On journalists, political conflict and NGOs

When the media itself promotes the unchecked power of political groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and suppresses criticism of these NGOs, democracy is ill-served.

December 13, 2014 22:17
4 minute read.
US president Barack Obama

US president Barack Obama addresses reporters in the White House press briefing room,. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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When I started researching and criticizing powerful groups claiming moral agendas, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, my primary objective was to open a debate and build a system of accountability where none existed.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) exercise a great deal of political power, without being subject to the checks and balances of democracy or media scrutiny. The organization that I founded, NGO Monitor, is an attempt to provide at least some substantive and independent analysis and counter to the growing impact, particularly regarding Israel.

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The need for informed and serious criticism became apparent during the 2001 Forum of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that took place in Durban, South Africa. This forum, held under the banner of the UN Human Rights Commission, brought in 5,000 delegates from over 1,500 NGOs, ostensibly to celebrate the end of apartheid. In fact, this high-profile event was turned into the opening attack in a dirty political war targeting Israel “as an apartheid state,” and using weapons such as boycotts, demonization and lawfare.

In this ongoing conflict, journalists play a central role in marketing the NGO “reports” and condemnations accusing Israel of war crimes and violations of human rights. In the media, NGO officials that attack Israel are automatically given the role of experts on the complexities of urban warfare and international law, without examination of their credentials, which are usually non-existent. For example, the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times often quotes politically biased NGO officials with no expertise on urban warfare, thereby furthering the Durban agenda of Israel bashing.

For the most part, journalists, both as individuals and through professional groups that examine ethics and guidelines, try to avoid debating and criticizing their own behavior. But questions over the role of journalists in the conflict are now – for the first time – the focus of a serious debate.

On November 22, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, published “The Conflict and the Coverage,” after acknowledging the culture of reluctance to look inward: “This is column I never wanted to write.”

Sullivan rejected “balanced reporting,” which is often used by Israel-based correspondents. “I’m not a believer in the idea that if both sides are upset, the Times must be doing something right. [S]ound journalism isn’t a matter of hewing to the middle line.”

She also acknowledged that the Times was often remiss in covering Palestinians: “They are more than just victims...Realistic examinations of what’s being taught in schools, and the way Hamas operates should be a part of this.”

Her newspaper, like most Western media platforms, devotes many column inches to distorted criticisms of Israel, particularly pushed by politicized NGOs, but since their NGO guides and friends give the Arabs (as perpetually victims) a free pass, journalists do the same.

In another detailed critique, Matti Friedman, who spent a number of years in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, wrote a stinging article in The Atlantic (What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel, November 30). Friedman noted that journalists have become central actors in the conflict, in violation of basic ethical principles. He drew attention to the close relationship between journalists covering the conflict and the hundreds of NGO officials that frequent the same hotels and bars, and focus on the Palestinian victimization narrative.

Friedman, like the Dutch journalist Linda Polman and others who have exposed the links between reporters and NGOs, criticizes the way that “the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration.” While reporters routinely question and criticize politicians and military officials, they give influential NGO officials that control millions of dollars (or pounds, euros, etc.) a free ride, acting more as their agents than as journalists.

As a critic of human rights NGOs active in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I have often seen this preferential relationship in action. Friedman’s article confirms the intense efforts to keep the research that I and NGO Monitor publish from getting into the media, and into the hands of policy makers. We now know that in 2009, the AP’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Steve Gutkin, issued a formal ban on quoting me and NGO Monitor. According to Friedman (and confirmed by another ex-AP reporter), “In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.”

Highlighting the deep fear of exposing the NGO-media alliance, Friedman’s article was subject to a number of counter-attacks. The Columbia Journalism Review – the bastion of journalism’s power elite – immediately ran a column attacking both Friedman and NGO Monitor, repeating the political labels and false allegations against both of us. This response, and the lack of basic fact checking at CJR, inadvertently provided a blatant example of the problems and failures in media coverage of Israel. The fact that the author, Jared Malsin, worked for the Palestinian wire service Ma’an between 2007 and 2010, was omitted. The editors of CJR also refused to even respond to my submission on the NGO-media alliance. Like the AP’s official ban, and the New York Times in practice, this “prestigious” publication on journalism censored the criticism.

In democracies, journalists enjoy a privileged position as the embodiment of a free press, enabling them to criticize powerful actors, and to help the public make informed decisions. But when the media itself promotes the unchecked power of political groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and suppresses criticism of these NGOs, democracy is ill-served.

The author is a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University and heads NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.

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