The United Nations has long been perceived as harboring an anti-Israel bias. So it seemed like more of the same when, after Hamas sparked heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip by intensifying its incessant rocket attacks into Israel, a Reuters headline announced: “U.N. Chief condemns Israel after bloody day in Gaza.” Yet again, a UN official — indeed, it’s highest official, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — reserves explicit condemnation for Israel alone, even while Hamas and other groups that intentionally target civilians in Israel get a free pass. Yet again, indiscriminate violence by Palestinians was ignored while and Israel’s focused (albeit imperfectly executed) retaliation was condemned.
Or so some journalists would have you believe.
Associated Press reporter Ibrahim Barzak, for example, described Secretary-General Ban’s March 1 statement before the UN Security Council as follows: “The bloodshed also drew condemnations internationally, including from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who accused Israel of ‘disproportionate and excessive use of force’” (Ibrahim Barzak, 3/2/08).
He reiterated the following day that “the Gaza offensive … drew a chorus of international condemnation. The EU and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon accused Israel of using excessive force” (Ibrahim Barzak, 3/3/08)
Barzak’s AP colleague Jennifer Loven used almost the same wording in a March 3 story. “The Israeli offensive has drawn a chorus of international condemnation, with the EU, Turkey and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon accusing Israel of using excessive force,” she wrote.
But these and other reports from a variety of news organizations brazenly and dramatically misrepresented the secretary-general’s message, with complete disregard for journalistic ethics.
The Secretary-General’s Statement
Here is the relevant excerpt from Ban’s statement to the Security Council:
In light of these deeply disturbing developments, I would like to make the following clear:
I condemn Palestinian rocket attacks and call for the immediate cessation of such acts of terrorism, which serve no purpose, endanger Israeli civilians and bring misery to the Palestinian people. I call for an end to these attacks.
While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children. I call on Israel to cease such attacks. Israel must fully comply with international humanitarian law and exercise the utmost restraint. Incidents in which civilians have been killed or injured must be investigated and accountability must be ensured.
In other words, these journalists gave the false impression that Ban censured only Israel by relaying his condemnation of that country while simply ignoring his parallel condemnation of Palestinian rocket attacks, which he labeled as “terrorism.”
An Accurate Report
The ethical way to reference the UN chief’s condemnation should be obvious, as it apparently was to Edith M. Lederer, who also writes for the AP.
She accurately reported in a March 2 story that
In a briefing to the council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Palestnian rocket attacks on Israel and called “for the immediate cessation of such acts of terrorism, which werve no purpose.”
While Ban said he recognized Israel’s right to defend itself, he condemned “the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children.” He called on Israel “to cease such attacks.”
This type of straightforward, honest conveyance of Ban’s comments should have been automatic for journalists. But all to many reporters either manipulated the secretary-general’s statements to suit their own political biases, or ingenuously parroted from other skewed reports without checking for themselves to see what Ban actually said.
Other Stories That Skewed the UN Statement
• On the March 3, 2008 episode of PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Margaret Warner told viewers only that “Israel’s response [to rocket attacks] drew some international criticism, including from U.N. Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon.” PBS then aired footage of Ban telling the council that “I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children.” The secretary-general’s condemnation of Palestinian rockets, and even the first part of the quoted sentence in which he “recognized Israel’s right to defend itself,” was neither aired nor paraphrased.
• An unsigned story by Agence France Presse similarly noted only that “UN chief Ban Ki-moon slammed Israel’s ‘disproportionate and excessive use of force,’ while EU president Slovenia urged Israel ‘to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from all activities that endanger civilians.’” Nowhere are readers that Ban also slammed Palestinian “terrorism” and that the EU presidency called on the Palestinians to “immediately end” their attacks. (AFP, “Gaza operation winding down: Israeli military spokesman,” 3/3/08)
• In the Washington Post, reporter Griff Witte noted that “U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused Israel of using ‘excessive’ force,” but paid no attention to Ban’s condemnation of the Palestinians. (“Palestinian President Suspends Peace Talks,” 3/3/08)
• Knight-Ridder’s Dion Nissenbaum similarly quoted only the portion of Ban’s statement that condemned Israel. (“Israeli official threatens Hamas as Olmert defends use of force,” 3/2/08)
• As noted above, a Reuters headline, “U.N. Chief condemns Israel after bloody day in Gaza,” unfairly implied that Ban condemned only Israel. The opening two paragraphs of the story also employed biased language. Reporter Nidal al-Mughrabi flipped the chronology of the Secretary-General’s condemnations — although the Secretary General first criticized the Palestinians, the reporter used the important lead paragraph to relay only that Ban “condemned” Israel — and softened Ban’s strong criticism of Palestinian terrorism by claim ing the Secretary-General merely “called on” militants to stop the rocket fire:
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel for using “excessive” force in the Gaza Strip and demanded a halt to its offensive after troops killed 61 people on the bloodiest day for Palestinians since the 1980s.
Addressing an emergency session of the Security Council in New York after four days of fighting in which 96 Palestinians have been killed, many of them civilians, Ban also called on Gaza’s Islamist militants to stop firing rockets. (Nidal al-Mughrabi, 3/2/08)
The report did eventually accurately quote Ban’s condemnation of both sides.
Another Reuters report noted in its opening paragraph that the U.N. secretary-general condemned Israel, but buried deeper in the piece a representative excerpt of Ban’s statement.
• On the March 3 edition of NPR’s All Things Considered, host Robert Siegel confronted Israeli Spokesman Mark Regev by referring to the UN and EU’s criticism of Israel, asking: “There were charges voiced both by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and also the president of the European Union, Slovenia, they’re in the rotating chair, that Israel’s response to the rocket attacks out of Gaza was disproportionate, it was excessive. How do you answer that?”
But in his interview with Palestinian cabinet minister Riad Malki during that same program, Seigel did not question his guest about the UN or EU criticism of the Palestinians, nor did he in any way ask his guest to comment on Palestinian rocket fire or violence in general.
The journalistic failures described above can be summed up with a variation of well-known philosophical riddle: If Palestinians and Israelis are each condemned on the international stage and only reporters are around to hear it, will the public learn of both condemnations? The unfortunate answer, it seems, is “no.” Many news consumers will only learn that Israel was condemned.