That journalists rely uncritically on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is well established (read Matti Friedman in The Atlantic). Legal and factual claims by groups that purport to promote human rights are often treated as automatically credible, while their political biases, lack of methodology, and even ties to terror organizations are ignored.
Glenn Kessler’s March 14 Washington Post “Fact Checker” column, “Does the Palestinian Authority pay $350 million a year to ‘terrorists and their families’?”, responding to statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about prisoner payments, suffers from the same overdependence.
Throughout the article, Kessler quotes groups with ties to terrorist organizations as if they were credible sources for fact-checking. He quotes Palestinian NGOs Addameer and Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), both of which are closely associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP is designated as a terrorist organization by the US, EU, Canada, and Israel. Addameer is relied upon by the Washington Post to suggest that Israel fabricates evidence to convict Palestinians of attempting stabbing attacks. (“‘An usual case is one of a Palestinian found in possession of a knife being charged with attempted murder without any real evidence to indicate that he or she actually used or intended to use the weapon to kill,’ said Sahar Francis, director of Addammer, an organization that assists Palestinian prisoners.”)
For its part, DCI-P is quoted on the incarceration of Palestinian minors by Israel, claiming without evidence that these prisoners routinely endure “physical violence.” NGO Monitor analysis shows that DCI-P misstates international and domestic law, particularly jurisdictional concepts, criminal adjudication, and juvenile justice standards.
Elsewhere, Kessler quotes Human Rights Watch (HRW) to establish that suicide bombings are “war crimes” – as if we need HRW to determine that premeditated murder of innocent civilians is prohibited.
Then there’s the quoting of NGOs in place of official data. Kessler cites the Israeli group Hamoked in stating that “As of March 2018, Israeli prisons held 6,050 security inmates, virtually all Palestinians.” As indicated on Hamoked’s website, this data originated with the Israel Prison Service (IPS). It is strange that the article would quote a secondary source as opposed to a primary one, particularly in the context of fact-checking. Information provided by DCI-P (“Defense for Children International — Palestine, a nongovernmental institution, says Israeli prison data shows that an average of 200 Palestinian children a month are in custody”) should have similarly been sourced directly to the IPS.
Lastly, Military Court Watch (MCW) is presented as an expert on the treatment of Palestinian prisoners, such as blindfolding them and their access to lawyers. However, again as shown by NGO Monitor, their reports notoriously and consistently misrepresent arrest data, repeat the anonymous testimonies of Palestinian minors without verification, and incorrectly draw comparisons between different legal systems.
This article exemplifies the broad and negative results of the NGO “halo effect” whereby journalists falsely portray NGOs as accurate, un-biased sources. In reality, like other political actors (hence the Fact Checker column), these organizations deserve scrutiny and their claims should be treated with skepticism.