BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Kuten and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-062

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Jay Kuten
Number
2004-062
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item on battle in Gaza Strip – reported 15 Palestinians killed including teenaged son of one of Yasser Arafat’s close allies – Palestinian combatants described as “militants”– item allegedly unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate – should have described Palestinian combatants as “terrorists” – should have described provocation for incident

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – brief item described incident and views of both sides – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – “militants” not inaccurate – item not inaccurate – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – item treated both sides of conflict fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An item on One News broadcast at 6pm on 12 February 2004 reported on a battle in the Gaza Strip between Israeli troops and Palestinians, in which 15 Palestinians were killed. Introducing the item, the newsreader said:

Israel says it was targeting militants attacking Jewish settlements.

[2] The item quoted Avi Pazner for the Israeli government, who stated:

This is not an escalation. This is an on-going anti-terror operation. We work on a daily basis in order to prevent terrorism.

[3] The item also quoted Nabil Abu Rdeneh, advisor to Yasser Arafat, who stated:

This is a new Israeli escalation and Israeli forces are still playing with the fire.

[4] The item concluded with the newsreader reporting that among the dead was the teenaged son of one of Yasser Arafat’s close allies.

Complaint

[5] Dr Jay Kuten complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the newsreader had described the Palestinian combatants as “militants”, and that she reported the death of a Palestinian militant’s teenaged son, without mentioning

the provocation for the incident, [being] the sustained rocket-shelling of Israeli civilians which had come from the Palestinians who as members of a terrorist organisation are properly described as ‘terrorists’, not militants.

[6] Dr Kuten continued:

Missing from [the news reader’s] account was the fact that all the dead were actual combatants and at least one was a leader of Hamas which most of the civilised world, with the obvious exception of TVNZ, recognises as a terrorist organisation which targets innocent Israeli civilians. Missing was the fact that the teenager for whom the news reader gave no further description was actually an armed combatant.

[7] Dr Kuten enclosed an article from the New York Times which he said gave “a more ‘balanced and fair’ description of the incident”. He noted that the New York Times article described the dead teenager as “17-year-old gunman, Muhammad Hilles, the son of Ahmed Hilles, the Gaza chief of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement”. Dr Kuten wrote:

Your newsreader’s account, in its omission of these facts, gives the impression that this death was of an innocent teenager, which is far from the truth. He was armed and at least intended to do damage to the Israelis.

[8] Dr Kuten requested that TVNZ clarify the newsreader’s comments.

Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[10] TVNZ advised Dr Kuten that it felt he had “missed several key points”. TVNZ wrote:

First One News did not describe the Palestinian combatants as ‘militants’. The description was ascribed to Israeli sources. The sentence in the script said ‘Israel says it was targeting militants attacking Jewish settlements’.

Secondly, the item did not say that among the dead was the teenaged son of a Palestinian militant. What the script said was, ‘among those killed was the teenage son of one of Yasser Arafat’s close allies”. The word militant was not used, and the reference to the boy being the son of an aide to Yasser Arafat correctly implied that he was something more than an innocent youngster caught in the crossfire.

Thirdly it is true that the item did not report the provocation you describe. To have done so would have been to contradict what the Israeli Government spokesman had to say about the incident. Avi Pazner said in the item:

This is not an escalation. This is an on-going anti-terror operation. We work on a daily basis in order to prevent terrorism.

[11] TVNZ said it seemed that Mr Pazner was specifically pointing to the action taken by the Israeli troops as being part of an on-going operation, rather than as a response to any specific incident.

[12] Under Standard 4, TVNZ considered the item was balanced. It noted that a general description of the incident was given, with comment from spokesmen from both sides (Mr Pazner for the Israeli Government, and Mr Nabil Abu Rdeneh for the Palestinian administration).

[13] Under Standard 5, TVNZ considered the facts presented in the item were accurate, and that the statements by the two spokesmen accurately represented the perspectives of the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

[14] Under Standard 6, TVNZ said it had difficulty identifying who Dr Kuten considered had been unfairly treated. TVNZ wrote:

As noted above the absence of any reference to what you have described as ‘provocation’ was because the Israeli Government spokesman seemed to imply that this incident was not in retaliation to anything specific but was instead part of an on-going operation. That viewpoint was reported fairly.

[15] TVNZ did not uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[16] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Dr Kuten referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[17] Referring to TVNZ’s attribution to Israeli sources of the description of the Palestinian combatants as “militants”, Dr Kuten noted that the Israeli representative quoted on the item had stated that “this was an ongoing anti-terror operation”. He wrote:

Both my letter and the New York Times article addressed the “sustained” (meaning “continuing”) rocket attacks on civilians as the provocation for the incident.

[18] In relation to TVNZ’s statement that the word “militant” had been used by the Israelis, Dr Kuten wrote:

In response I would simply ask that the Broadcasting Standards Authority issue its own definition of the word “terrorist”. The generally accepted definition of a terrorist or an act of terrorism includes acts of violence deliberately directed at unarmed civilian populations ostensibly for political purposes. By this definition several organisations in the MidEast including Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, have been labelled as terrorist, by the US government among others.

