Opposing assumptions in the coverage of Israel’s plan to close Al Jazeera
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Opposing assumptions in the coverage of Israel’s plan to close Al Jazeera

August 7, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Israel announces plan to close Al Jazeera offices, remove network from air

Israel announced plans to close news outlet Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem offices, revoke its journalists’ press credentials, and take its Arabic and English channels off the air. Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara made the announcement about the Qatari state-funded network on Sunday, saying, “We have based our decision on the move by Sunni Arab states to close the Al Jazeera offices and prohibiting their work.”

Kara said Al Jazeera is being used to “incite” violence and alleged that the outlet “backs terrorism.” Al Jazeera has denied the allegations. The news outlet said in a statement that it “stresses that it will closely watch the developments that may result from the Israeli decision and will take the necessary legal measures towards it.”

Kara asked the Government Press Office (GPO) to revoke press passes held by the network’s journalists. Al Jazeera’s Israeli journalists are members of the Foreign Press Association, and most have government-vetted GPO credentials, The Jerusalem Post reported. Kara said cable television providers have agreed to take the network off the air.

Kara asked Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to close Al Jazeera’s Israeli offices. Kara said he would propose legislation that would allow the government to favor security concerns over freedom of expression in certain circumstances.

Lead up to the announcement

In recent months, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have closed Al Jazeera bureaus while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have blocked its television broadcasts and website. Egypt previously banned the network as well. On June 22, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain sent a list of 13 demands to Qatar’s government in late June that included shutting down the network. Earlier in June, the four Arab nations suspended diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar, alleging it engaged with “terrorist and sectarian” groups. Qatar has denied the accusations. (See the Knife coverage here.)

In late July, Israel announced a decision to remove metal detectors from entrances to al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem, which had been added after two Israeli police were killed in an attack earlier that month. (See the Knife coverage here.) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the event incited violence, and said he would “expel” the network for it. The network said its coverage was “professional and objective.”

 

Distortion Highlights

  • Both journalism and government can serve the public, but they also have a great responsibility.
  • One-sided reporting on Israel’s plan to close Al Jazeera supports certain assumptions about the press and government.
  • Take a deeper look at these assumptions below and consider some of the bigger, ethical questions involved.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

Read between the lines. Learn how news outlets distort the information.

Top Spin Words

  • Incite/Incitement

    All claim that al-Jazeera Arabic has incited violence through its coverage of regional conflicts. (The Guardian)

    Kara said (Al Jazeera) should be banned from broadcasting from Israel on grounds of incitement. (Jerusalem Post)
    The Israeli prime minister vowed in late July to “expel (Al Jazeera)” for its reporting of the issue, which he said had incited violence. (BBC)

  • Erupting

    Al-Jazeera’s coverage had nonetheless been a key component of a grievance that had festered among its close neighbours for years before erupting after Donald Trump’s high-profile visit to Riyadh in May… (The Guardian)

  • Foe

    The GCC was following a cue from Riyadh, which moved to isolate Qatar in June, whose leaders it accuses of backing Saudi Arabia’s regional foes Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and of sowing division in the region. (The Guardian)

  • Standoff

    The Israeli announcement came as the standoff shows no sign of ending. (The Guardian)

  • Rift

    The Israeli government said it was basing its decision on a similar ban by several Sunni Arab states, amid their diplomatic rift with Qatar, which hosts and funds Al Jazeera. (BBC)

  • Shook Up

    The Arabic-language news channel first launched in 1996, and shook up the media landscape in the Middle East by airing criticisms of governments and rulers in the region. (BBC)

  • Denounce

    Doha-based network denounces the decision to revoke credentials of its journalists and close its offices in Jerusalem. (Al Jazeera)

  • Strident

    Nor was not immediately clear if the announcement included reporters from al-Jazeera English, which has a separate editorial team and is not considered by the network’s critics to be as strident as the Arabic network. (The Guardian)

Today’s coverage of Israel’s plan to close Al Jazeera’s offices brings up important questions that don’t necessarily have simple answers:

  • What role does freedom of press play in shaping communities?
  • Can freedom of press ever be abused? Should it be regulated?
  • What role does government have in allowing or disallowing freedom of press?
  • When does government intervention on freedom of press become abuse?

