not, for example, ask Hamda why he would expect to see weapons on wounded men in the hospital or why he would only expect to recognize “militants” from their “war uniform” especially given that Hamas is not a uniformed army. Block didn’t ask Hamda about reports that Hamas has set up an independent hospital to treat its own wounded (and for which it steals supplies destined for civilian hospitals). Nor did she press Hamda about the report from Haaretz that I cited yesterday:

The sources also said that senior Hamas officials have been spotted more than once wandering around the maternity ward of Gaza City's Shifa Hospital and even using the hospital to hold press conferences, on the theory that it offers a safe haven from Israeli fire. For the same reason, Hamas forces have taken refuge near buildings that serve as headquarters for various international organizations, such as the Red Cross and the United Nations.

Why does NPR allow “commentary” (disguised as a news story) from a Palestinian “news producer” without critical analysis and without opportunity for a rebuttal statement from an Israeli spokesperson? For that matter, had Hamda seen senior Hamas members at the Shifa Hospital, how likely is it that he would have said such to NPR?

Of course, this poor reporting is only one example of the problems that the media exhibit in reporting on the conflict. For example, still on the subject of the attack on the Beit Hanoun school, how many media outlets reported this official statement from the Israel Defense Forces:

After an investigation that took place over the past hour, it was revealed that terror operatives from Hamas's military wing and a mortar battery cell, which were found in the school, were firing on IDF forces in the area.  Hamar operatives Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar were amongst terrorists that were identified at the school.

If the IDF has enough information to identify not only what was found in the school but to actually name two of the terrorists, shouldn’t the media at least offer a bit more than “big bad Israel attacked a school”? Even more critically, how many news media reports included the following:

Residents of a Gaza neighborhood are confirming Israel's claim that Hamas militants had opened fire from the cover of a U.N. school where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge.

Two residents say a group of militants had fired their mortars from a street near the school, then fled into a crowd of people in the streets.

And consider what the UN has to say about the conflict. The Washington Post reports that John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza said:

The civilians in Gaza have international rights to be protected not by verbal protection, but actual protection.

Um. Just curious now, but what about the civilians in Israel? Don’t they have international rights to be protected by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza? What has Ging said about that? What has the United Nations done to protect Israelis? And why does the United Nations permit Hamas to use its schools and hospitals as staging grounds for attacks on Israel?

It is worth considering the official statement from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which concludes:

During its operations in Gaza, the IDF is making every effort to comply with the two basic legal tests of international humanitarian law: (1) are the targets legitimate military objectives and (2) is an action likely to cause disproportionate damage to the civilian population and their property.

Israel faces a particular challenge with regards to determining the legitimacy of intended targets. The presence of civilians in an area of conflict does not stop a military objective from being a legitimate target. This is both the letter of international law and a reflection of state practice. The deliberate positioning of Hamas military targets among Palestinian civilians presents a problem with which Israel must consistently contend.

The Iranian-backed Hamas, as a matter of strategy, refuses to uphold one of most fundamental requirements of international humanitarian law - that of distinguishing between combatants/military instillations and civilians/civilian properties. It follows therefore that while Israel does all it can to avoid harming non-combatants, under international law, any collateral injury to them is the responsibility of the Hamas, which deliberately chooses to operate from civilian structures and fire behind human shields.

(Emphasis in original.)

Three other semi-related stories are worth mentioning. First, there is this report from YnetNews:

A number of reports from the Strip paint a picture of very difficult humanitarian conditions, not least because of Hamas itself. The suspicion is that the group's operatives have seized control of any supplies passing through the crossings – including those sent by Israel and international organizations.

Reports say Hamas takes a cut out of all aid that arrives, including flour and medicine. Supplies intended to be distributed without gain among the population is seized by the group and sold to the residents, at a profit to the Hamas government.

One such incident was recorded Monday, when a convoy of trucks carrying supplies through the Kerem Shalom crossing was opened fire upon and seized by Hamas gunmen. Similar incidents occurred with trucks carrying fuel. 

In other cases, civilians are simply used as cannon fodder or human shields. Reports out of Gaza say residents who attempted to flee their homes in the northern area of the Strip were forced to go back at gunpoint, by Hamas men.

The organization is presumably interested in increasing civilian casualties in order to give rise to international pressure against Israel. Arab media reported that in an IDF strike on a UN school 30 civilians were killed, but there is no legitimate way to prove gunmen were among those killed as Hamas tends to bury these bodies quickly, thus eliminating evidence in Israel's favor.

Other civilian complaints state that Hamas gunmen pull children along with them "by the ears" from place to place, fearing that if they don't have a child with them they will be fair game to the IDF. Others hide in civilian homes and stairwells, UNRWA ambulances, and mosques.

In other reported cases Hamas gunmen hold civilians hostage in alleyways in order to provide themselves with a living barricade to ward off IDF forces.

Of course, none of this makes it into Western news reports.

Then there is this story about a “mistake” from French television station France 2:

France’s public broadcaster was forced to apologise to viewers yesterday after it mistakenly used amateur footage shot in 2005 to illustrate a report on the current Gaza conflict.

France 2 television on Monday broadcast part of an amateur video presented in a voiceover commentary as showing the fallout from an Israeli air strike on a civilian area in Gaza on January 1.

Dating from September 2005, the video, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, actually shows civilians wounded in the accidental explosion of a pick-up truck loaded with Hamas rockets at a rally in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Alerted by the French website, France 2 admitted its mistake yesterday and made a formal apology to viewers in its midday news broadcast.

“It is an error on our behalf. There was an internal malfunction in the checking of information,” a France 2 executive told AFP.

Why do I put the word “mistake” in quotes? Could it be, perhaps, that: (a) this video has been posted on the Internet numerous times with the false claim that it shows the result of an Israeli strike but that those claims are almost always immediately shown to be false (the video can be seen here; the comments are illustrative) or (b) that France 2 has previously been shown to have aired pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli television footage that it knew or had reason to know was demonstrably false? In fact (and this will be a great subject for another post some day), France 2 filed a libel claim involving accusations that it knowingly aired false video. Guess what? France 2 lost.

Finally, an Israeli basketball team set to play a team in Turkey yesterday had to flee the court when fans began throwing bottles at the players and shouting, among other things, “Death to the Jews”. The team had to be escorted back to their hotel with heavy police protection.


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