Should News Be Reported with Balance? The Answer May Surprise You
This weekend, Israel officially designated six different non-governmental organizations as terror groups. The Associated Press headline reads: “Israel outlaws Palestinian rights groups, alleging terrorism.” [Emphasis added.]
The AP went on to quote critics who say the move was meant to “muzzle human rights monitoring,” and to “punish” critics of Israel. The widely distributed wire service even included a statement by B’Tselem calling the move, “an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organizations.”
This framing set the stage for a variety of other groups around the world to make public statements, such as the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, which said that it “stands in solidarity with Palestinian civil society and calls on the Israeli government to reverse its decision to criminalize prominent human rights organizations.”
The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School stands in solidarity with Palestinian civil society and calls on the Israeli government to reverse its decision to criminalize prominent human rights organizations #Israel #Palestine #humanrights https://t.co/t4XiCQm1qV pic.twitter.com/iDfNNlhinX
— Human Rights @ Harvard Law (@HarvardLawHRP) October 22, 2021
Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch objected to the decision, calling the groups “proud partners,” and lambasting Israel with accusations of “crimes against humanity” and “apartheid”:
For the Israeli government, six top Palestinian rights groups have suddenly become “terrorists.” For @HRW, they are proudly our partners in documenting the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians. https://t.co/CUgOQYIXsD pic.twitter.com/VoObqabp4I
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) October 23, 2021
The United Nations Human Rights Office in Ramallah claimed that Israel was trying to “constrain … entirely peaceful and legitimate activities” by “humanitarian groups,” and even the US State Department issued a statement asking for clarification.
To the AP’s credit, its article also quoted the Israeli Defense Ministry, which said that the groups are linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — which is designated as a terror organization by most Western governments, including Israel and the United States, and is responsible for a litany of horrific terror attacks against civilians.
So the AP achieved a kind of “balance” by quoting two “sides.” But there was one critical aspect that the AP entirely left out of their reporting: the actual truth.
Does “Balance” Mean Good Journalism?
To answer this question, imagine if the story was not about politics, but rather about who won a recent baseball game: one commentator says it was the Atlanta Braves, another the LA Dodgers. Can you imagine a sports reporter simply quoting “both sides,” and leaving the audience to wonder which side won?
Of course, the example is absurd — not because it is wrong to have balance, but because in this case, the journalist has access to something even better: reliable, independent data that anyone can check. So if a journalist had any doubt, he or she could review actual video footage of the game and independently confirm that Atlanta won by a score of 4-2.
Of course, in some cases, a journalist will not have complete information, and therefore must rely on competing accounts from diverse sources.
This is not one of those cases.
From the Data to the Truth
Israel has stated that it was acting on classified information, and declined to give further details, which does not give a journalist much to go on. However, much like checking the winner of a baseball game, it would have taken only a modest amount of research to confirm that the relevant NGOs are indeed closely connected with terrorism, based on publicly available data.
- An investigation commissioned by the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) describes the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC) as the “women’s organization” of the PFLP.
- The same USAID commissioned investigation describes the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) as being the agricultural arm of the PFLP.
- On August 23, 2019, two UAWC employees carried out a particularly brutal terror attack, in which they injured Rabbi Eitan Shnerb (46) and his son, Dvir (19), and murdered his daughter, Rina (17). The UAWC employees were closely linked to the PFLP.
- On August 30, 2020, the PFLP released a statement confirming that former UAWC director Samer Arbid is also a PFLP commander, and was involved in the terror attack that murdered Rina Shnerb.
- In 2020, the government of the Netherlands, one of UAWC’s European sponsors, admitted that part of a Dutch aid package was used to pay the salaries of two UAWC employees who were charged with murdering Rina Shnerb.
- The United Nations refused the Addameer rights group’s request for Special Consultative Status due to the group’s relationship to the PFLP.
- In May 2018, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express shut down online credit card donations to Al-Haq due to the group’s ties to the PFLP. In fact, the group was founded by PFLP members.
In addition to the above, many of the figures in these organizations have been arrested for acts of terror, in some cases multiple times, and numerous cases were ruled upon by Israel’s independent judiciary.
The PFLP did not deny its affiliations to the various NGOs. To the contrary, a spokesman for the terror group, Kayed al-Ghoul, stated that Palestinians are “proud of the affiliation of any of their sons with any national faction that resists the occupation, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.”
There are places in the world where dictatorships and tyrants really do use police powers to shut down legitimate human rights organizations. To lump such organizations in with the likes of the PFLP and its affiliates harms the cause of human rights the world over.
In a world of 24-hour news and rapid deadlines, journalists work under significant time and resource constraints. Yet it took HonestReporting less than two hours to conduct this research, and we completed it well in advance of our own publication deadline. (And at the risk of stating the obvious, our budget is far less than a typical mainstream news agency.)
Ethics require more than mere “balance,” they require a journalist to come as close as possible to the truth.
Daniel Pomerantz is the CEO of HonestReporting, where a version of this article first appeared.