There are many directions that the above questions can take, and there may not be definitive answers. But let’s explore how today’s coverage dealt with them through the assumptions in the reporting.

1. Freedom of the press is essential and democratic.

Al Jazeera’s article, for example, supports this assumption by quoting multiple sources critical of Israel’s action, but not addressing the allegations that the network supports terrorism and incites violence. It quotes organizations calling the action a “full frontal attack” on press freedom that “completely undermines Israel’s claims to be the only democracy in the region” (Ethical Journalism Network) and saying, “Israel should abandon these undemocratic plans and allow Al Jazeera and all journalists to report freely from the country and areas it occupies” (Committee to Protect Journalists). Sounds like Israel is being repressive and that the press should get to cover everything.

While freedom of press can be critical to keeping a democratic nation informed, reporting also comes with a heavy responsibility. Press can influence how populations think and feel about many topics. So what should journalists report on, when and how?

Consider this personal account, unrelated to the Al Jazeera story: a photojournalist in a country in another part of the world comes upon a mob that’s in the process of hanging someone without a trial. Vigilante justice, it seems. He has his camera with him, and access to tell the world about what’s going on. But he didn’t see or hear the lead up, and he doesn’t know this part of the region very well or how it operates. Should he publish a photo of the event? In this case, the journalist decided against it, believing that he wouldn’t be able to adequately portray what happened in context and report on it responsibly. Without doing so, he thought he might incite more anger and violence. For him it was better not to publish, than to publish in a biased or limited way. 

Reporting, especially on violent situations, can be complex and requires deep ethical considerations. We’re certainly not saying Al Jazeera shouldn’t cover the news as it does or that its coverage is irresponsible. Instead, we’re bringing light to a worthy consideration: the potential costs and responsibilities of free press.

Which leads to the other side’s assumption…

2. The government can and should interfere with the press in the name of public safety.

The Jerusalem Post’s article supports this assumption with one-sided coverage in the other direction. It includes many quotes from the Israeli government that suggest banning Al Jazeera will make its citizens safer, such as the communications minister’s comment: “Our citizens’ security and welfare overcomes freedom of expression in times of terror, period. Freedom of expression is not freedom to incite.” The outlet only includes one sentence that indirectly criticizes Israel’s move (when the Foreign Press Association calls it a “slippery slope”) and it’s the second to last sentence in the article. All together, this article may portray banning Al Jazeera as a necessary step.

Many believe that a democratic government is in charge of keeping its citizens safe. That’s why governments fund law enforcement organizations and other public institutions. But how should a government determine when media coverage puts public safety at risk? How should it decide what citizens can or cannot know, read, or see in the news? How much should government police the conduct of its citizens? And – at what point does it start to become like George Orwell’s 1984?

Again, these questions may not be easily answered, yet they point us in the right direction: towards a willingness to consider all sides and effects of a decision, and what types of principles and conducts it supports.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 42% Spun

  • 48% Spun

  • 58% Spun

  • 59% Spun

So, what should Israel have done in this situation? Did it do the right thing? If you feel unresolved about this issue, then, we believe you are on the right track: motivated to further explore and gather data through critical thinking and the willingness to consider the complexities of the issue. One-sided reporting — reporting that presents only one of the above assumptions without questioning it — doesn’t promote this sort of thinking or an in-depth understanding. Instead, it leads us to polarized perspectives that keep societal issues from being collectively resolved.

Fiction
or
Fact

The Guardian

“Israel is not a party to the Saudi-led demands, but it had long been scathing of al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Palestinian conflict, accusing the network of deep ties to Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Israel was not one of the countries that sent the 13 demands to Qatar (see Raw Data). It has accused Al Jazeera of having ties to Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza and the West Bank.

