The dangers of careless journalism
Published on the 17th of January in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet.
Journalism by rumor. When the Swedish daily Aftonbladet last August published Donald Boström’s speculations about Israel’s “involuntary organ reserves”, and when Aftonbladet’s culture editor Åsa Linderborg again defended the publication of Boström’s article, both careful thought and nuance were missing. Certainly cultural journalism can be as Åsa Linderborg puts it “a matter of life and death”. That is precisely why it is so vital not to spread rumors and to be careful with facts and nuances, to allow shades of grey and resist the temptation of black and white journalism, writes Jesús Alcalá.
Everything that we journalists tell, report and bring attention to has been filtered. There is always something that is left out. Due to foolishness, ignorance, prejudice or because it suits our theories – some things are left out. Thus events and incidents that overlap or contradict each other are altered to make one seamless whole, one clear picture. One perspective is chosen, one conclusion is reached. It is true that simplification is sometimes needed. But we must be aware that simplifications can be exploited, sometimes by forces with their own particular agenda. History offers us countless gloomy examples of this.
Last summer Donald Boström wrote an article in Aftonbladet about the connection between the Israeli oppression of Palestinians and the organ trade. He wrote about Palestinians being “caught” by Israel so that they prior to their death may serves as the country’s “organ reserve”. The article received much attention both at home and abroad. Many people felt disturbed and upset. But even more people, especially in the Arab world, received Boström’s article with applause. In Sweden, the issue of organ trade and the question of journalistic ethics were barely raised before the usual battle cry for freedom of the press was heard. And then things returned to normal. Media attention turned to other articles, other scandals.
A couple of days before Christmas, those who had praised Boström’s”revelations” seemed to be proved right. Israel’s Channel 2 showed a documentary about organ trade. In the program a brief part of a taped conversation from 2000 between former chief pathologist Yehuda Hiss and professor of anthropology and organ trade researcher Nancy Scheper-Hughes was played.
Hiss explained how he and other doctors at Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv had removed “skin, corneas, heart valves and bone parts” from dead bodies. Representatives for the Israeli Defence Force and the government also confirmed that this had occurred during the 90s, but never after 1999. The practice had occurred at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute but nowhere else.
Many saw that this as confirmation of the veracity of Boström’s article. The culture editor of Aftonbladet Åsa Linderborg wrote “the publication of Donald Boström’s article has strengthened Swedish cultural journalism. We have shown that the cultural pages can be a space for important things – here there is space for writers who write about life and death."
Personally, I believe it is quite the opposite. In my view Boström’s article was cultural journalism gone off track.
The program on Israeli TV revealed no new facts. The program told of an old scandal, a scandal that was brought to light when the parents of the recently deceased Israeli sergeant Ze’ev Buzgallo in the spring of 1997 raised attention to their son’s missing corneas. The TV program was not a piece of investigative journalism. The investigation had already been made nine years earlier. The journalists Ronen Bergman and Gai Gavra from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot had received leads from some of Yehuda Hiss’ colleagues. The TV documentary repeated facts that a special army and police investigation, a state commission and a proper preliminary criminal investigation had revealed and made public several years earlier. The only new fact that the TV program brought to light was the brief part of the taped conversation between the person responsible for the affair and an American professor.
The testimonies and Hiss’ admission had for a long time been public knowledge. Hiss had been fired from his position as chief pathologist – after the state attorney had made a criminal investigation, demands had been made by the Science Committee of the Knesset, public hearings had taken place in the Healthcare Committee of the Knesset, and after demands from human rights organizations and relatives of the victims. Hiss was not prosecuted. The state attorney claimed that Hiss had not acted for his own financial gain and that the illegally removed organs had been used in free public healthcare. The decision not to prosecute was heavily criticized by human rights and patients’ rights organizations and by doctors. Also members of parliament and a former Minister of Health criticized the attorney’s decision not to prosecute. Even the army and the police – that had conducted their own investigations spoke out in favor of prosecution.
Even so, all the investigations, including those that had been conducted by organizations such as Forum for the Victims of the Forensic Institute and the People’s Movement for Good Governance, as well as intense media scrutiny confirmed that ethnicity had played no part in determining which bodies to remove organs from. It had made no difference if the dead had been Israelis or Palestinians, Israeli soldiers or Palestinian Hamas supporters. Organs had been taken from people who had died from natural causes or who had fallen victim to accidents, fighting or suicide attacks.
