By Julie Webb-Pullman
Widespread publication by media such as the New York Times and the Guardian, of Israeli allegations against the Gaza manager of World Vision Mohammad Al-Halabi, without any independent corroboration or substantiation, breach the most fundamental journalistic ethical principles – respect for and the right of the public to the truth, and to not publish unfounded accusations.
As Peter Beaumont, author of the Guardian article, admits, “The Guardian was unable immediately to independently corroborate the claims against Halabi, who remains in custody” – and days later none have made the effort to do so, let alone produce any evidence of their own to demonstrate any wrongdoing on the part of Mohammad Al-Halabi, or basis for the claims.
Lazy journalists are one thing, but to publish the product of their slothfulness is editorial malfeasance of the highest order.
Worse still is that the allegations themselves rely on a ‘confession’ to an organisation with a clear vested interest in discrediting Gaza, and compelling circumstantial evidence that the ‘confession’ was obtained under duress.
Mohammad Al-Halabi was detained and interrogated for over 50 days before being charged, the first 23 of them without any access whatsoever to a lawyer, family members, or a representative of World Vision itself.
Further, he was detained by the Shin Bet, an internal Israeli security agency with a long and extensive history of systematic torture during detention and interrogations of Palestinians, including children.
Two Israeli human rights groups, Hamoked and B’Tselem, published a report earlier this year titled Abuse and Torture at the Shikma Interrogation Facility, noting on Page 52 that:
“…the methods described here are not used solely at the Shikma facility: similar conditions and techniques have been documented by human rights organizations in recent years at various facilities in Israel.”
Similar reports over many years by numerous Palestinian and international organisations are also on record expressing concerns about routine Israeli torture of Palestinian detainees, inlcuding Adalah, Al Mezan, EuroMed Monitor, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, plus the United Nations Committee Against Torture itself, which in May 2016 expressed concern about:
“torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of persons deprived of liberty, including minors,” by the Israeli regime.
Given this background and reputation, it is remiss in the extreme for the media reporting on the issue not to inquire into nor inform the public what passed during those 23 days of complete isolation of Mr Al-Halabi from the outside world.
In such circumstances, and in the interests of removing any semblance of bias, the minimum we could expect is that comment was sought from Mr Al-Halabi or his legal representative about the alleged confession and the conditions under which it was made.
There is no indication that any such line of journalistic inquiry was pursued.
Is it not the very basis of balanced journalism that both sides are presented, for the public to draw their own conclusions? Of justice, that the accused is given the right to defend themselves?
If, as seems likely, the confession was coerced, how much weight can it be given?
None. Forced confessions are neither reliable, nor admissible, and those obtained under torture particularly so. As international law expert Dr. Tobias Thienel pointed out in 2006,
“The inadmissibility is also comprehensive under the right to a fair trial, having regard to the right against self-incrimination and to the unreliability of statements obtained by torture.”
If forced confessions cannot be relied upon in courts, even less should they be relied on by media, particularly in the absence of any form of independent substantiation or corroboration that leaves us with nothing but allegations from the torturer himself.
International Federation of Journalists’ Code of Principles
The International Federation of Journalists’ Code of Principles requires that “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist” (Principle 1), that the journalist “…shall report only in accordance with facts of which he/she knows the origin…” (Principle 3) and that reporting “unfounded accusations” is a “grave professional offence.” (Principle 8).
The publication by media of uncorroborated claims by a party with vested interests is clearly a gross breach of these principles on several counts. There is no independent verification that the allegations are the ‘truth,’ the origin of the information is the party with vested interests, and there has been no evidence produced on which to base the accusations.
Further, Principle 7 has also been breached, given that the reports include again-unsubstantiated statements linking Mr Al-Halabi and his father to a legitimate Palestinian political party, thus using the media to promote discrimination based on political belief or affiliation.
Neither the public nor journalists of integrity should accept this latest attack on journalistic principles, professionalism and public confidence, already battered by the revelations of the News Corp phone hacking scandal.
It is bad enough that the Israeli domestic security agency Shin Bet is continuing its well-documented abuses of Palestinians and of due process to undermine critically needed humanitarian services to Gaza, but it is unforgivable that the mainstream media is, through its unquestioning compliance, breaching its obligations to its profession and to the public by colluding in the mud-slinging rather than pursuing an independent and credible investigation of the facts prior to rushing into print.