The Guardian

“Al-Jazeera’s coverage had nonetheless been a key component of a grievance that had festered among [Qatar’s] close neighbours for years before erupting after Donald Trump’s high-profile visit to Riyadh in May…”

U.S. president Donald Trump visited the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh and gave a speech.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Israel plans to revoke media credentials of Al Jazeera journalists and close the network’s office… (Al Jazeera, BBC, Jerusalem Post, The Guardian)


All four articles miss the why behind this statement. Israel claims Al Jazeera has incited violence and supports “terrorism,” but the media outlets don’t provide concrete details to back these assertions. Aside from Al Jazeera’s denial, they don’t provide much about its defense against the accusations either. This lack of detail may discourage readers from critically evaluating the data, like what Al Jazeera said that supposedly incited violence. It could also preclude an understanding of the issues underlying Israel’s or Al Jazeera’s positions, such as what rights and responsibilities accompany freedom of speech.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Just the facts! This informs readers of the main news, without opinion or misleading slant.

Part of the story. Notice how CNN’s headline is focused on Al Jazeera’s response that Israel is “biased” without mentioning Israel’s accusation that the network has incited violence? This may support a belief that Israel’s proposal is wrong, or at least without reason.

Missing a word: “allegedly”

Israel has accused Al Jazeera of inciting violence — this may seem like a small distinction, but it could be the difference between readers thinking Al Jazeera is definitely guilty or not.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The articles generally represent one of two positions: the Israeli government is unfairly violating Al Jazeera’s freedom of speech, or Al Jazeera is inciting violence and supporting terrorism.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Al Jazeera and Israel may contribute to violence in the region, but citizens play a role too. People can choose how they behave and it doesn’t have to be with violence. If this is not taken into account, solutions to the problem may be based on potentially flawed, or at least myopic, assumptions that controlling a news outlet will stop violence.
  • Not enough information is provided to confirm or disprove the accusations that Al Jazeera is inciting violence and supporting terrorism.
  • Israel may be operating within its rights to respond to what it considers to be a security concern. There may be a balance between freedom of speech and security.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

The media outlets don’t provide details about what Al Jazeera did or didn’t do, aside from comments by Israel’s prime minister and foreign ministry about “incitement” and the network’s alleged support for “terrorism” and various militant groups. The governments of Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan also didn’t appear to provide answers on their foreign ministry and communications websites.

Saudi Arabia, which did publicly announce its closure of Al Jazeera’s local office, said the media channel had “promoted plots of terrorist groups, supported the Houthi militias in Yemen, and tried to break the Saudi internal ranks by inciting them to leave the country and harm the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” But again, it doesn’t describe how Al Jazeera allegedly contributed to these acts.

In response to a U.N. statement condemning “international demands that Qatar close down the Al Jazeera network and other affiliated media outlets,” the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) sent a letter to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights detailing what it considers to be Al Jazeera’s promotion of “terrorism.” The majority of its evidence appears to be Al Jazeera’s interviews with or broadcasts of speeches made by militant leaders. (Al Jazeera notes that it also broadcasts speeches of Israeli leaders.) Should a certain amount of such speech be forbidden on news networks? If so, who determines how much?

The UAE says Al Jazeera “provided a platform” for several leaders of militant groups, including Osama bin Laden. Evidence cited for this includes an article written by the online magazine The National Interest, an article about an Al Jazeera journalist who was arrested after interviewing leaders of al-Qaeda and the Al Nusrah Front, and a Q&A from 2011 with Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a former leader of the “Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” The letter also notes interviews by Al Jazeera journalists that suggest support for what the UAE describes as “extremist causes and sectarianism.” (Since the televised interviews were either not translated or unavailable, we couldn’t evaluate what Al Jazeera’s reporters said in these interviews.)

The information in the UAE’s letter is the only example we found of evidence publicly released by the countries substantiating their accusations against Al Jazeera. Since the information could be open to subjective interpretation, we recommend you read the sources and articles before making a determination.