In my experience TVNZ uses the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” to describe attacks aimed at civilians which take place elsewhere than in Israel.

[19] In response to TVNZ’s argument that “the reference to the boy being the son of an aide to Yasser Arafat correctly implied that he was something more than an innocent youngster caught in crossfire”, Dr Kuten wrote:

Instead of a defence this statement implicates TVNZ in an implicit accusation of Israel of targeting not only civilians but people on the basis of their relationship to allies of Yasser Arafat. Even worse the implication is clear from TVNZ’s own statement that Israel would consider targeting someone, a minor because he or she is the child of someone politically related to Yasser Arafat.

[20] Dr Kuten considered that TVNZ’s statement implied, “as the terrorists of Hamas have claimed, that Israel engages in terrorist activities, targeting innocent civilians and children”.

[21] According to Dr Kuten, many New Zealanders had formed negative views of the actions of Israel and its defence forces, because they had been influenced by “such distorted reporting”. TVNZ’s obligation was to inform and to remain objective, he said.

[22] In relation to TVNZ’s comments about who had been treated unfairly in the item, Dr Kuten wrote:

The station is unclear as to who is harmed by its story. I suppose in the cynical age in which we live TVNZ could hardly respond to the quaint notion that it is the Truth which is harmed. Therefore I will simply state that it is journalistic objectivity which is harmed. It is also the ability of the viewer population to be properly and reliably informed and thereby to make reasoned judgements about controversies such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

[23] Dr Kuten requested that, if the Authority upheld his complaint, TVNZ be required to report that it had violated broadcasting standards, give an updated correction of the item, and monitor future stories for bias.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[24] TVNZ advised the Authority that it had nothing further to add to its response to the complainant.

Authority's Determination

[25] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[26] Essentially, Dr Kuten complained that the item was unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate, and that to comply with broadcasting standards the item should have:

  • described the Palestinian combatants as “terrorists”;
  • mentioned the “provocation for the incident”, which he said was the sustained rocket-shelling of Israeli civilians;
  • reported that all the dead were “actual combatants” and at least one was a leader of Hamas, which was a terrorist organisation; and
  • reported that the Palestinian teenager killed in the conflict was an armed combatant, and not an innocent teenager.

[27] TVNZ advised the complainant that the word “militants” was not TVNZ’s word, but a paraphrasing of what the Israelis had said. The Authority notes that TVNZ did not provide evidence that a particular Israeli spokesperson used the word “militants”. However, regardless of whether the word “militants” was actually used by the Israelis, or whether it arose as a result of TVNZ’s paraphrasing, the Authority does not consider “militants” an inaccurate, unbalanced, or unfair way to refer to the Palestinian combatants. The Authority considers that the item achieved balance, accuracy and fairness on this point by quoting the Israeli spokesman describing the conflict as an “on-going terror operation”, and the Palestinian spokesperson describing the conflict as a “new Israeli escalation”. The Authority further notes that while some would describe the Palestinian combatants as “terrorists”, others might use a less pejorative term.

[28] In relation to Dr Kuten’s argument that TVNZ should have mentioned the “provocation for the incident”, the Authority considers that this was dealt with in a general way in that the item made it clear that the incident was part of an on-going conflict. The Authority does not consider that the requirement for balance was breached, nor was the item inaccurate or unfair on this point.

[29] As for the aspect of the complaint that the item did not mention that the dead were “actual combatants” and that at least one was a Hamas leader, the Authority considers that it was implicit in the item that those who died had been fighting back and were not civilians. The lack of reference to one of the dead being a Hamas leader, in this brief news item on the incident, does not in the Authority’s view threaten the requirements for balance, accuracy and fairness.

[30] The item reported that “among the dead was the teenaged son of one of Yasser Arafat’s close allies”. It did not mention, as did the New York Times article supplied by the complainant, that he was armed and the son of the Gaza chief of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. The Authority considers that the item was ambiguous as to whether the teenager was an innocent bystander or an armed combatant. While it accepts that this aspect of the item was open to interpretation, it does not consider in the overall context of the brief news item that the ambiguity amounts to a breach of the requirement for balance. Again, while ambiguous, the Authority does not accept that the item was inaccurate or unfair on this point.

[31] The Authority agrees with TVNZ that the item achieved balance by giving a general description of the incident, followed by comment from both sides. It does not uphold the complaint that the item breached Standards 4, 5 or 6, as it considers that the item was accurate, impartial, and fair to both sides of the conflict.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
27 May 2004

Appendix

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

  1.   Dr Jay Kuken’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 12 February 2004
  2.   TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint – 5 March 2004
  3.   Dr Kuken’s Referral to the Authority (and attachment) – 17 March 2004
  4.   TVNZ's Response to the Authority – 31 March 2004