Linda Gordon vs The Times

Complainant: Linda Gordon

Lodged by: Linda Gordon

Date: 15 October 2010

Respondent: The times

Article:

Complaint

 

Ms Linda Gordon complains about the following three stories, two editorials and a letter to the editor in The Times:

  • Gaza ships crisis: Can peace laureate Obama prevail? (editorial, published on June 1, 2010)
  • Punish Israel, says Turk PM – Commandos involved in attack on aid ship did not expect resistance (June 2, 2010)
  • Gadija’s sad adventure – Young SA journalist ‘traumatised’ by deaths on Gaza Strip aid ship (June 3)
  • SA selective in its condemnation of rights abuses (editorial, June 4)
  • Times is clearly biased (letter to the editor, June 4)
  • Israel’s Netanyahu retaliates: Claims of terrorists on ships (June 7)

Gordon complains that:

  • The newspaper made no attempt to record the circumstances surrounding the attack;
  • The reference to Sharpeville Day (June 3) was inflammatory;
  • No mention was made of the “fact” that the Israelis were first attacked;
  • There was no empathy for the young Israelis who were lynched, tortured and abused;
  • Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister’s statement that the flotilla organizers had ties with Hamas and Al Qaida was omitted;
  • TV coverage that showed boxes of heavy weapons and ammunition on the flotilla boats were not reported on;
  • Her letter to the newspaper was edited selectively; and
  • The editorials are blatantly condemnatory of Israel as well as inflammatory.

Her conclusion is that the reportage has not been truthful, accurate, fair or balanced.

 

Analysis

 

The background to the complaint is the seizure by Israel of the cruise liner Mavi Marmara, which was part of a flotilla of ships that left Turkey in May 2010 en route to Gaza. Israeli armed forces prevented the ship from entering its waters; nine people died in the process.

 

The first editorial (June 1) makes the point that, although countries worldwide condemned Israel, the latter remained unrepentant. The question is asked how Pres Barak Obama of America is going to react.

 

The first story (June 2) is about Turkey who reportedly called for Israel to be punished and for the lifting of “the inhumane embargo on Gaza”. The story also says that Egypt opened its border – an area “which is run by the radical Islamist Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s main opposition party”. The UN reportedly called for an impartial investigation into the incident, and Israel is said to have reacted sharply for being condemned unfairly for “defensive actions”.

 

The second story (June 3) deals with a South African Talk Radio 786 journalist, Gadija Davids, who reportedly was on one of the ships. The story says she was soon released and unharmed (except for emotional stress).

 

The second editorial (June 4) praises South Africa’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel in protest against the raid. It also says that it was especially the “disproportionate response of the (Israeli) soldiers” that sparked international outrage, adding that the incident will conjure up images of South Africa’s not-too-distant apartheid past.

 

Gordon, in her letter (June 4), argues that the newspaper is biased in its reporting on the Gaza flotilla incident. The letter says that the newspaper condemns Israel and ignores the role of Hamas, “who promote violence under the guise of humanitarian activity”. The organisers’ claim that its mission was humanitarian is questioned.

 

In the last story (June 7) Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu claims that the Turkish activists on the ships had prepared to fight. The story says that videos released by the army “have shown a crowd attacking the commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects”.

 

We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

 

No attempt to record the circumstances surrounding the attack

 

Gordon says that the SA Zionist Federation, via Sapa, released a media statement dated June 2 that recorded the circumstances surrounding the attack. She complains that the newspaper, in its reports, made no such attempt. She mentions the following examples of what the stories omitted:

  • Israel’s repeated requests for the flotilla to land in Ashdod and offload the cargo there;
  • The existence of a maritime blockade which is “in accordance with international maritime law”; and
  • Israelis were first attacked by armed antagonists.

The Times says the stories are a true reflection of what happened, adding that it had no reason to disbelieve the story it had received from SA-AP and Reuters. The newspaper says it relies on credible news agencies for its coverage of international news events – and not on “NGOs like the SA Zionist Federation”. The newspaper argues that it is the Israeli government, through its embassy, that can speak with authority about allegations made against it. It also argues that the Federation was not on the flotilla and cannot provide a factual report on the circumstances surrounding the attack.

 

The newspaper is correct on all these counts – it was under no obligation to use the press release from the Federation; the argument that it relies on credible international news agencies for its coverage of world events is standard practice; and as the Federation was not on the flotilla it is problematic to accept its views as “the facts” about the incident.

 

However, I shall nevertheless take the media release into account – not because the newspaper should have used it, but because material contained in the release that may have resulted in a different understanding of the siege may have been ignored.

