CAMERA Op-Ed: The Diplomats’ Hottest Videotape

CNN’s Richard Roth called the newly-revealed United Nation’s tape of Hizbullah vehicles and gunmen likely implicated in the October 2000 abduction of three Israeli soldiers, “the hottest videotape in the diplomatic circuit.” The Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and other major media gave substantial attention to dramatic disclosures that the UN admitted concealing from Israel potentially vital information.

Israeli media followed the story with daily headlines, many of the reports casting the UN’s misconduct – its many denials of the tape’s existence and its refusal to permit Israel to view the unedited tape – as an instance of chronic bias by the organization and a gauge of likely future problems should international monitors be sent to the region.

Yet despite the undeniable importance of the unfolding events, America’s newspaper of record, the New York Times, all but ignored them. The story broke on July 5th when Israel’s defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, announced that he’d been approached “a few days ago” by an apologetic UN representative admitting the existence of the videotape. Angry, Ben-Eliezer accused the UN of “bald-faced lying” for its months of disclaiming knowledge of the tapes.

At a July 6th press conference in New York, the UN Undersecretary for Peacekeeping Jean Marie Guehenno reiterated the UN refusal to provide an unedited tape, insisting on blocking out the faces of the Hizbullah:

Showing their faces would be considered by one party as providing intelligence to another party and would certainly endanger the security of our people in Lebanon.

Israel reiterated its demand for an unedited tape.

This is how the New York Times covered these events in a 76-word news brief on July 7th:

The United Nations said it would allow Israel to see a videotape that the Israelis say could provide clues to the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas on the Lebanese border in October. The videotape was made by United Nations forces in southern Lebanon a day after the kidnapping. The United Nations had said that it did not have such a videotape, but it acknowledged on Thursday that it did.

Beyond the obvious questions raised about the Times’ news judgement in deeming this a story warranting trivial mention, reporter Barbara Crossette failed to tell readers that Israel would be provided only a censored tape. Although the videotape controversy intensified in the following days and weeks, the New York Times was silent about it, while at the same time covering the ongoing question of international monitors for Israeli-Palestinian flashpoints. Not until July 21, two weeks after the Crossette brief, did the Times again mention the UN videotape affair, beginning in the 23rd paragraph of a Clyde Haberman story on possible US observers being sent to the area. In a shorthand review of the UN events, he presented Israeli concerns as their “ammunition” against the involvement of international bodies in any monitoring agreement. He also claimed without reference to any source that “whether the tape can really provide useful information seems to be a question.” He does not explain why – if the tapes are useless – Hizbullah is set on Israel not seeing them.

Nor has the Times reported on the United Nations’ blatant cowering before Hizbullah. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s menacing comments on July 9 that the UN would be viewed as “spying and offering information to the enemy” if it handed over the unexpurgated tapes was met with speedy reassurances on July 10 from UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksal. Goksal hastened to say he hoped Nasrallah’s comments were “the result of a misunderstanding.” Nobody, he added, is “better placed than Sheikh Nasrallah to know what UNIFIL has been doing all these years and that certainly doesn’t include spying for anyone.” The same day, the US delegation to the UN weighed in on Israel’s side, calling for the UN to provide the entire tape. In Congress a resolution was introduced expressing outrage at the United Nations’ conduct and calling for immediate handover of the unedited tape.

There were also fresh reports in Israeli media of possible UN malfeasance involving Indian members of the UNIFIL contingent who may have abetted the abductions, turning a blind eye while Hizbullah vehicles, masquerading as UN ones, lured Israelis into a trap. The same day as Haberman’s belated July 21 references to the subject, Nicholas Blanford, a journalist writing for numerous American publications as well as Lebanon’s Daily Star, broke new information on the UN actions. He cited a “former UN military observer” who claimed the UN destroyed sensitive material taken from abandoned Hizbullah vehicles likely used in the abduction of the Israelis. In his account, representatives under the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) allegedly removed from the vehicles “one or more mobile phones,” which were eventually passed on to Hizbullah. The UNTSO people also allegedly destroyed all reports and photographs related to the events.

UNIFIL’s Goksal, not surprisingly, disputed the report.

It may be that a story on UN malfeasance and at least tacit collusion with Hizbullah runs counter to the views of some Times staff, but does that justify the paper’s virtually ignoring this important news?


Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date