Part One: Documenting the Myth

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   May 20, 2002 at 7:01 PM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- After the Israeli Army launched its retaliatory strike into the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank in early April, the international media was filled with reports that the Israelis had possibly or probably killed hundreds, even thousands, of Palestinian civilians. The reports were later disproved and even the PA itself revised its own official figure for Palestinans killed in the fierce fighting down to only 56.

Here, United Press International traces the course of this "media myth" and the reasons it became so influential and was so widely believed.

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The U.S. and Western European media coverage of the Battle of Jenin last month raises troubling and far-reaching questions about the reliability of the modern mass media and press in conflict situations. And the answers to them are both complex and surprising.

After the Israeli Army attacked the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin on April 2, the Western European media fell for the "Massacre Myth" in Jenin in a big way. Even though the final Palestinian Authority figure acknowledged only 56 dead in Jenin, media coverage in major Western European nations gave credence to early claims by the PA's top officials that as many as 3,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting there.

Israel's own actions led credence to the myth. The Israeli army barred the international media from Jenin as its forces drove into the city. The only sources that the media then had for what was going on there were from the Palestinians themselves. And in the inevitable confusion of battle, what the great 19th century military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz called "the fog of war" applied. At the time, both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities appeared unclear what was actually happening on the ground.

However, even allowing for these factors, the Western media coverage of Jenin, espically in the Western European press and broadcast media, largely proved to be factually wildly inaccurate in the light of what later emerged. And there was also a hysterical tone to many of them.

What made these unreliable and misleading reports all the more remarkable was that many of the worst of them emerged in the most respected and influential organizations in the British media. The British Broadcasting Corporation and three of the four so-called "quality" daily newspapers -- The Times, The Independent and The Guardian -- fell for the "Massacre Myth" hook, line and sinker. Even the more cautious and -- as it proved -- reliable "Daily Telegraph" was not entirely immune either.

On April 17, the left wing "Guardian" in an editorial drew a moral equivalence between the Israeli drive on Jenin -- which itself was in response to an unprecedented series of suicide bomb massacres of Israeli civilians -- and the mega-terrorist attacks on the United States of Sept. 11. The Israeli retaliatory operation was "every bit as repellent" as the hijacked airliner attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans in New York City, the Guardian proclaimed.

Janine di Giovanni, the "Times" of London's correspondent in Jenin, reported on April 16, "Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo have I have seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life." In terms of what was later confirmed to have actually happened, this amounted to a whopper of mis-reporting comparable to Walter Duranty's claim in The New York Times that there was no famine in the Ukraine from 1929 to 1932. In fact, 10 million Ukrainian peasants starved to death then. Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his (mis-)reporting.

Di Giovanni's comparison also inevitably called into question what she had actually seen in Chechnya, Bosnia and Sierra Leone if she really imagined that the death toll in Jenin was worse than any of them. At least 100,000 people are believed to have died in Russia's two wars of 1994-96 and of 1999 to the present to crush Chechen separatists. As many as 250,000 people were killed in the 1991-95 Bosnia war and many mass graves of slaughtered entire towns and villages have been discovered and excavated. Scores of thousands died in the chaotic civil wars of Sierra Leone. Yet the documented death toll in Jenin was soon established as being literally one thousand times smaller than in Bosnia and Chechnya.

Other British papers shared in the hysteria. Phil Reeves in the London Independent compared Jenin to the Killing Fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia where between 1 million to 3 million people were slaughtered from 1975 to 1978. Analysts later noted that many of these reports were openly one-sided. Reeves did not cite or quote a single Israeli source in his story. Other claims, such as the one that hundreds of Palestinian victims were buried by an Israeli bulldozer in mass grave, later proved to have no validity or verification whatsoever.

The BBC uncritically swallowed the Massacre Myth. BBC News headlined a report on April 18 as "Jenin 'Massacre' Evidence Growing," and the Guardian newspaper's headline on a May 6 analysis piece as "How Jenin Battle Became a Massacre." The BBC report said an Amnesty International investigation "has only just begun, but Palestinian claims of a massacre were gaining foundation."

