Felicia Levy vs The Star

Complainant: Felicia Levy

Lodged by: Felicia Levy

Article: Palestinian president on a landmark visit to South Africa – Middle East peace process set to top the agenda

Author of article: Janet Smith

Date: 17 January 2015

Respondent: The Star

Complaint

Levy is complaining about a story in The Star, headlined Palestinian president on a landmark visit to South Africa – Middle East peace process set to top the agenda and published on 26 November 2014.

She complains that the story contained exaggerations and misrepresentations of facts with regard to the following sentences:

·         “The Middle East peace process has been in a state of paralysis since May, when Washington talks … fell apart. This was primarily after Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu announced thousands of new housing units would be built in settlements on West Bank land”;

·         “This was followed in July and August by Israeli air strikes on Gaza after the deaths of two settler teenagers and a Palestinian teenager”; and

·         “There will also be an agreement on higher education and training, with opportunities to be created for Palestinian students to study in South Africa. Most travel to Jordan’s universities”.

She concludes that the article was constructed in such a manner as to malign Israel through a lack of accuracy, fairness, balance and context.

The story

The story, written by Janet Smith, says that Pres Jacob Zuma was to receive Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a historic state visit to South Africa. Smith outlined the nature of this visit, and gave background information on the breakdown of the Middle East peace process.

Analysis

·         “The Middle East peace process has been in a state of paralysis since May, when Washington talks … fell apart. This was primarily after Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu announced thousands of new housing units would be built in settlements on West Bank land”.

Levy says this statement implies that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement (he is not the president) concerning housing was the cause of the breakdown of the peace process. Smith “completely omits” to report on the role played by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in contributing towards the breakdown and fails to report on the events, in chronological context, which led to the breakdown in the talks.

She contends: “Israel suspended negotiations following the Hamas government announcement to form a joint government with the Palestinian Authority on April 23.  Israel had agreed to participate in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, since it views Hamas as an enemy terrorist organisation. Israel therefore suspended negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, since in forming a coalition government with Hamas, it was in breach of the negotiating conditions agreed upon by the parties.

“At that time, Mr. Netanyahu stated that a coalition government including Hamas would be incompatible with Israel-Palestinian peace and that President Abbas had to choose between ‘peace with Hamas and peace with Israel’.  (Hamas is committed to the annihilation of Israel and the murder of Jews in Israel and the world – see Hamas Charter).”

Levy adds that Netanyahu’s announcement concerning the housing was made two weeks after the Palestinian Authority unity government announcement on June 4, and after Israel had announced its suspension of peace talks as a consequence of the breach of the negotiating conditions by the Palestinian Authority by forming a coalition government with Hamas.

Therefore: “The talks did not end solely as a consequence of Israel’s actions … but rather as a consequence of the formation of a unity government to include Hamas, an organisation with which Israel had never agreed to negotiate.”

Levy also states that the story inaccurately said Netanyahu announced that “thousands” of new housing units would be built in settlements on West Bank land – according to Wikipedia (Israel Housing and Construction Ministry) the number of new housing units planned was 1 500, not “thousands”.

 

                                               My considerations

I take into account that the text in question is a hard news story and not an opinion piece. This places even more of an onus on the newspaper to report accurately and fairly.

The story said that the Middle East process fell apart “primarily” after Netanyahu had announced the planned building of housing units. The use of this word is good, but also possibly bad.

Let me explain: On the one hand, it means that Smith did leave some room for reasons other than Netanyahu’s announcement as the cause or causes of the breakdown of the peace process. That, in itself, is good.

However, while I do not expect of Smith to explain what all of these other reasons might have been, given the limited space available to her, the use of the word “primarily” also boiled down to a statement that Israel, as a matter of fact, was mostly responsible for the break-down of those peace talks.

This may or may not be correct.

What is missing in the story is a hint at the possibility that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas might also have contributed towards the breakdown.

It is not my job to determine who was primarily responsible for the breakdown of the peace talks, and therefore I am not going to rule in favour of any party on the issue of accuracy in this regard.

I can, however, decide on fairness. It the possibility existed that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas might also have been responsible for the breakdown, then fairness (balance) suggests that such a possibility should have been mentioned.

I am also not making a ruling on the accuracy of the “thousands” of housing units that were going to be built – the fact that the number of 1 500 is mentioned on Wikipedia does not by default make it true. It may even be propaganda, for all I know.

However, I do believe that Levy should have the opportunity to state this information garnered from Wikipedia.

·         “This was followed in July and August by Israeli air strikes on Gaza after the deaths of two settler teenagers and a Palestinian teenager”.

Levy says that three Israeli teenagers, and not two, were kidnapped and murdered. Moreover, Smith placed the initiation of the hostilities that resulted in the Gaza war solely at Israel’s door, thus absolving the Hamas government in Gaza of any contribution to the hostilities.

 

She also complains that the journalist omitted to mention that in the six months prior to the onset of the war some 450 rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel, targeting Israeli civilians. “No mention of this is made in her report.”

She concludes that the story distorted and misrepresented facts by omission “[and]in so doing, presents Israel as the aggressor and Hamas as the passive innocent recipient of this aggression”.

 

                                                My considerations

My thinking on this specific matter is along the same lines as above.

·         “There will also be an agreement on higher education and training, with opportunities to be created for Palestinian students to study in South Africa. Most travel to Jordan’s universities”.

This sentence implies, states Levy’s complaint, that education facilities in the territories governed by Palestine are lacking or absent and that Israel is responsible for this, thus compelling students to travel to Jordan. “The facts are that there are at least 11 universities and colleges in the West Bank [and in the Gaza Strip]to serve a population of around three million people.”

She provided this office with a list of these institutions, copied from Wikipedia; she also lists five institutions which, combined, accommodate more than 100 000 students. “[There] are numerous tertiary institutions in the Palestinian territories attended by thousands of Palestinian students. While some may choose to travel to Jordan to study, there are nonetheless ample facilities in the West Bank.”

 

                                                My considerations

Again, I do not know if it is factually correct to state that “most” Palestinian students study at universities in Jordan. But, if there is another view on this matter, as Levy’s complaint suggests, I believe that such a view should be made public in order for readers to decide for themselves.

Maligning Israel

Levy concludes that the article was constructed in such a manner as to malign Israel by means of a lack of accuracy, fairness, balance and context.

 

                                             My considerations

In line with my arguments above, I agree het Israel may have been maligned as far as fairness (balance) was concerned.

Finding

The complaint regarding fairness is upheld, as Section 2.1 of the Press Code have been breached. This section says: “The press shall take care to report news…fairly.”

There is no finding regarding the complaint regarding accuracy.

In her complaint, Levy asked that no picture should accompany her right of reply without her approval. This request is denied, as a member of the public does not have the right to decide for a newspaper what to publish. If she believes such a picture to be in breach of the Press Code, she may again lodge a complaint with this office.

Seriousness of the breach

The breach of the Press Code resorts under Tier 2 with regard to the Hierarchy of Sanctions (Serious breaches).

Sanction

The following measures are directed:

·         Levy’s request to be given the opportunity of a right of reply on the op-ed page is granted;

·         The Star is directed to publish this finding, in wording to be finalised in consultation with this office;

·         The story consisted of 370 words, and Levy’s right of reply should not exceed that; and

·         I shall provide the newspaper with the text for its comment, after which I shall decide on the final version to be published – if there are any bones of contention, I shall consult Levy as well, before coming to a final decision.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman