In a stunning expose’, a recent Associated Press article revealed a Hamas directive to journalists not to report on Gazans killed by Palestinian rockets that misfired and killed local families rather than their intended Israeli civilian targets. Reports indicate Palestinian Islamic Jihad killed more Palestinians in the early August Gaza-Israel conflict than did Israel.
Hamas also requires all visiting reporters to hire a local “sponsor,” a fixer or stringer, often a Palestinian journalist or translator. Hamas’ media directive says sponsors will be held responsible for what the journalists produce.
Let this sink in: If Hamas judges sponsors to have failed, they and perhaps their families will be punished. Punishment is not merely revoking licenses. Palestinian reporters have been subject to physical violence. Sponsors will make the consequences clear to reporters they assist. And the reporter will know: If bad things happen to my sponsor because of the stories I write, that will be on my conscience.
Rather than calling balls and strikes as they see things in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the sponsors were warned that they must “defend the Palestinian narrative and reject the foreigner’s bias to the Israeli narrative.” If you’ve had confidence in reporting from Gaza, this interference should shake that confidence.
With the fresh expose, does the media have a responsibility to do an autopsy on its own coverage?
In the recent conflict, Hamas, designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, blamed Israel for the deaths of children in Jabaliya in a strike on Gaza on August 6. After Israel had assessed that the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad was poised to imminently attack Israel, it launched preemptive strikes in self-defense. Only when Israel provided aerial imagery showing the Jabaliya deaths on that day were caused by a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket did some media attempt to reverse course, but the original headlines around the world blaming Israel had already done the damage. All civilian deaths in conflict are heartbreaking but the media owes its readers the truth in each case.
Even when the results may not be in its favor, as may have been the case with the tragic death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a reporter inadvertently killed during a clash between militants in Jenin and Israeli Defense Forces, Israel investigated and presented its findings. That’s what’s expected of democracies to ensure credibility with its population, with its allies, and with the media.
Has the media been complying with Hamas’ rules of the road for decades but left reporting of its unspoken agreement with the Iran-funded organization on the cutting room floor? What do publications owe their readers about recent coverage of the conflict and about past coverage?
While some sponsors may be intimidated but well-meaning, others have outright bias. New York Times Gaza-based stringer Fady Hanona had tweeted that "the Jews are sons of dogs and I am with killing them, and burning them like Hitler did to them (smiley face).” Hanona’s record had hardly been hidden. The Times’ stringer had said, “I don’t accept a Jew, Israeli or Zionist, or anyone else who speaks Hebrew. I’m with killing them wherever they are: children, elderly people, and soldiers.”
While due recognition for its action, only after an NGO outed violations of the Times’ standards did the “paper of record” cease its relationship with Hanona. Others should follow suit.
Sunlight on Hamas’ media rules led to their withdrawal. But the Associated Press noted that “Hamas has still signaled its expectations, which could have a chilling effect on critical coverage.” Directives from Hamas are sure to continue.
During the May 2021 Gaza war, publications used Hamas-provided images of people outlets had reported were killed in the ten-day conflict, who in fact were not. Should media outlets now conduct thorough investigations of statements, images, and statistics from Hamas-run ministries that were used in their coverage?
When a publication suspects plagiarism or other concerns, while uncomfortable, investigations are conducted. Corrections are made. Action is taken.
AP’s standards state: “When we're wrong, we must say so as soon as possible. When we make a correction, we point it out both to subscriber editors … and in ways that news consumers can see it.” Other publications have similar guidelines, some requiring an editor’s note or explanation when the entire substance of an article raises a significant ethical matter.
If outlets used Hamas’ information, should editor’s notes be added that the article relied on Hamas-supplied information whose accuracy is being reviewed for accuracy?
What new transparency systems about how news is gathered should be implemented moving forward?
In one essay reflecting on his time on staff at the Associated Press’ Jerusalem bureau, Matti Friedman, who in 2014 blew the whistle on Hamas’ media rules and tacit compliance by the media, notes: “I was informed by the bureau’s senior editors that our Palestinian reporter in Gaza couldn’t possibly provide critical coverage of Hamas because doing so would put him in danger.”
He also shared this reflection: “Hamas learned that international coverage from the territory could be molded to its needs.” Noting that most of the press work in Gaza is done by locals who would not dare cross Hamas, Friedman said it was only rarely necessary for the group to threaten a Westerner. “The press could be trusted to play its role in the Hamas script, instead of reporting that there was such a script.”
And in his prophetic 2014 piece, Friedman wrote: “Hamas understood that journalists would not only accept as fact the Hamas-reported civilian death toll—relayed through the UN or through the Gaza Health Ministry, an office controlled by Hamas—but would make those numbers the center of coverage. Hamas understood that reporters … would not report the intimidation.” And then, “the NGO-UN-media alliance could be depended upon to unleash the organs of the international community on Israel, and to leave the jihadist group alone.”
News organizations that care about their credibility, not just their clicks, should with clear eyes, examine their coverage that may have been colored by Hamas’ intimidation tactics. While too often the media has been hesitant to reform, we can hope for better, in service of greater transparency and accountability. Perhaps courageous news outlets will see the value in upholding their own high standards.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan research institute focused on national security and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter @tobydersh.