One News – news bulletins about Middle East conflict – inaccurate descriptions of geography – Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and West Bank are Occupied Territory – Old City of Jerusalem not "The Contested City" as asserted in caption
Standard G14 – briefing from MFAT – reference to TVNZ’s Journalists’ Manual – "the Occupied Territories" is the correct term – uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A map of the Old City of Jerusalem was captioned with the words "The Contested City", in an item about the Middle East conflict broadcast on One News on TV One at 6.00pm on 4 October 2000.
Helen Zarifeh, on behalf of the Wellington Palestine Group, complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that its news bulletins generally failed to describe aspects of Middle East geography accurately. In particular, the Group claimed that the caption in the 4 October bulletin was inaccurate.
TVNZ responded that the caption was "entirely appropriate" in the context. In addition, the legal status of the area was well known, the broadcaster stated.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, the Wellington Palestine Group referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority upholds the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority has consulted with an expert on the Middle East from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
An item on One News broadcast on TV One at 6.00pm on 4 October 2000 attempted to set in context peace talks about to begin in Paris as violence continued in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The item explained the religious significance of the Old City in East Jerusalem, which contains monuments sacred to both the Muslim and Jewish faiths. The item also explained that the latest wave of violence had been triggered by a high-profile and "deliberately provocative" visit to the Old City by Mr Ariel Sharon, a right-wing Israeli opponent of the peace process. The item included a map of the Old City of Jerusalem, shown with a caption reading "The Contested City."
Helen Zarifeh, on behalf of the Wellington Palestine Group, complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about its news coverage of the recent conflict in the Middle East, and in particular about the bulletin on One News on 4 October 2000. The complainant wrote:
The issue is the same as that which we have raised with you many times in the past – the accurate description of geography.
In spite of having followed TVNZ’s broadcasts as closely as possible, the Group was still waiting "for a single mention – even just one – of the fact that Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and West Bank are Occupied Territory," the complainant said.
The Group complained in particular about footage on the 4 October bulletin showing a map of the Old City of Jerusalem which had been labelled "The Contested City." The Group said it was the second time it had seen this "explanation of the issue" on TVNZ’s news programmes and that neither item had mentioned that in law the land did not belong to Israel.
In the Group’s view, both TVNZ and its news suppliers had:
… gone to great lengths to avoid drawing any attention to the central fact of the whole issue – that the Palestinians are resisting illegal occupation.
The Group claimed that the caption was inaccurate and misleading. It wrote:
[The caption] equates claims with rights. Both in isolation from other coverage from TVNZ, let alone in context of other coverage, the impression created is negative for the Palestinians.
The complainant referred to a letter it had previously received from TVNZ in which the broadcaster had pointed out that "it is not in all cases inconsistent to describe as ‘disputed’ land which in the eyes of the world is occupied." The Group wrote:
Maybe so, but it is outrageous to never describe occupied land as occupied, but always describe it, implicitly or explicitly, as disputed.
In its response to the complainant, TVNZ advised that it had considered the complaint under standard G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
That standard reads:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
The broadcaster responded that, in the context, the caption was "entirely appropriate", adding:
It was, after all, explaining why the Old City is so important to both the Muslim and Jewish faiths. In these circumstances the fact that United Nations resolutions declare this occupied territory, and the fact that the city is contested are complementary rather than contradictory statements.
In response to the Group’s objection to the absence of any reference to the area being occupied territory, the broadcaster wrote that in its view the status of the area was well-known and that "Mr Sharon’s actions would make no sense unless viewers recognised that he was deliberately flouting that internationally-recognised status."
TVNZ denied that the caption was inaccurate and said it did not believe that the item lacked objectivity or impartiality as a result of the caption being used. Accordingly, it declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, the Group referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
The complainant stated that the issue "continue[d] to be the inability of TVNZ to accurately and with balance describe the legal and actual situation in the Middle East."
According to the complainant, TVNZ persistently refused in its news bulletins to describe the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights as occupied. Ms Zarifeh stated:
During the extensive coverage over many nights of news during October, I was aware of the use of the word "occupied" only twice, once when quoting a United Nations’ resolution, and also the word was spoken by a reporter in the field. Otherwise, over a great many minutes of coverage, the word was noticeably absent.
The complainant said, as the Wellington Palestine Group had explained many times over the years, that the image of the Palestinians suffered considerably when their resistance to Israeli forces was depicted as an uprising against proper authority, rather than resistance against occupation.
The Group said it had no difficulty with TVNZ’s position that it was not obliged to detail the legal status of Jerusalem or other Occupied Territory every time it was mentioned. However, the Group objected to the legal status being mentioned so "extraordinarily rarely" when an understanding of the legal status was "absolutely critical" in order for viewers to comprehend and understand what was happening.