 

Before I analyse the stories, this remark must first be made: I am wary of the phrase “the historical facts” as used by Gordon – especially with regards to the word “the”. There are so many versions of what happened, why things were done in a certain way and why not in another way that it would be arrogant of me (and for the newspaper, for that matter) to decide what “the” historical facts are.

 

The June 2 story was published on the same day that the media release was issued, which means that the this document cannot be taken into account as far as this story is concerned.

 

The reportage is fair – the story reports on the views of several interested parties: Turkey is asking for international punishment; the UN is calling for an impartial investigation; and the Israeli government is reacting sharply for having been condemned unfairly.  The Israeli military is also quoted as saying that its helicopters opened fire in self-defence.

 

Also important is the boarding party’s commander who reportedly said that he and his men had not expected such resistance “as we were talking about a humanitarian aid group”. (This is also reflected in the sub-headline: Commando involved in attack on aid ship did not expect resistance.) This provides balance to the story in that it makes it clear that at least some of the activists on the ship were not all that innocent.

 

Before we turn to the other two stories, let’s first take a look at what the media release says:

  • The accusations against Israel are without foundation;
  • Under international law Israel has the right to defend itself and to protect its citizens (against Hamas) and, when a maritime blockade is in effect, no vessels are allowed to enter the blockaded area;
  • Israel had warned the flotilla repeatedly not to enter the area;
  • Based on the assumption that the ships carried humanitarian aid, Israel offered them the opportunity to land in the Israeli port of Ashdod and to offload the aid, under its scrutiny, on its way through overland crossings to Gaza;
  • Ms Greta Berlin, a flotilla organizer, said to AFP: “This mission is not about delivering humanitarian supplies, it’s about breaking Israel’s siege.”
  • When the flotilla refused to change direction, Israel “…had no option but to board the illegally sited vessels.”
  • Israelis who landed on one of the ships were immediately attacked and their weapons forcibly removed.
  • Confronted by protestors with weapons as well as by a man carrying a child in his arms (which amounted to child abuse), the Israelis were well within their rights to take action.
  • Ten Israeli soldiers were injured, one of whom suffered a serious head injury, two others were injured by gunshots and another was stabbed.
  • The vessels were redirected to Ashdod.

We shall discuss the editorials later.

 

The June 3 story is based on an interview with the parents of Gadija Davids, Mogamat and Magboeba Davids. Gadija was a journalist and the only South African on the flotilla. It is a human-interest story that reports on the emotions of the parents and the whereabouts of their daughter. (The very few times that the flotilla issue is mentioned serve to give background to the trauma that members of the Davids family were encountering.)

 

One can therefore not reasonable expect the newspaper to “record circumstances surrounding the attack” in this specific story.

 

The June 7 story reports on Netanyahu’s version of the events. This is what Netanyahu reportedly said:

  • the Turkish activists “had prepared for the fight”;
  • the activists boarded the ship separately from other passengers after they had organized and equipped themselves;
  • “dozens of thugs” from an “extremist, terrorism-supporting organization” had readied themselves for the arrival of the Israeli commandos; and
  • the clear intent of this “hostile group” was to initiate a violent clash with Israeli soldiers.

The allegation that these activists were in fact hired mercenaries is also reported, as well as the following: “Videos released by the army have shown a crowd attacking the commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects. The army has displayed pictures of knives, slingshots and metal rods taken from the assailants. Video footage seized from reporters and security cameras on board the ship show a group of young men brandishing clubs and other weapons ahead of the arrival of the soldiers.”

 

A comparison between the story and the media release shows that much of what is contained in the media release is either reported on or (at least partly) implied in this story. For example:

  • The accusations against Israel are without foundation (Netanyahu’s whole argument boils down to this);
  • The Israelis were well within their rights to take action;
  • Israelis who landed on one of the ships were immediately attacked; and
  • Israeli soldiers were injured. (Although the extent of the injuries is not reported on, it is clear from the story that the attack by the activists using knives, metal rods and clubs must have resulted in injuries. The caption also mentions “an injured Israeli commando”.)

This leaves us with two issues that are mentioned in the media release but which are not reported on in this story – the maritime blockade and related matters (that the flotilla had been warned not to enter the area, that Israel offered the flotilla the opportunity to land in Ashdod, and that Israel “had no option but to board” the vessels when the flotilla ignored its warnings) as well as flotilla organizer Berlin’s comment to the effect that the mission was not about humanitarian aid, but about breaking Israel’s siege.

