Ha'aretz Corrects Inaccurate Report on NGO Debate in European Parliament
Correction Follows Ruling by Ethics Court of Israeli Press Council
JERUSALEM – Citing misleading, inaccurate, and selective reporting practices, the Ethics Court of the Israeli Press Council (IPC) issued a final ruling ordering Ha’aretz Online to issue the following correction to its June 23, 2010 article on a session in the European Parliament (EP) (correction was published by Ha’aretz Online on February 22, 2011):
“The editors of Ha’aretz Online wish to clarify: The report on the debate at the EU subcommittee on human rights, that took place on June 23, 2010, was lacking and errors were made in its preparation.”
Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor brought the case to the IPC, on the grounds that Ha’aretz had blatantly violated journalistic ethical standards. The complaint detailed major discrepancies between the claims of the article and the substance of the EP subcommittee session. In particular, the Ha’aretz article, under the bylines of Jack Khouri and Dana Harman, reported that officials from two Israeli NGOs were invited (Mossawa and PCATI), and from a third European-based NGO – the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN).
Among other central points, Ha’aretz omitted the participation of Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the EU Zvi Tal and Prof. Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, in this EP Human Rights subcommittee session. The proceedings, which were available via live streaming on the internet, included sharp exchanges over Israeli NGOs funded secretly by the EU. This debate also entirely absent from the Ha’aretz report. (See quotes from Ethics Court decision below.)
Ha’aretz also falsely indicated that a resolution had been adopted by the subcommittee that would “damage all plans for cooperation between Israel and the EU.” In reality, no resolution was considered, and only four MEPs supported the position of the NGOs condemning Israel, while others spoke against this position. Ha’aretz relied on two sources that have a vested interest in the issue without any independent reporting.
In response to the IPC decision, the dismissal of the appeal from Ha’aretz and the correction, Prof. Steinberg today released the following statement:
The decision from the Ethics Court of the Israeli Press Council reflects the major distortions resulting from the close cooperation between Ha’aretz and NGOs involved in political advocacy. Given the major role of European-funded NGOs in promoting false claims of Israeli “war crimes” and other forms of demonization, the debates on this issue in the European Parliament should be reported accurately. The Ethics Court decision shows that in this case, the Ha’aretz reporter greatly distorted the facts. Such unethical behavior, and other articles which promote the objectives of political NGOs under the façade of news articles, are entirely inconsistent with the responsibilities of a free press within a democratic society.
By issuing this decision and requiring Ha’aretz online to publish a correction, the Ethics Court has removed the “halo” effect used to prevent criticism of political advocacy NGOs and their funders.
Full report with key points of the IPC Decision:
Israel Press Council Censures Haaretz on NGO-EU Article:
Case Reflects Automatic Acceptance of NGO Claims
On February 8, 2011 the appellate Ethics Court of the Israeli Press Council (IPC) published its decision, upholding and reaffirming the November 25, 2010 finding that Ha’aretz had committed ethical violations in a June 23, 2010 online article headlined “The Gaza Flotilla: Turkey and the Balkan States Demand an Investigation into Events.” More than half of the article dealt with a debate in the European Parliament (EP) Subcommittee on Human Rights regarding the Israeli draft bill on “Disclosure Requirements for [Groups] Supported by a Foreign Government Body.” These sections were based entirely on sources from two EU-funded political advocacy NGOs, with no attempt at confirmation from other sources, thereby greatly distorting the events. The two reporters credited in the byline were not at the EP debate. Ha’aretz refused to retract or issue corrections regarding incorrect information in the article.
The Ethics Court decision was based on a complaint filed by the president of NGO Monitor, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, who participated in the EU parliamentary session. Ha’aretz was ordered to publish the following statement in its online edition: “The editorial board of Ha’aretz Online wishes to clarify: The report on the debate at the EU subcommittee on human rights, that took place on June 23, 2010, was lacking and errors were made in its preparation.”