According to the Group, TVNZ saw the dispute over Jerusalem from a United States’ perspective, which was primarily one of religion in which both Jewish and Moslem claims were strong. While a proper news organisation would give that viewpoint, it would not do so to the "almost total exclusion" of an alternative legal view, the complainant wrote.
The Group submitted that TVNZ’s argument that the terms "occupation" and "contested" were complementary was unconvincing. The Group said:
Only if one were keen on not offending the Israelis would one so often avoid pointing the finger of blame where it so squarely belongs. If someone were found by a court to have stolen some property, TVNZ would not describe the stolen goods as "disputed" or "contested". TVNZ never called Kuwait "disputed" during the Gulf War, though clearly it was by Iraq, with arguably more legitimacy than the Israeli claims to the land it took in 1967.
Finally, the complainant rejected as unconvincing TVNZ’s claim that Mr Sharon’s visit would have made no sense to viewers unless they recognised he was deliberately flouting the city’s international status.
According to the complainant, any viewer awareness of the status of the Occupied Territory was in spite of, not because of, TVNZ’s reporting.
In TVNZ’s response to the Authority, the broadcaster advised it had little to add other than to submit that news consumers "understood by now the geo-political position in the Middle East." According to TVNZ:
In a dispute as long-running as this one, it is unnecessary to spell out each time the terms of the United Nations Resolutions concerning the occupied status of certain territories. We do not believe that our news audiences are ignorant.
In its final comment, the Group stated that it was not asking TVNZ to spell out these terms on each occasion. Further, the Group claimed that it was not asking for "true editorial balance". It added:
What we do expect however, is that the viewer can see and understand that Israel is illegally occupying other people’s land.
That could be done, it averred, by the use of maps or by describing certain territories as occupied, and the Group expressed surprise that TVNZ insisted on using such terms as "disputed" and "contested". The Group did not object to the Authority’s decision to consult with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, although it added:
We do however wonder why this is necessary. The issue it seems to us is not whether the lands are occupied since TVNZ admits that they are. The issue is that TVNZ avoids broadcasting this description for some reason that it will not admit to.
The Authority is required to determine whether TVNZ breached standard G14, which requires news to be presented accurately, objectively and impartially, when it labelled the Old City of Jerusalem with a caption reading "The Contested City". In coming to its decision, the Authority endeavours to take a common sense approach.
The Wellington Palestine Group has complained to the Authority on a number of occasions over the past decade, usually about some aspect of a news item dealing with conflict in the Middle East. The Authority is aware of the political sensitivities in the region. Accordingly, it sought a briefing from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the issues. The Deputy Director of the Middle East and Africa Division, Valerie Meyer, explained to the Authority the nature of the language used in official papers and the reasons for such language. In her opinion, the phrase "occupied territories" would always be used to describe the land in dispute, including the Old City of Jerusalem. The terms "disputed" or "contested" would not be used in official papers, she said. This advice has helped inform the Authority’s decision on this complaint.
The Authority turns to consider TVNZ’s arguments that it is not inaccurate to describe the Old City of Jerusalem as "The Contested City", and that news audiences are not ignorant of the status of certain territories. While the Authority acknowledges these arguments, it questions TVNZ’s level of confidence in the degree of public understanding of the geo-political position in the Middle East. In any case, the Authority does not intend to become mired in issues of semantics.
Accordingly, in the course of its deliberations the Authority decided to request from TVNZ an explanation of how the issue is dealt with in its Journalists’ Manual. TVNZ supplied the Authority with an extract from the manual, which states that "special care must be taken with reports from or about the Middle East" and that "geographical descriptions or labelling must be precise." Pertinently, the manual requires journalists to refer to East Jerusalem (that is, the Old City of Jerusalem), along with other named areas, as "the Occupied Territories". The manual acknowledges that Jerusalem’s status is "in dispute".
In supplying the Authority with the extract from the manual, TVNZ pointed out that some foreign sources had a slightly different policy, and that the item complained about was sourced from the BBC. TVNZ added that it preferred not to change material supplied to it unless that material amounted to a "blatant breach" of its policy. It said the BBC’s style was generally compatible with its own.
The Authority has considered the arguments put forward by the complainant and the broadcaster. Assisted by Ms Meyer’s briefing, and in light of the clear directions in TVNZ’s Journalists’ Manual, the Authority concludes that when it broadcast a caption describing the Old City of Jerusalem as "The Contested City", TVNZ breached the broadcasting standard which requires news to be presented accurately.
For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on One News on 4 October 2000 breached standard G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose an order under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
In this instance, the Authority notes that the breach relates to the caption only, and that the item was sourced from the BBC. In view of the strength of the arguments on both sides, the Authority does not consider any penalty to be justified.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
8 March 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: