Journalists, War Crimes, Fake News — Is There a Connection?
Fake news has become a “thing”. How can we know when we are being fed fake news? Especially when a particular journalist has a good reputation and the news outlet in which he or she publishes has a good reputation. Some people seem to think they have it all figured out — if you are leftist and the news outlet is rightist, then what they publish is fake news and visa versa of course. However, we should not have to disbelieve a news report because of the political leanings of the owner or editorial staff; reporting is reporting and editorializing is editorializing and the two should not be intermingled. Unfortunately, today they are. And that is what makes it so hard to pick out the wheat from the chaff.
As I browsed through the academic literature, exploring how this question is being dealt with among academics, I came across an interesting title. John Hickman, professor of Government at Berry College, a private university in Georgia, published an article called, “Why have few journalists been prosecuted for incitement to war crimes?” I wondered if there might be something here relevant to my interest in fake news.
There was. But not in a way I expected.
I am sorry, John; I really wanted to like your article. Had you left out misinformation (disinformation?) about Israel, I would likely not have challenged your article and merely provided a brief summary for the enlightenment of my readers. After all, I am not knowledgeable enough regarding other parts of the world; I can only assess the (in)accuracy of what is written about Israel. And when I find something I think is wrong, according to knowledge currently available to me, I point it out. This is what happened to me about halfway through your paper.
The premise of the article is interesting. Here is the abstract:
Why have few journalists ever stood in the dock for incitement to violate international humanitarian law? Their work as propagandists has been essential to governments committing war crimes, crimes against peace and genocide. The answer matters both because impunity emboldens further violation and because the traditional distinctions between news reporting, news commentary and propaganda, and between journalists, commentators and activists, have eroded due to global news markets and social media. After presenting a brief history of prosecutions and non-prosecutions to establish the relative infrequency of prosecutions, this article reviews possible explanations, several of which are revealed in the foregoing historical survey. This investigation will suggest a multi-causal explanation that leans heavily on assumptions about the privileged position of journalists in liberal societies.
History of prosecution of journalists for war crimes
Settling in to read his article, it starts off with a historical account of the issue. As promised. He writes:
Prosecutions of journalists for war crimes are historically exceedingly rare, nearly all of which occur in two periods, after the Second World and after the Rwanda Genocide. Between the emergence of mass market newspapers in the late 18th century and the end of the Second World War, journalists were more likely to endorse than denounce violence by their own governments against rebellious minorities and colonial subjects.
Well, here it seems that we have an example of fake news sanctioned by — likely promoted by — governments. I guess that makes sense. And we likely expect that democracies do better (are more moral) than dictatorships, right? Not sure about that.
Hickman lists massacres and provides brief data concerning whether or not journalists were made accountable for promoting fake news in support of the violence:
- The massacres of native peoples across the American West — there were no laws that covered journalist ethics then.
- The Armenian Genocide — there were no journalists among those prosecuted for war crimes, even though there were journalists who published articles justifying the violence.
- Nazi war crimes — Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, was convicted and executed for his part in endorsing the Holocaust; broadcast journalist Hans Fritzsche, for dehumanizing the Jews, and Alfred Rosenberg, editor-in-chief of the Nazi daily newspaper for providing intellectual justification for the Nazi crimes. Journalists lower down in the hierarchy were not held accountable.
- World War II allies — three British and a number of American writers and broadcasters were convicted of treason on the basis of their propagandizing.
- Rwanda Massacres — owners of a radio-television network and some of their journalists, and editors-in-chief of local newspapers were convicted of dehumanizing the Tutsi and inciting the Hutu violence against them. Foreign correspondents were not held accountable for their falsification of what was behind the massacres, something that Hickman said helped other governments avoid getting involved in trying to stop them (also re the Balkan wars of the 90s), as they were not considered central to the incitement to genocide.
This latter point is relevant to us here in Israel. I will come back to this point later.
Using Israel as an example of compromised journalists
Of the seven reasons journalists are rarely prosecuted for war crimes, one is that journalists are believed to behave objectively because of those brave members of the profession, whistle blowers of sorts, who risk reporting on human rights violations of liberal nations and their allies that these nations would prefer to hide. An example he provides contradicting this assumption was domestic media coverage in Israel of what came to be known as the Jenin “massacre” (Hickman does not put quotes around that word). He writes:
Wartime patriotism may also lead journalists to endorse official denials of war crimes and thereby encourage perpetrators to act with impunity. Thus, Israeli television reporters reported the claims by then Defence Minister Shimon Peres of Israeli Defence Forces that Palestinian civilians in the Jenin Refugee Camp in April 2002 during the Second Intifada were not massacred but instead were combatants killed during intense house-to-house combat against suicide bombers (Dor, 2005: 62–63). The number of civilians killed in Jenin remains in dispute but what is certain is that in the excitement of Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli embedded reporters allowed their government to blame the victims by allowing the misidentification of some non-combatants as combatants.
Citing Dor’s book from 2005 (The Suppression of Guilt : The Israeli Media and the Reoccupation of the West Bank) as support for this view shows that Hickman did not do his homework. A Google search does not lead to a link to the original UN report, but it does show multiple articles noting that the UN, no friend of Israel’s, found no basis for calling what happened in Jenin a massacre — and some of these articles were published in outlets not favourable to Israel, to put it mildly.
Just to put things into perspective, while Jenin is called a refugee camp, it is not a collection of tents in a field. It is a city. Here is what Jenin looks like:Within this city, there is a refugee camp, to which those classified as refugees in 1948 have been confined ever since (first by Jordan, then by the Palestinian Authority). A small section of this region (7%) was targeted by the Israel Defense Forces in Operation Defensive Shield.
