Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh knows firsthand that foreign correspondents routinely send back reports that are wildly prejudicial against Israel. He spoke to HonestReporting Canada cofounder and chairman Jonas Prince in an April 25 webinar. (screenshot)
Western reporters “parachute” into Israel and routinely send back reports that are wildly biased against Israel, while ignoring panoramic human rights violations and corruption in the Palestinian territories. This is the firsthand observation of an Arab Israeli journalist with decades of experience shepherding foreign reporters around the region.
Khaled Abu Toameh is a senior distinguished fellow at the Gatestone Institute. For almost two decades, he has been a reporter on Palestinian affairs for the Jerusalem Post. He spoke to a Canadian audience April 25, in a webinar presented by HonestReporting Canada, an organization promoting fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East. He was interviewed by the organization’s cofounder and chairman, Jonas Prince.
“It’s not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,” Toameh said. “It’s about telling the truth. Being able to … portray a balanced picture to your readers.”
Toameh has worked with hundreds of international reporters and journalists, helping guide them around the complexities of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But, he said, complexity is not something for which many journalists are looking.
“I would say that most of them, the majority, they look at this conflict as a conflict between good guys and bad guys,” he said. “The good guys are the poor Palestinians and the bad guys are Israel…. Some of them come to this part of the world already with this perception and it’s like, Khaled, please don’t confuse us with the facts.”
Many of these journalists wake up in the morning and search for any story that reflects negatively on Israel, he said.
“Why is it that many of these journalists turn a blind eye to corruption in the Palestinian Authority, to lack of freedom of speech under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and under Hamas in Gaza? These are questions that we need to ask,” he said.
If, during the Oslo process, Western media had more broadly reported the misuse of billions in foreign aid to Palestine, Toameh said, Western governments might have been pressured to hold Yasser Arafat and other leaders to account.
“Only a few journalists did,” he said. “Yasser Arafat got away with the corruption. He deprived his people of the international aid. That played into the hands of Hamas and look where we are now. It’s a total mess.”
Toameh said some foreign reporters tell him that they are afraid.
“We can’t report [about Palestinian corruption] because we need to go back to Ramallah, we need to go back to Gaza, it’s dangerous,” Toameh paraphrased. “I tell them, excuse me, if anyone should be afraid, it’s me, the local Arab journalist who is living here. You guys have embassies, you have consulates, you have your own governments that will protect you. Secondly, why are you going to cover a conflict if you’re going to allow yourselves to be intimidated by one party? You will never be able to do your job. You need to quit journalism and go find yourself another job.”
He added: “Ironically, some of these journalists sometimes tell me, we can’t report anything that reflects negatively on the PLO, Hamas, because it’s not like Israel, it’s not a democracy.”
Other, less physical, fears also inhibit balanced reporting, Toameh said.
“Some of the foreign journalists are afraid that, if they report positive stories about Israel, they will be accused of working for the Jewish lobby or they will be accused of being Zionist agents or they will be accused of being anti-Palestinian or propagandists,” he said. “That’s how it is. That’s the last thing they want. But there are many good stories out here. There is no shortage of good stories. The question we always need to ask ourselves is, who wakes up in the morning and decides what the story is? Who sets the agenda?”
Some of the reporters, whom Toameh calls “parachute journalists,” arrive preprogrammed with false information.
“I’ve met other journalists who have asked me to take them to see the mass graves in Jenin where Jews massacred thousands of Palestinians in 2002,” he said, referring to a false report of a mass killing, a lie that remains today, unaltered, on the website of the BBC. “You can’t send someone who is covering sports in France to do stories over here. It doesn’t work like that.”
Palestinian society does not have the tradition of press freedom or civil criticism that democracies enjoy, he said. Journalists in Palestine operate under very different constraints than those in Israel or the West.
“I don’t think there’s anything unusual about reporting about corruption, for example, in the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “Why is that considered a taboo? Why is it that, when an Arab writes about Arab corruption, he becomes a Zionist agent? While, if a Jew writes about the corruption of the Israeli government, he’s praised as a liberal, as progressive and things like that? I can understand where it comes from, because I come from a culture – the Arab culture, the Muslim culture, the Palestinian culture, if you want – where criticism of the government and the president and the prime minister, or of your people, is considered an act of treason.”
While Palestinian and overseas media may shy away from reporting Palestinian corruption, ordinary Palestinians are fully aware of the situation, Toameh said. Protests during a short-lived “Palestinian Spring” were crushed by Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And Palestinians know there could be repercussions for any complaints.
“Not only are people afraid of being arrested or killed or harassed by these two governments – the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – they’re also afraid of losing their jobs,” he said. “The Palestinian Authority is the largest employer in the West Bank and people are worried. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want their relatives to be deprived of jobs, so that’s one of the reasons you don’t see this intifada or uprising against bad government.”
Toameh has been lionized as a hero for the work he does. But he dismisses the accolades.
“There is nothing heroic about telling the truth,” he said. “I don’t understand. Since when are people awarded for telling the truth, for not lying?”
Not everyone admires Toameh’s work, of course. Since he began uncovering Palestinian corruption for the Post, in 2002, foreign outlets that used to employ his expertise have abandoned him.
“I lost 95% of my work with the international media,” he said. “Why? Because I dared to challenge the narrative that says, in this conflict, the Israelis are the bad guys and the Palestinians are the good people and we don’t want to hear anything [different]…. I don’t fit into the category of journalists who are known for their severe criticism of Israel and who are ready to give the Palestinians a pass on everything. In that sense, I consider myself to be more pro-Palestinian than many of them. Being pro-Palestinian does not mean that you spew hatred against Israel. Being pro-Palestinian, for me, is when you demand reform, democracy, good government for the Palestinians … when you criticize Palestinian leaders for arresting journalists, for arresting social media users, for skimming the money of their own people. That’s what is really pro-Palestinian.”
Toameh was speaking before the latest conflagration between Hamas and Israel. But the long-range possibility of people remains dependent on the whims of two Palestinian factions.
“The Palestinian Authority, in public, say we support the two-state solution,” Toameh summarized. “But they are also saying, Israel must give us 100% of what Israel took in 1967, which means give me all of East Jerusalem, give me all of the West Bank, give me all of Gaza and then we will talk about the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and other issues. But give me 100% and there will be a deal.
“Hamas, on the other hand, have their own vision. They haven’t changed. I’ve been following Hamas from Day One. I was actually sitting in Gaza at the press conference when Hamas was established in 1988 and I give them credit for being very honest, very consistent and very clear about their strategy and it’s very simple. They say: listen folks, this land, all of it, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River is wakf land, land that belongs to the Muslim trust. No non-Muslim is entitled to any part of it. We want to replace Israel with an Islamic state and, if there are some Jews who would like to live as a minority under our new Islamic state, they are welcome. Otherwise, all of you get out of here or we will kill you and destroy you. These are the two visions that we have so far.”
Mike Fegelman, executive director of HonestReporting Canada, told the audience that, since its founding 17 years ago, the organization has inspired 2,500 corrections, retractions and apologies in different Canadian media outlets and has an overall success rate of 80%.