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Maasland and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2018-065 (26 October 2018)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer

Complainant

  • Shoshana Maasland

Dated

26th October 2018

Number

2018-065

Programme

Saturday Morning

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

A complaint about an interview between Kim Hill and US Palestinian writer and journalist Dr Ramzy Baroud was not upheld. The complaint was that the interview was unbalanced because there was no alternative perspective presented to counter Dr Baroud’s views that Israel’s actions amounted to ‘incremental genocide’ of the Palestinians, among other things. The Authority found RNZ made reasonable efforts as required by the balance standard, taking into account Ms Hill’s challenging of Dr Baroud and the use of devil’s advocate questioning, and other contextual factors. The Authority acknowledged that some may not agree with the terms used by Dr Baroud during the interview, but ultimately found that restricting the broadcaster’s or Dr Baroud’s right to freedom of expression would be unjustified.

Not Upheld: Balance


The broadcast

[1]  On RNZ’s Saturday Morning programme Kim Hill interviewed Dr Ramzy Baroud, a US Palestinian writer and journalist about the ‘Great March of Return’ protests, his new book, ‘The Last Earth – a Palestinian story’, his experiences growing up in a Gaza refugee camp and the possibility of the Israel-Palestine conflict being resolved.

[2]  The interview ran for approximately 37 minutes. It was broadcast on 19 May 2018 on RNZ National.

The complaint

[3]  Shoshana Maasland submitted the following statements made by Dr Baroud during the broadcast were incorrect and required balancing in the broadcast:

  • Israel is committing ‘incremental genocide’ on the Palestinians.
  • Palestinians are subject to ‘apartheid’ similar to apartheid in South Africa.
  • Gaza is similar to a ‘concentration camp’.
  • ‘Jews have always found safe haven in the Arab world for hundreds of years’.
  • A final status agreement on the two-state solution never eventuated because Israel continued to populate the settlements.
  • There is no evidence of Hamas cynically sending Gazans to their deaths (in reference to accusations that Hamas sent supporters to the Gaza border to fight and die, in the hopes of attracting widespread media attention).

[4]   Ms Maasland noted the Authority had previously found that similar controversial comments should have been balanced during the interview.1 In the previous decision the Authority found these comments to be so extreme and specific that RNZ could not rely on general ongoing coverage to constitute balance.

[5]  Ms Maasland accepted that during the interview Ms Hill did contribute some rebuttal in respect of the Jewish right to self-determination and the implications of the right of return on the survival of Israel, but said she did not address or attempt to balance some of Mr Baroud’s most extreme comments, therefore any defence of ‘devil’s advocate questioning cannot apply’.

[6]  Finally Ms Maasland submitted the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid’ both have objective meanings and the sources provided by RNZ are not proof of change in usage over the past four years (see final point, paragraph [7] below). In any event the ‘repeated use of slanderous lies’ does not legitimise them.

The broadcaster’s response

[7]  RNZ submitted the broadcast did not breach the accuracy standard for the following reasons:

  • The ‘period of current interest’ for the Israel-Palestine conflict ‘has been open for some time and will continue to be open well into the future’. Therefore not all significant viewpoints need to be discussed in one particular broadcast.
  • This interview was conducted in the context of the latest violent clashes in Gaza, which were reported widely in RNZ’s overall news coverage.
  • It is a long-held principle under the balance standard that when one aspect of a controversial issue is approached in depth and that approach is clearly signalled in the introduction to the item, no issues of balance arise.
  • In any event, balance was achieved through questions asked by Ms Hill along with Ms Hill’s engagement with pro-Israel feedback from listeners. Ms Hill was also critical of some aspects of the Palestinian regime.
  • Balance was also achieved through the introduction to the item.
  • Regarding the previous complaint to the Authority, on that occasion the interviewee used more extreme language such as ‘apartheid and Zionism are the spiritual twins of Nazism’. In addition, the interviewer in that case did not challenge the interviewee at all, in contrast to Ms Hill’s approach in this interview.
  • In recent years the metaphors ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’ have been used by an increasing and more diverse audience when commenting on the events occurring in Gaza and the West Bank.2

The balance standard

[8]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. The standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

Freedom of expression

[9]  Our task in relation to this complaint is to weigh the right to freedom of expression, which is valued highly and enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. We acknowledge the controversial, complicated and ongoing nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and as such understand that there is a risk of harm through the broadcast of unbalanced or misleading content on this topic.

