Dec 8 2006

NYT Correction Dodges the Question

Missing the point of the missing Amnesty report on war crimes

After a FAIR action alert (12/6/06) pointed out an error in a New York Times article (“Offering Video, Israel Answers War Critics,” 12/5/06), the Times published a correction on December 7. FAIR had pointed out that, in a piece describing an Israeli report that attempted to defend Israel against charges of war crimes, the Times had failed to include the relevant international law or analysis from independent human rights groups, and in fact had even incorrectly stated that Amnesty International “did not address the [Israeli] accusation that Hezbollah hid its militants among Lebanese civilians.”

The correction read:

Because of an editing error, a front-page article on Tuesday about an Israeli report that accused Hezbollah militants of using Lebanese civilians as human shields during the war this summer referred imprecisely to how Amnesty International handled the issue. While it was not addressed in Amnesty’s September 14 report on the war, it was in a November 21 report, in which the organization acknowledged the presence of Hezbollah fighters and weapons in civilian areas. But it said this was not conclusive evidence of intent to use civilians as human shields.

While technically accurate, the correction failed to include the overlooked Amnesty report‘s judgment about the central question raised by the article, entirely circumventing the larger and more important problem with the error. The piece made clear that the purpose of the Israeli report was to defend Israel against war crimes charges, and that the defense being presented was that “Hezbollah fired from civilian areas, itself a war crime, which made those areas legitimate targets.” The question of whether Hezbollah used civilians as shields—which would be a war crime—is important. But as FAIR noted in the alert, the November 21 Amnesty International report emphasized that such a violation would in no way release Israel from its own legal obligation to protect civilian life: “The challenges of fighting irregular forces may never be used to justify indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, the failure to adopt precautionary measures to protect civilians, or other serious violations.” In other words, if the Israeli report is able to document that Hezbollah used civilian areas for military purposes, it might have some value in evaluating Hezbollah’s violations of international law, but as an answer to accusations of Israel’s own violations, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

But by failing to apply that scrutiny, addressing only the question of Hezbollah’s guilt in its correction, the Times managed to continue to leave readers in the dark on the central war crimes question its article raised.