Was Boström aware of this when writing the article? If he was not (that is to say he had not made the effort to find out) it is quite remarkable. If he did know about this, his article is indefensible.
And what did Åsa Linderborg know? In any case, she must have been aware of the facts after the Israeli TV program was shown. In the program, professor Scheper-Hughes says in the interview, that according to her research, the Palestinians were “nowhere near” those most affected by the theft of organs. Linderborg conveniently ignores this piece of information. Instead she persists in defending Boströms’s accusations. And, despite all the known evidence to the contrary, she brings out the heavy artillery: “We ought to have made it even more clear that the Israeli army does not shoot Palestinians in order to steal their organs, the army steals their organs when they have been killed for other reasons – reasons that the most ethical army in the world always claim”.
From where did Boström get his information? What are his sources?
Three weeks before Boström publishes his article is Levy Izhak Rosenbaum arrested in the US. He is suspected of organ trade and of receiving hefty compensation for brokering deals between those willing to give up a healthy kidney and those who cannot live without a new one. Professor Scheper-Hughes, who is the person who originally reported Rosenbaum to the FBI, claims that the kidney sellers are from Moldavia. The FBI agent who, by pretending to be a potential kidney buyer, reveals Rosenbaum’s dirty business says that “his” kidney seller was to come from Israel. US media report on the FBI prosecution. And from that media report, Boström three weeks later connects the Jew Rosenbaum to organ trade to suspicions “among Palestinians that their young men have been captured, and as in China and Pakistan, been the involuntary donors of organs before they are killed”.
How did Boström reach this conclusion? What was his reasoning? What is his purpose?
In May 1992, Bilal Ghanem, a 19-year old boy in the West Bank is shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers take the body with them. Five days later they return with the body. Boström, who attended the funeral, tells us that when Bilal was lowered into his grave, “his chest was bared and suddenly it was clear to those few present what abuse he had suffered/violations he had been the victim of”.
What was it then that was so clear – except that the boy had undergone an autopsy? He had been robbed of his organs, is how we must understand Boström’s claim. Not that Boström states this outright, but the text’s almost seamless transition to what families other than Bilal’s have said about young men who have been killed on the West Bank or Gaza makes it clear what conclusions we should make. Other people - who are not relatives of Bilal, tell Boström: “Our sons are being used as involuntary organ donors”. Boström has taken their word for it and has assumed their testimonies to be absolutely true, more reliable even than those of Bilal’s mother and brother, who after Boström’s article was published publicly denied that they had expressed any suspicion of organ robbery (Jerusalem Post, September 24th, 2009).
If the country that killed Bilal and other young Palestinians actual rob the dead bodies of their organs – why would this country go to the trouble of returning the bodies to the families and thus run the risk of these crimes being exposed?
The fatal shooting of Bilal was a murder, an ex jure targeted killing. Nothing can excuse this crime, not even that Bilal was a member of a group of Palestinians who kidnapped people suspected of collaboration and tortured them to death. Boström says nothing of Bilal’s activities. According to him, Bilal was one of the “stone throwing youths who made life difficult for Israel’s occupying power”.
Every year around thirty different human rights organizations – international, Israeli and Palestinian – report on abuses and violations of human rights in Israel, on the West Bank, and in Gaza. The criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is often harsh. But none of these organizations have ever accused or suspected Israel of stealing organs from Palestinians that the Israeli army has killed. Not Amnesty. Not Human Rights Watch. Not a single of Israel’s many Jewish and Palestinian human rights organizations. Not a single one.
All human rights organisations have the right to raise issues at the Israeli Supreme Court. This is true for all types of issues that concern alleged violations of human rights, irrespective of which person or organisation is reported, including the army. This holds whether the reported violation has been perpetrated in Israel or on the West Bank or in Gaza. All complaints are tried. A great deal of the cases concern acts of violence by the army or the police against Palestinians. However, not a single report has been made that accuse the army or anyone else of stealing organs from Palestinians that have been killed.