[10]  However, we also recognise there is high value in presenting in-depth interviews on matters of significant public interest, including this international conflict. On complex and controversial subjects such as this there will inevitably be opposing points of view. In-depth interviews offer particular insight into the underlying issues and while they may be presented from a certain perspective or a position of advocacy, they are a valuable addition to the public discourse.

[11]  In this case, the Authority’s role is not to determine the legitimacy or accuracy of Dr Baroud’s claims regarding Israeli ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’. Some people may well disagree with the use of these terms. However the right to freedom of expression means Dr Baroud is entitled to put forward his personal views and experiences, so long as broadcasting standards are maintained. The key question for us is whether balance was required in this broadcast, and if so, adequately achieved, with respect to the claims noted in the complaint.

[12]  Having weighed these competing interests, we have concluded that the balance standard was not breached on this occasion. In summary, we find the facts of this case to be distinguishable from the 2014 decision pointed to by the complainant,3 due to the focus of this interview, the passing nature of Dr Baroud’s comments and Ms Hill’s challenging of Dr Baroud throughout the 37-minute interview.

Our findings on the balance standard

[13]  The first question when we look at a balance complaint is whether the broadcast discussed a controversial issue of public importance.4 We have previously accepted that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a controversial issue of public importance. In this case, while a significant portion of the interview focused on Dr Baroud’s personal experience, it was framed in the context of the 2018 Gaza border protests (the ‘Great March of Return’), the right of return in general, and possible future resolutions. Therefore the balance standard applied.

[14]  The next question is whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts in the circumstances to provide significant viewpoints. Taking into account relevant contextual factors, we consider there are significant differences between the efforts made to achieve balance in the 2014 broadcasts complained about by Ms Maasland, which were upheld as a breach of standards, and the efforts RNZ and Ms Hill made in this interview. Taking the following factors into account, which we discuss further below, we are satisfied that the requirements of the balance standard were met in this case:

  • The introduction and framing of the item made it clear it was presented from Dr Baroud’s own personal perspective and experiences.
  • The interview covered a wide range of topics related to both the conflict generally and Dr Baroud’s own story.
  • Within this context, Dr Baroud’s references to ‘genocide’, ‘apartheid’ and other aspects mentioned in the complaint were relatively brief and were not a dominant focus of the 37-minute interview. They reflected his own personal experiences growing up in a refugee camp. 
  • Ms Hill challenged Dr Baroud throughout the interview to provide some balance and alert viewers to other perspectives.

[15]  First, the introduction of the interview was crucial in framing the audience’s understanding of the broadcast as a whole, and therefore also their expectations of the level of balance that would be provided. A key question in our assessment of whether sufficient balance was provided, is what the audience would expect from the programme and whether they were likely to be misinformed by the omission or treatment of a significant perspective.5 It would have been clear to listeners that Dr Baroud was approaching the subject from a Palestinian perspective:6

The protest campaign was called the ‘Great March of Return’ in support of the right of Palestinian refugees to land they, or their forefathers, fled or were forced to leave in the war after Israel’s founding in 1948 – 750,000 of them. Dr Ramzy Baroud is a US Palestinian writer and journalist, widely published and the author of several books and his latest is ‘The Last Earth – A Palestinian Story’, a series of accounts based on interviews with Palestinian refugees around the world. Dr Baroud is speaking at several events around New Zealand – details on our webpage – and he is with me now…

[16]  It also became clear from the item that this is an issue that Dr Baroud is particularly close to, and that he was speaking from his own personal experience growing up in a Gaza refugee camp.