 

Firstly, if the newspaper did go into the issue of the maritime blockade and related issues, it probably would have had to shorten and even cut out other important aspects of the story. There is only so much space. Secondly, the focus of the story is on Netanyahu’s reaction to the incident. If these other issues were reported on, it would have altered the focus of the story. The newspaper can therefore not be faulted for omitting these aspects in this specific story.

 

However, the Berlin statement is another matter. We shall return to this issue when the editorials are discussed.

 

The reference to Sharpeville Day inflammatory

 

Gordon complains that the statement attributed to Magboeba Davids (where she compares the flotilla incident with Sharpeville Day in the June 3 story) is inflammatory.

 

The newspaper does not reply to this part of the complaint.

 

The comparison between the flotilla attack and Sharpeville Day is far-fetched – the background and circumstances of these two events are vastly different.

 

However, it must be kept in mind that this is a human-interest story that focuses on the hearts and minds of Gadija’s parents. The quote is attributed to the mother and is not presented as a fact, highlighting the emotion and turmoil that she has been going through.

 

It is understandable that some people may not like the comparison, but when read and understood in context it is not in breach of the Press Code.

 

No mention that the Israelis were first attacked

 

We have already dealt with this part of the complaint. The June 7 story clearly says that videos have shown “a crowd attacking the commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter” (emphasis added).

 

 No empathy for young Israelis

 

Gordon complains that there is no empathy in the stories for the young Israeli soldiers who were “lynched, tortured and horribly abused”. On the other hand, she says, great concern was showed for Davids “who works for the Islamic Talk Radio 786 in Cape Town, known for its extreme anti-Israel bias”.

 

The Times argues that the Gadija story was newsworthy – she was part of the group of people who were detained and interrogated by Israeli security forces. The newspaper adds that the Israeli military itself admitted that it had mishandled the people on the flotilla during the attack – the implication is that Gadija may have been mishandled herself.

 

It must be remembered that nine people died in this attack. None of them were Israelis. The lack of “empathy” with the Israeli soldiers who were “lynched, tortured and horribly” must be interpreted in this light.

 

The “great concern” for Davids is understandable, as she was the only South African involved in the incident.

 

 No report on ties with Hamas and Al Qaida

 

Gordon complains that the newspaper did not quote the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who said that the flotilla organizers had ties with Hamas and Al Qaida, “both terror organizations bent on the destruction of Israel”.

 

The newspaper does not reply to this part of the complaint.

 

Although the names “Hamas” and “Al Qaida” are not mentioned in the stories (in connection with ties with the flotilla organizers), it is reported that Netanyahu said the activists were from “an extremist, terrorism-supporting organization”.

 

TV coverage of ammunition on the flotilla boats ignored

 

The complaint is that The Times probably saw the videos that showed boxes of heavy weapons and ammunition (during the unloading of the Mavi Marmara in the port of Ashdod) – but it did not report on this matter.

 

The Times does not comment on this part of the complaint.

 

It may be true that that the newspaper did not report on the weapons and ammunition that was unloaded in Asdod, but it did not ignore the presence of weapons on the ship either. The June 7 story mentions the possibility that some of the activists were hired mercenaries, also that they had weapons (clubs, other objects, knives, slingshots, metal rods are mentioned).

 

Clearly, the newspaper did not try to hide the fact that there were all sorts of weapons on board the ship.

Selective, biased editing

 

Gordan complains that her letter to the editor, headlined Times is clearly biased, was edited selectively, providing blatant proof of the bias of the newspaper and its refusal to acknowledge factual information.

 

The parts of the letter that were edited out all correspond to those in the media statement by the SA Zionist Federation. They are:

  • Under international law Israel has the right to defend itself and to protect its citizens (against Hamas) and has thus imposed a maritime blockade to curb further Hamas aggression;
  • When a maritime blockade is in effect, no vessel may enter the blockaded area;
  • Israel had repeatedly warned the flotilla not to enter the area;
  • Based on the assumption that the ships carried humanitarian aid, Israel offered the activists the opportunity to land in the Israeli port of Ashdod and to offload the aid, under their scrutiny, on its way through overland crossings to Gaza;
  • Berlin’s statement that the mission is not about delivering humanitarian supplies, it’s about breaking Israel’s siege.
  • When the flotilla refused to change direction, Israel “…had no option but to board the illegally sited vessels.

The Times says it published Gordon’s letter two days after its first story ran – while the story was still developing. It says: “This is amongst the swiftest a letter has been published in a newspaper.” The newspaper adds that it was under no obligation to publish the letter and that it was well within its rights to cut the letter for space. “No newspaper runs five-page letters to length.” The newspaper rejects Gordon’s allegation that it was prejudiced and unbalanced in the way it had edited her letter.