The claim that Israel had committed war crimes proved to be a popular one. Reeves' story in The Independent on April 16 was headlined "Amid the Ruins, the Grisly Evidence of a War Crime," and he wrote: "A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed." The Guardian on April 17 zeroed in on Gerald Kaufman, a Labor member of Parliament and a prominent leader in the British Jewish community, calling Ariel Sharon a "war criminal" and accusing the Israeli prime minister of "ordering his troops to use methods of barbarism against the Palestinians."

However, by the end of April, the hysteria was dying down in the British press as U.S. media reporting established that the earlier wild accusations and accounts had no validity. On April 29, the BBC interviewed military expert David Holley who concluded on the basis of the evidence by then available: "It just appears there was no wholesale killing." Holley went on to conclude, "I think massacre is a word that is too often used in these situations and it doesn't really help."

In Italy, while coverage of Jenin was still widely distorted, the hysteria and inaccuracy proved far less sweeping than in London. Instead, it broke down much more predictably along left-wing party lines, reflecting each newspaper's editorial stance and political leanings.

Il Manifesto, a left-wing newspaper and the former mouthpiece of the Italian Communist Party, said in a special Jenin-related package in its May 4 edition that the United Nations was "frightened of taking a stand in Jenin" and that Israel's actions in Jenin could be taken as war crimes.

Similarly, La Repubblica, the main center-left paper, had covered the topic with a general anti-Israel stance. That was criticized by the May 7 issue of Il Foglio, a small but powerful intellectual paper on the right that is edited by an ally of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Il Foglio ran a whole issue blasting La Repubblica's coverage, saying the paper gave a "twisted view of reality," especially taking issue with a banner headline La Repubblica ran on April 10 reading "Massacre in Jenin." In several issues, La Repubblica made the events in Jenin sound Holocaust-like, using words like "apocalyptic" and "historical." One story on April 28 that discussed the U.N. fact-finding mission, for example, was buried inside, while scathing stories blasting the Israelis were on the front.

The pro-business newspaper Il Sole/24 Ore proved much more evenhanded and reserved in its dealings with the subject than the left wing ones. For example, on April 7, the paper said in an editorial that it is impossible to get accurate news from Jenin but that "circumstantial evidence ... (seemed) to indicate a potential massacre."

Another story on April 9 quoted conflicting witnesses who said that the victims numbered in the hundreds and those who said there were around three dozen. In May, the paper ran at least two editorials complaining about "irresponsible" media coverage.

Although there was exaggerated and inaccurate reporting in the French press, serious newspapers tended to keep more of a balance than their opposite numbers in London.

The respected daily Le Monde on April 13 reported that the Israeli army had acknowledged that hundreds of people were "wounded and killed" in the Jenin refugee camp. It also reported that at least 23 Israeli soldiers had been apparently killed.

Three days later, on April 16, Le Monde again refused to be swept away by the mounting hysteria. The paper concluded, "It was still impossible Monday to confirm or deny Palestinian accusations that Tsahal (the Israeli Defense Forces) committed a 'massacre' in the camp of 15,000 refugees." On May 5, the paper stated in an editorial, "Nothing permits thinking that the Israeli army perpetuated massacres in Jenin." However it did then echo Human Rights Watch and other groups in suggesting Israel had committed war crimes there.

Even the leftist newspaper Liberation in an editorial on April 16 advised caution in dealing with the allegations.

"Up till now, nothing proves the existence of such crimes. One cannot brush (such accusations) aside - Israel is blocking all serious inquiries. [But] that is not a reason to decree them a-priori," the newspaper commented.

Liberation then recommended a lesson many other major Western European news organizations and even governments would have done well to emulate: "It is a sad diplomacy that can't distinguish facts from propaganda, even in a region where this mix is a sort of rule."

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This report was based on the reporting of Al Webb in London, Elizabeth Bryant in Paris and Eric Lyman in Rome.

Next: Part Two: Why the Massacre Myth was Believed.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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