Further down, Hickman discusses the difficulty in finding such journalists guilty of incitement:
The problem of recognizing incitement is in part a function of the difficulty of distinguishing narratives in reporting and commentary justifying past war crimes from narratives in reporting and commentary justifying either ongoing or future war crimes. Indeed, narratives about the past, present and future are likely to blur together in justifications for war crimes. Thus, when the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv framed its news coverage of the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Jenin refugee camp in euphoric terms as a victory over ‘Jihad-land’ the atrocity had already been committed (Schabas, 2006: 299–301).
It is not clear why Hickman cited Schabas’ book (The UN International Criminal Tribunals: The Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone) as a source for the above paragraph when a search in the book shows no reference to Jenin or Palestine at all and Israel is referred to only regarding the Eichmann trial.
A conference in Tel Aviv in 2002 examined the media functioning and impact around the Jenin operation, and the proceedings were published in 2003, well before Dor’s book came out. According to that volume, the general impression immediately following the event was harsh:
For days, many all over the world, including some in Israel, believed that a massacre had taken place in the camp, that every house had been destroyed, that young men were being lined up and indiscriminately shot, and that Israeli troops, after losing 13 men in an ambush, went on a murderous rampage of revenge. The networks reported hundreds killed, and NGO, Red Cross, and European diplomatic “eye-witnesses” were given numerous minutes of air time to report the stench of bodies, the rubble, and the piles of dead. [page 10]
When it was over, 56 Palestinians were killed in the Jenin refugee camp, most of them armed men. Of the almost 2,000 homes in the camp, 130, several dozen of them bomb making factories, were destroyed. Throughout the conflict, as opposed to what was reported, Israel and PA officials in Jenin and, in some cases, Red Cross and UN officials as well, maintained constant contact. Together they worked out a system for allowing ambulances safe passage, and facilitated the distribution of all humanitarian aid that arrived, such as blankets from the Israeli Arab community. Israel delivered three electric generators to the hospital to guarantee its continued functioning.
None of this was reported. Neither was the decision by Israel’s Minister of Defense to use infantry and not F-16s as the army requested, despite the near certainty that this would lead to Israeli casualties, which indeed it did. The minister was aware of what the probable collateral damage would be from an air strike in terms of Palestinian civilian casualties, and hence his decision.
By the time Israel finally opened the camp to reporters, the world believed that there had been a massacre in Jenin. Because of the haphazard and disorganized way in which Israel allowed the media to enter the camp, the Palestinians were the first to get to the microphones with stories of horror, all told against the backdrop of destroyed houses and rubble. In the Arab world, the Jenin massacre became entrenched in the Palestinian narrative, no matter what reports by the UN and others subsequently found. Also, no documentation was provided showing that the houses destroyed had either been bomb factories or were used by the terrorists to resist the IDF. Israel’s voice was not heard. [pages 10-11]
Given his intention to refer to it in his academic paper, I would have expected Hickman to examine his assumptions about the Jenin so-called “massacre” before writing about it with such confidence. Had he done so, surely a bit of extended reading would have raised at least a smidgen of doubt in Hickman’s mind about whether or not this was a fitting example to use. That is not to say that Israel did not commit crimes because she did (using young Palestinian Arabs to walk ahead of them to protect soldiers against being shot as they moved forward), but this still does not make it a massacre or genocide that Israeli journalists then whitewashed.
Media responsibility in reporting on hostilities
Conference participants reached a number of conclusions for better ways to handle the need for real-time media coverage, foreign and domestic, during times of open hostilities. Along these lines, we can point to a certain phenomenon that has not yet been discussed, and that was not raised by Hickman:
Examining Israel’s failure in media management is only part of the story. There is also a question about the media’s failure in their reporting of Jenin, particularly the international media. At a certain point, it became clear that the allegations of a massacre were untrue, and yet very few journalists or editors corrected their earlier reporting or admitted to having been misled. Saeb Erekat originally claimed that 3,000 people had been killed, and later reduced the number to 500. Yet there was little or no coverage when the true figure emerged. For many viewers, and particularly readers, 500 remains the reported figure, rather than the actual number of some fifty. There was also little retrospective analysis of why the reporting at the time was so inaccurate. [page 19]
This is not the first time this has happened. In the Mohammad al-Dura case, Israel was accused by French media of killing the 12 year-old and it took over a decade to acknowledge that Israel could not have committed this murder (see Ben-Dror Yemini, Industry of Lies, 2017). While foreign correspondents may not be central to incitement to violence, as noted by Hickman, do they play a part in reporting that can destroy a nation’s reputation? Can that not provide incitement to violence against that nation?
Hickman uses domestic Israeli media coverage of the Jenin incursion as an example of biased Israeli reporters covering up for their government, implicating the journalists in contributing to the violence even if not to a degree that legal charges can be brought against them. Without suggesting there may be other interpretations when even the UN refused to call the Jenin operation a massacre, he calls his own academic diligence into question among those who know the facts of the events. For those ignorant of the facts, Hickman contributes to the perpetuation of the myth of the Jenin “massacre”. This could be called a form of fake academia, because he will be cited by others using his paper as a resource for their own.
From the tone of an email exchange in which I asked for him to send me the entire text of the paper (and I wonder if he is now sorry that he did), I did not get the impression that John Hickman is an unprincipled professional who looks for ways to harm Israel. On the contrary, I do believe he is trying to discuss societal phenomena that should be troubling to us all.
Israel is in a fight for her life, battling lies told about her in the media and academia, and the halls of the UN. It is troubling to me to find even a mere two paragraphs in an 8000-word article that perpetuate one of these lies.