Each person resident in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank has the right to turn to the Supreme Court in Israel and demand that they act against Israeli governmental bodies – both military and civilian – that contravene national and international norms of human rights. By this right, that exists in no other legal system, and that does not incur any costs for the complainant, two Palestinian families on the 12th and 15th of September 1989 are given their wish: The authorities unearth the bodies of Ammar Kalbouneh and Ayman Jamous, and another autopsy is done, this time in the presence of the Palestinian pathologist Abu Ghazaleh. The examination is made at Abu Kabir and the pathologist is Yehuda Hiss. It is confirmed that both Ammar and Ayman have been killed by Israeli soldiers and that no organs have been removed from their bodies. No other such request has ever been made to the Supreme Court.
Where then is the evidence for Boström’s accusations?
The sight of the body of a loved one who has been killed and undergone an autopsy is unbearable. It is understandable that the living are filled with rage. It is also easy to understand that in the grief and in the rage against the Israeli power, rumors are rampant. A hard-to-understand practice of autopsies nourishes these rumors. But the rumors of Israeli organ robberies are older than the current practice of compulsory autopsies. The accusations have been alive as long as Israel has existed. If we follow the rumors back in time, we get to the source: the blood libel, the false accusation that Jews use human blood in ritual sacrifices. A myth that in new versions is stubbornly kept alive.
On the 13th of December 2004, the documentary soap opera “Zahra’s blue eyes. For you, Palestine” is shown for the first time on Iranian TV. The program is a fictional story of Palestinian children that are kidnapped by Israel from the West Bank and Gaza and brought to Israeli hospitals where doctors during horrific operations remove their eyes and internal organs.
The series has many viewers in Iran and in the Arab world. Islamic Jihad and Hamas vow to avenge the victims. And the vengeance takes the form of suicide bombers.
I have no reason to believe that Boström is an anti-Semite. I am sure that he is driven by genuine concern for the rights of the Palestinians. His cause is good. I believe the same of Åsa Linderborg.
Still. The end cannot justify the means. The carelessness is dangerous.
Boström is familiar with the conflict in the Middle East. Is it then too much to ask that he avoids any connection to the myths of Jewish blood libels? Is it not careless to lend credence to rumors that are consequently exploited to strengthen hatred?
Barely a month after Boström’s article is published; the Algerian paper al-Khabar writes that a Jewish organ trade group has kidnapped a great number of Algerian and Moroccan children. This information is news both to the Algerian and the Moroccan police. No investigation has been made. No one has been questioned. No “kidnapped” children have been identified. The basis for al-Khabar’s news story is a statement made by the head of the Algerian National Healthcare Committee, the well known anti-Semite Mustafa Khayattil. Khayattil connects the alleged kidnappings with Boström’s article. What is Boström thinking when he later on travels to Algeria to receive a journalistic prize from the Algerian National Journalist Union for his article on organ trade?
In December 2009, during a heavily anti-Semitic election campaign, Ukrainian media report that Israel during the last two years have kidnapped more than 25,000 children from the Ukraine. The children have allegedly been traced to Israeli hospitals. The source of the information is professor of philosophy, Vyacheslav Gudin, who claims, partly with reference to Boström’s article that the children have been the victims of organ trade.
Somewhat later that same month, in the harsh mood created by the rumors of organ trade, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad referring to Boström’s article demands international action against Israel for its organ trade. Ghassan Khatib, the spokesperson for the Palestinian government, specifies those demands. “It is high time that the international community punishes Israel for its robbing of the organs of Palestinian martyrs.”
Did Boström really not realize that his speculations around ”involuntary organ reserves” – published in a major West European paper – would not have the consequences that we have possibly only seen the beginning of?
It is true that both news reporting and cultural journalism can be a matter of life and death. That is why it is so important, so vital, that media never spread rumors, that journalists are always careful with facts and nuances, complexities and detail.
And is it not the case that culture preferably should be a result of reflection? That the task of cultural journalism is to penetrate the buzz of fast and simple news and explanations that makes reflection unnecessary? That the cultural journalist should attempt to bring light on the complexities rather than denying their existence? That there is hardly any task more pressing for cultural journalism than to keep alive nuances and shades of grey and to resist the temptation of black and white journalism?
Jesús Alcalá is a lawyer and writer.
Translated by Susanna Abramowicz.
Swedish Israel-Information Center want to balance the media picture of Isarel and the Miiddle East