NGO Monitor slams German agency for Durban II coverage

Gerald Steinberg: German Press Council’s dismissal of his organization’s complaint of biased press coverage of last year’s UN anti-racist conference in Geneva is a “whitewash.”

By JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT
February 25, 2010 22:56
4 minute read.
NGO Monitor slams German agency for Durban II coverage

gerald steinberg 88. (photo credit: )

 
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BERLIN – Gerald Steinberg, the head of the Israel-based human rights watchdog organization NGO Monitor, told the Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the German Press Council’s dismissal of his organization’s complaint of biased press coverage of last year’s UN anti-racist conference in Geneva is a “whitewash.”

He also criticized The German Press Agency (dpa) for relying on its reporter Shabtai Gold’s coverage of the so-called Durban II UN conference. According to Steinberg, Gold served as a spokesman for the “very active anti-Israel NGO” PHR-I (Physicians for Human Rights-Israel). NGO Monitor received a response in February to its grievances.

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Steinberg had lodged a complaint in late April 2009, asserting that Gold’s article, titled ‘UN says Jewish student groups disrupting anti-racism conference’ was “highly biased and an inaccurate press report” because it sought only “one perspective, that of Rupert Colville, an official of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

Steinberg said the news item omitted information about students protesting Holocaust denial, Iranian anti-Semitism and calls for the obliteration of Israel.

The NGO Monitor president wrote that the dpa wire story quotes Colville as saying, “the students made clear they have very little idea what this conference is about... they did not know that the outcome document explicitly deplores anti-Semitism.” Steinberg cites Colville’s statement in the dpa article, saying that the students “made clear they were sent here to be disruptive. It is unfortunate people are coming with an attitude and whole aim to disrupt the conference.”

Steinberg charged Colville with “false and highly misleading claims, as the students were clearly protesting both the anti-Semitism of the first Durban conference and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements, which include elements of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and calls for the destruction of Israel. Colville’s allegations related to the students’ knowledge of the outcome document are both false and irrelevant.”

Ella Wassink from the German Press Council, responded in a letter early February, but did not directly address Steinberg’s criticism that the coverage was slanted because only a UN official was interviewed and the student protesters’ views excluded. She wrote that the report quotes “an official UN civil servant” which qualifies as a “serious source.”

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The governments of Canada, Italy, the United States and Israel had boycotted the UN conference well in advance of the meeting because of the rabid anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic climate of the event. Ahmadinejad used the forum to bash Israel in vile terms.

When asked about Steinberg’s criticism of Gold, Justus Demmer, a spokesman for the dpa, wrote in an e-mail to the  Post that the dpa sees “no cause for criticism regarding the work of Shabtai Gold and we do not have any reason to doubt his integrity.”

Steinberg said the work of PHR-I , where Gold served as spokesman, is “very involved in the demonization of Israel” and he is “surprised that a mainstream news organization” is defending Gold’s credentials. According to NGO Monitor, “as a result of PHR-I’s radical political agenda, the Israel Physician’s Union halted cooperative activities.”

Sponsors of PHR-I include Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Oxfam and Christian Aid.

Steinberg argued that the dpa also played down the severe anti-Semitism of the first Durban conference in 2001. According to the dpa, “The first UN racism conference, in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, was marred by controversy surrounding the event when some NGOs staged protests condemning Israel and certain diplomats used what was perceived as offensive language towards the Jewish State in the main conference hall.”

Steinberg wrote, “This is a major distortion and can be described as a falsification of the history of the entire context of this conference, and the reason for the Jewish student protest. The 2001 Durban NGO Forum has been widely described as highly anti-Semitic, including distribution of copies of Mein Kampf and similar hateful documents, physical attacks against Jewish delegates, and the adoption of a highly biased anti-Israel declaration.”

Wassink, from the press council, did not specifically tackle the nature of the anti-Israeli spectacle in 2001. She wrote that it “is clear that the conference in 2001 in Durban and the follow-up conference were controversial.”

Steinberg’s grievance asserted that the dpa report mislead its reporters by stating that then foreign minister Shimon Peres “praised” the Durban I document without having “condemned” the widespread anti-Semitism of the first conference. Wassink wrote that a press statement from the Foreign Ministry cites Peres as saying that this “closing resolution is a very important achievement.”

However, Wassink omits harsh criticisms of the anti-Semitic rallies and statements at Durban I by the Israeli government which include the cited press statement from Peres. Wassink could not be immediately reached for a comment.

Steinberg wrote that the Foreign Ministry in 2001 said the “conference against racism became a racist conference... Israel was the only state to be singled out by the conference – a clear act of discrimination against a specific nation... what we are witnessing in Durban is a attempt to delegitimize an entire nation.”

Media critics in Germany note that many German news organizations and journalists are lacking rudimentary knowledge about modern expressions of anti-Semitism. While the European Union employs a definition of contemporary anti-Semitism, many reporters simply see criticism of Israel, including calls for the country’s destruction or disparate treatment of the Jewish state, as run-of-the-mill criticism of Israel, which is part and parcel of the Mideast conflict.

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