On June 23, 2010 Ha’aretz (Online Edition) published an article headlined “The Gaza Flotilla: Turkey and the Balkan States Demand an Investigation into Events.” More than half of the article dealt with a debate that day in the European Parliament (Brussels) Subcommittee on Human Rights, regarding the Israeli draft bill on “Disclosure Requirements for [Groups] Supported by a Foreign Government Body.”  This open EP session was attended by many journalists, live-streamed over the internet, and available afterwards for viewing.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, filed a complaint June 30, 2010 with the Israeli Press Council citing Ha’aretz’s failure to adhere to journalistic ethical standards in this article. The complaint detailed major inaccuracies in Ha’aretz’s depiction of the EP debate. In particular, the article only noted speakers from NGOs Mossawa, PCATI, and EMHRN, omitting the participation of Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the EU Zvi Tal and Prof. Steinberg, and the intense debate that took place. Ha’aretz also indicated that a resolution had been adopted by the subcommittee that would “damage all plans for cooperation between Israel and the EU.” In reality, no resolution was considered, and only four MEPs supported the position of the NGOs condemning Israel, while others spoke against this position.
Key Points from the IPC Ethics Court decision and hearing (translated from the Hebrew text):
- Chairman of the Ethics Court: “A description that gave the impression that a decision had been made, when no decision had actually been made, and a description of the words of ‘the Parliament Members’ while quoting only a minority of the members- represents a one-sided report and gives the reader a picture that is far removed from the facts” (emphasis in original).
- “We note that we are dissatisfied with the extent of the Defendant’s reliance on two sources that have a vested interest in the issue, without any verification… It is our understanding that a respected website such as the Defendant should verify information prior to publication… it is impossible to accept the absence of any attempt at verification – especially when it is so easy and simple to do – while presenting the information in the article as an objective report of facts allegedly known to the reporters.” (emphasis in original)
- In its response submitted to the court, and reiterated during the IPC court hearing on 18 November, Ha’aretz maintained that the online article referred to condemnations voiced against Israel in the context of the Gaza Flotilla: “The subject of the article was not the debate held on 23.6.10 – but, as stated, condemnations of Israel that were voiced from all corners of the earth…The debate in the committee was mentioned simply as one of four examples of this…and so it was sufficient to describe the relevant parts of the debate – the parts in which Israel was attacked regarding its treatment of human rights organizations.”
- During the hearing, the editor of the Ha’aretz website admitted that the article was based on a report from the participating NGOs: Mossawa or PCATI. Ha’aretz Online had no other information regarding the EP debate, nor did it try to verify the information received: “In the context of a news article such as this, [the editor] sees nothing wrong with being exclusively based on sources with a vested interest, with no verification.”
- The Ethics Court decision censured Ha’aretz for violating clauses 4(a), 6(c) and 5(a) of the ethics regulations.
- Furthermore, the court issued a warning and instructed  the website to publish the court’s decision within 14 days of its release under the headline: “Ethics court of the Israel Press Council: Ha’aretz website published one-sided report without sufficient verification.” (emphasis in original) [This ruling has been changed by the appeal ethics court,  as above mentioned].
- From the minority opinion: “During the proceedings, a grim picture of journalistic work was portrayed to us. Under the name of two respected Ha’aretz reporters, an article appeared that is apparently based mostly on material that neither one of them wrote. The defendant admitted to us, in fairness, that the main source for the text published is a press release received from a body with political interests and a very defined political color.”
- “I agree … that if the report from the debate in Europe was made completely on the basis of reporting from interested parties, it would have been appropriate to state this in the article. It would have been appropriate to write that ‘the Mossawa center reports that…’ or that ‘according to a report of PCATI…’ I think we should comment to the defendant on this issue – but I do not think, in the circumstances described here, that we can censure the defendant for violating the ethics regulations…”
1 This legislation (which passed its first reading in the Knesset on 18.10.10) addresses the lack of transparency in the large scale funding for politicized Israeli NGOs by the European Union and member governments. If adopted, NGOs will be obligated to fully report funding received from foreign governments. This funding transparency initiative is strongly opposed by recipient NGOs and their allies. Eleven such groups approached MEPs who then initiated a debate on the bill and related issues in the Subcommittee on Human Rights. The debate was scheduled without connection to the Gaza Flotilla events.
2 This instruction was subsequently changed in the appeal hearing (Feb. 6, 2011). All other IPC rulings regarding Ha’aretz violations still stand.
3 “The editorial board of Ha’aretz Online wishes to clarify: The report on the debate at the EU subcommittee on human rights, that took place on June 23, 2010, was lacking and errors were made in its preparation.”