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AP 'playing politics' with settlements - Daoud Kuttab

Sept. 14, 2010 10:59 A.M. (Updated: Sept. 22, 2010 6:48 P.M.)
The Associated Press takes pride in being the leading international news agency. The short headlines that appear on the Yahoo home page are almost exclusively reserved for AP stories. But even the great AP makes mistakes. Sometimes its errors are not factual but a descriptive. The consequences are just as bad.

Reporting from Washington, AP security affairs reporter Robert Burns filed an analysis piece Monday about the challenges facing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's upcoming trip to the Middle East. It dealt with whether she would be able to overcome the looming settlement obstacle. Burns unilaterally decided to change the terminology and phraseology connected to one of the major obstacles of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: settlements.

He changed the word "settlement" to "housing construction." He also replaced "freeze" with the word "curb." As a result, Burns' 698-word analysis refers regularly to the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hinting on "a housing construction curb."

I Googled the story for which the analysis was based and found that all Western media outlets used the universally accepted term "settlements." Outlets such as CNN, Reuters, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Washington Post and even the AP used the exact same word. For example, the headline and the lead paragraph of the report by the AP's Mark Lavie in Jerusalem used the word "settlement" and "freeze" in reference to the issue at hand.

The Israeli media was also universal in identifying the building in the occupied Palestinian territories with the same term that the UN and the US have used repeatedly. Not only did the left-leaning Haaretz use the term "settlements" but so did the mass-circulating papers like Yedioth Ahranoth, Maariv, Israel Today, and the financial daily Globes.

Anyone following the fragile peace talks that were launched earlier this month knows that the continuation of the talks are hinged on whether Israel agrees to continue the settlement freeze which it had initiated ten months earlier and which is due to expire on 26 September. Palestinians have said that they will walk out of the talks if the Israelis decide to continue building settlements because that will show their lack of goodwill toward peace. On the other hand, the Israeli prime minister has been under pressure to allow building of settlements once the moratorium expires in a couple of weeks.

By changing the terminology, Burns has clearly taken a biased stand and has even contradicted what appears to be part of the AP stylebook.

Israeli propagandists try to dismiss the fact that the settlements built in areas occupied in 1967 are contrary to international law. Every US president since 1967 has chastised Israel for building settlements in occupied territories. Every UN Security Council Resolution and UN General Assembly decrees or statements have repeatedly censured Israel for violating the Geneva Conventions. As late as July 2004 the International Court of Justice at the Hague unanimously agreed in a decision about the Israeli wall, built deep in Palestinian territories, that settlement activities in the West Bank are in violation of international law.

While AP reporters, international law, and the unanimity of world opinion agree to call Israeli building activity in the territories settlements, the AP reporter, Robert Burns, insists on his own terminology. Ironically, his insistence is not only restricted to what terms he gives to settlements, but he has the audacity and the lack of professionalism to put his language in the mouths of Palestinians.

Speaking about the difficulties facing Clinton, Burns tells the readers what he thinks Palestinians want. "But the most immediate obstacle for negotiators is a Palestinian demand that Israel extend a curb on new housing construction [emphasis mine] in the West Bank, a constraint that Israel says will expire Sept. 26," Burns writes.

Palestinians have never demanded a "curb on housing construction," as if this was a mere zoning issue. Palestinians have consistently sided with the international community that these Jewish-only settlements, built on illegally confiscated Palestinian land, are in violation of international law and must be removed. This demand is not aimed at the race or religion of the settlers but the fact that this was done in violation of international law. In a gesture for peace during proximity talks this summer, Palestinians officially handed the US peace envoy a written approval that Palestinians would be willing to make a compromise for some of the settlement blocs in areas cradling the Green Line on condition that they are swapped for lands equal in size and importance. But this has not changed Palestinians' demands that settlement activities be suspended during the peace talks.

Instead of playing politics, Burns should focus his reporting and analysis on what he is committed to do as an AP reporter. "We insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news. That means we abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions. It means we will not knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast" is what the AP states about its professional journalistic duty.

The AP's guidelines and principles published on their website conclude with the following: "Ultimately, it means it is the responsibility of every one of us to ensure that these standards are upheld. Any time a question is raised about any aspect of our work, it should be taken seriously."

I hope that the editors of The Associated Press take this complaint seriously, make the appropriate correction, and ensure the public that such unprofessional actions will not be repeated.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University, and director of PEN media.
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