[17]  The interview covered a wide range of topics, including the practicality of the right of return, the possibility of resolution or change going forward, and Dr Baroud’s personal story. While some of the terms used by Dr Baroud in this interview are similar to those used by the interviewee in the Authority’s earlier decision, listeners would have understood that they reflected Dr Baroud’s own views and experiences. The right to freedom of expression allows Dr Baroud to tell people about his personal experience and there is a high threshold for limiting that right. The references were also relatively brief in the context of a 37-minute, wide-ranging discussion.

[18]  By contrast, the 2014 items, which were much shorter than this item, were much more narrowly focused on Israel’s relationship with South Africa and their apartheid regime, so the use of the terms complained about carried greater weight in that context.

[19]  Additionally, in the earlier case pointed to by the complainant, the Authority found the presenter let the interviewee speak and present his controversial views largely unchallenged for 12 minutes; the interviewer only asked five questions during the interview, none of which were particularly challenging.

[20]  By contrast, Ms Hill’s style and tone throughout this interview was challenging and critical. She acknowledged the existence of other views through devil’s advocate questioning and consistently challenged Dr Baroud throughout the interview on various points to provide some balance and alert viewers to other significant perspectives. For example:

  • ‘This is the right of return we’re talking about here, is it not the fact that if Palestinians have the right of return… Israel will cease to exist?’
  • ‘We’re talking about at least 70 years of what you’ve described as genocide and persecution. Do you think peace and love is going to break out if Palestinians have the right of return?’
  • ‘I’m receiving a number of correspondences that go like this: “Simply presenting the Palestinians as poor, downtrodden angels is horribly inaccurate and an injustice to the truth. Both sides are equally culpable, but your political agenda chooses to ignore this and renders your reporting as cheap propaganda” and so on and so forth…’
  • ‘Is Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar sending young Palestinians cynically to their death right now…. No, it’s a valid question – you don’t have to dismiss it as an Israeli question – it’s my question.’
  • ‘But of course Israel said it never happened [Palestinian governance] because the Palestinians couldn’t sort themselves out and make it happen.’
  • ‘No, it’s not a principle we’re talking about, is it? Right of return is not a metaphor. It is, if you are an Israeli, an existential threat.’
  • ‘The conviction is still, and I’m hearing this loud and clear from listeners… “If Palestinians would stop the rockets and the bombs then peace would be possible.” Also, “when Israel was established Jordan was supposed to be the Arab homeland. Why couldn’t that happen?”’

[21]  As discussed above, the purpose of the balance standard is to ensure that competing viewpoints on significant issues such as this are presented to enable listeners to arrive at their own informed and reasoned opinions.7 Considering the relevant contextual factors, particularly Ms Hill’s challenging interview style, we find it unlikely that listeners would hear this interview in isolation and believe it to be the only point of view on the Israel-Palestine conflict, or leave them unable to form their own views. Any restriction on the right to freedom of expression on this occasion – including the broadcaster’s, Dr Baroud’s, and the audience’s right to hear his perspective – would be unjustified in our view.

[22]  Accordingly we do not uphold the complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

 

 


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
26 October 2018

 


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1     Shoshana Maasland’s formal complaint – 14 June 2018
2     RNZ’s response to the complaint – 10 July 2018
3     Ms Maasland’s referral to the Authority – 5 August 2018
4     RNZ’s response to the referral – 6 September 2018
5     Ms Maasland’s final comments – 12 September 2018
6     RNZ confirmation of no further comment – 13 September 2018


1 Maasland & Others and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2014-118

2 See, for example: Palestinian leader accuses Israel of ‘genocide’ at UN (BBC, 27 September 2014); and Israel is imposing ‘apartheid regime’ on Palestinians, UN agency says (The Independent, 16 March 2017)

3 Maasland & Others and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2014-118

4 See above

5 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

6 Guideline 8c

7 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18