 

Firstly, I can understand Gordon’s point of view – the issues that the newspaper had not reported on in its stories are the very same ones that were edited out of her letter.

 

However, it is also understandable that newspapers (sometimes drastically) edit out parts of letters to the editor. This is mostly a practical thing (too many letters, too little space) as opposed to a practice related to an ideological stance.

 

Although many details in Gordan’s letter were omitted, the following was published: “Both in the news reports and your editorial of June 1, you chose to ignore the role of terrorist group Hamas and its supporters, who promote violence under the guise of humanitarian activity, in favour of condemning Israel based on one-sided, prejudicial and misleading information.” The publication of this pretty powerful sentence does not indicate any bias or prejudice on the part of the newspaper.

 

The same goes for the headline: Times is clearly biased.

 

 The editorials: Condemnatory, inflammatory

 

Gordon says the editorials are blatantly condemnatory of Israel as well as inflammatory. She also says that the newspaper, in its editorials, ignored Berlin’s statement. (This part of the complaint does not involve the first editorial. Berlin’s statement was included in the media release, which was issued afterwards).

 

The Times argues that its editorials were a fair reflection of the outrage directed against Israel by the international community. “Ours was fair, factual comment.”

 

The June 1 editorial says the world looks to American President and Nobel peace laureate Barak Obama to find a way “out of this intractable mess”. The editorial joins a large part of the world in condemning Israel’s actions; but it provides balance by also stating Israel’s version of the story. The editorial also quotes Trade and Industry Minister Binyamin ben Eliezer saying that Israel warned the activists and told them that their actions were provocative. Ben Eliezer is also said to insist that passengers were armed and that Israel was merely defending itself against a potential attack.

 

The fact that the newspaper rejects ben Eliezer’s argument does not imply any bias on its part.

 

The June 4 editorial hails the South African Government’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel. It again mentions Israel’s version of events, namely that the activists attacked the Israeli soldiers moments after they arrived on deck. It says that the activists disarmed two Israeli soldiers, shot and wounded them, adding that another soldier was stabbed with a knife. The editorial does not denounce violent action by Israel as such – it says it was the “disproportionate response of the soldiers that sparked international outrage”. (The editorial then goes on to state that the South African Government has not always shown the same resolve “when it comes to other countries guilty of serious human rights abuses”.)

 

Regarding the Berlin statement the newspaper admits that it did not, at the time, reflect on this issue. It says that no story, especially one taking place so far away, can provide for all eventualities and include every detail. It says: “Such information gets published, making things clearer, as the stories develop. That happened in this case.”

 

Gordon disputes this, saying that “further information providing the historical facts was not published in The Times”.

 

This is not completely true. On June 4, a story (headlined ‘Activists seized marines’ – Gaza eyewitness gives backing to both sides) appeared in which an Al Jazeera TV cameraman’s eyewitness account is described. The story paints pictures of the activists’ violent action quite graphically.

 

Yet, Gordon still has a point with reference to the Berlin statement. The issue here is not the violence aboard the ship, but the fact that Berlin admitted that the purpose of the mission was not a humanitarian one. Clearly, this is important as it may give a new meaning to the events. It should therefore indeed have been mentioned.

 

This does not mean that The Times should necessarily have lessened its criticism of Israel. It may, for example, have believed that the maritime blockade was unlawful and it may even have supported an armed attack on Israel by the activists.

 

But that is not the point. The readers had the right to know what Berlin said. By omitting this aspect (to which The Times admits), the newspaper denied the public the right to decide for itself what the purpose of the mission was.

 

Finding

 

No attempt to record the circumstances surrounding the attack

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

The reference to Sharpeville Day inflammatory

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

No mention that the Israelis were first attacked

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

No empathy for young Israelis

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

No report on ties with Hamas and Al Qaida

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

TV coverage of ammunition on the flotilla boats ignored

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

Selective, biased editing

 

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

The editorials

 

The complaint is dismissed with regards to the first editorial.

 

Regarding the second editorial: The mentioning of alleged admission of a flotilla organizer (namely that the flotilla’s mission was not a humanitarian one) may have influenced the way in which some readers may have interpreted the events. The Times neglected to refer to this alleged statement. This should have been done, either in a news story or in an editorial. This omission is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions…”

 

Sanction

 

The Times is reprimanded and directed to publish Berlin’s alleged statement.

 

The newspaper is also directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling). Our office should be furnished with this text prior to publication.

 

Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.

Appeal

 

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

 

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman