This Nonprofit Is Silencing Palestinian Journalists

HonestReporting, which has several core team members with direct relationships to the Israeli state, keeps a tally every time they get a news outlet to correct a story with alleged anti-Israel bias.

by | June 5, 2023

Back in 2021, Sarah, a Palestinian journalist, made a post on social media discussing Israel’s occupation of Palestine. She had shared it after the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in the occupied territory of East Jerusalem, and the 11 days of violence that followed, which displaced 72,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Sarah wrote a quote describing the occupation as apartheid, and lamenting the lynchings of Palestinians. 

As someone born and living in the occupied territories, Sarah had made posts like this before. This was her home, and according to her, the declarations were hardly controversial. Many Jewish and international human rights groups describe Israel’s occupation of Palestine as apartheid — a system of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s but based, in part, on Canada’s laws segregating Indigenous people. She didn’t know it at the time, but later, those posts would be used to build a case against her, that she, and thus her reporting, was biased against Israel. (Sarah asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation.) 

This wasn’t the typical story of cancellation that certain media elites often harp on, where individuals with outsize institutional power complain that they’re being “canceled” when readers critique and demand accountability for their work. But it was a typical campaign to try to discredit a Palestinian journalist. In this case, the campaign was fueled by a group called HonestReporting, which self-describes as “the world’s premier grassroots media watchdog organization defending Israel against media bias.” In recent years, they’ve taken issue with a Palestinian journalist who described Israel’s policies as racist and segregationist; a British correspondent who shared her support for Palestinian people; and a BBC journalist’s reporting on heightened restrictions on visitors to the West Bank. HonestReporting published an article accusing Sarah of harboring anti-Israeli bias based on her 2021 post and an earlier one documenting political graffiti in the West Bank. Readers of the article also contacted the media organization she was affiliated with at the time, accusing her of being an anti-Semite. 

Recounting the incident to Study Hall, Sarah said she was prepared to be fired and blacklisted. After all, HonestReporting and other Israeli lobby groups have succeeded in pressuring international news media outlets to fire a number of Palestinian media workers over the past few years, including Deutsche Welle’s dismissals of journalists Farah Maraqa and Maram Salem. (Maraqa and Salem successfully appealed their dismissals, and a German court ruled that the social media posts over which they were fired were not anti-Semitic.)

On paper, HonestReporting is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with offices in both New York and Jerusalem with the stated mission “to combat ideological prejudice in journalism and the media, as it impacts Israel.” In practice, they closely monitor major international media for reporting involving the state of Israel. In instances where they deem coverage to be inaccurate or unfairly critical of Israel, HonestReporting writes reports highlighting their grievances and often organizes campaigns to pressure newsrooms to change their stories. Their advocacy has led to countless retractions and rewordings, and contributed to several worker dismissals at publications around the world. At times, their campaigns may be justified: for example, they brought attention to a New York Times freelancer in Gaza who voiced support for Hitler and killing Israelis. But more often than not, journalists have faced dismissal because of their criticism of the Israeli state and its oppression of the Palestinian people. Sarah is just one of dozens of journalists singled out by HonestReporting in the past few years. 

“I’m not just angry for myself,” Sarah told Study Hall. “I’m angry to see that every [Palestinian] who has a potential to tell a story, and to be heard by the world… they completely destroy them.”

On September 30, 2000, the New York Times and other international media ran an Associated Press photo of a bloody young man in front of an Israeli police officer, yelling and wielding a club. The Times used the photo to tell a story about a Palestinian boy, but a man wrote to the Times to correct them: the young man was his son Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish American student who said the officer was defending him from a Palestinian mob.

Both the New York Post and Wall Street Journal ran op-eds condemning the mistake, according to the progressive media watchdog, FAIR. Likewise, FAIR notes, regional papers across the United States published columns that claimed the mistake evidenced anti-Israel, pro-Palestine bias in American news media.

For HonestReporting, it was “the photo that started it all” when Jewish university students in London used this as an opportunity to launch the HonestReporting website. The nonprofit still uses the same tactics today: identify what they believe to be biased media coverage, alert their followers, and encourage them to pressure outlets to change it. 

Over the next year, their subscriber list grew to at least 13,000, according to JTA. They also received funding from Aish HaTorah, also known as Aish, a conservative Orthodox Jewish organization, through the US-based Media Watch International (MWI). 

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Today, HonestReporting is established as a nonprofit in Israel, Canada, and the United States. 

HonestReporting first came onto my radar after reading a piece from Canadian outlet Passage, which detailed how the group’s Canadian organization has successfully urged The Toronto Star to scrub uses of the word “Palestine” from their stories, including those without little overt connection to Israel, like a profile of a Palestinian DJ. Their Canadian website maintains an exhaustive list of editorial changes issued after their call-out campaigns.

A network of other blogs and websites often republish HonestReporting’s articles in full, amplifying them. The New York-based newspaper Algemeiner Journal’s opinion section is often saturated with HonestReporting articles. The paper even published a story attacking a Palestinian rights activist that was written by a person who did not exist, and whose author photo had been deepfaked, Reuters reported. The apparent editorial partnership is noteworthy given HonestReporting’s purported mission for excellence in journalism. 

Several of HonestReporting’s core team members have had direct relationships to the Israeli state. Executive director Gil Hoffman is a longtime journalist and former reservist with the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) Spokesperson’s Unit. (In 2015, Israeli publication Haaretz dubbed the unit “the Biggest PR Firm in the Middle East” for its power in directing the press.) Longtime staffer Simon Plosker, now serving as editorial director, was a member of the same unit. Bintzi Binder, their lead designer, served in the IDF Givati combat infantry brigade. New CEO Jacki Alexander is a vocal Zionist who spent 15 years working with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). David Mencer, who has worked at HonestReporting as a “senior international connector,” previously wrote speeches for former British prime minister Boris Johnson.

According to Adam Horowitz, executive editor of progressive American Jewish publication Mondoweiss, HonestReporting’s mission seems to be to “discipline media outlets and individual journalists when they step out of line on a very particular view of Israel and Israeli policy.” While Mondoweiss has been the subject of a few HonestReporting articles, Horowitz noted that their main targets are Palestinian media workers and publications with broader reach. 

“Organizations like HonestReporting really operate from a place of trying to get Palestinian voices, perspectives, and journalists out of positions within mainstream journalism,” he said.

When reached for comment via email, HonestReporting leadership disagreed with this characterization. “We have no mechanism by which to silence any criticism,” staffers told Study Hall via executive director Gil Hoffman. “We simply respond to inaccurate and sloppy journalism, and present the full picture.”

Even though all of their advocacy work is done under the pretense of fighting for unbiased and unconflicted media coverage, HonestReporting is explicitly and admittedly supportive of the Israeli state. Given this, the apparent deference to HonestReporting’s complaints frustrates Sarah, the Palestinian reporter targeted by the watchdog. “There’s always this question of whether I’m being honest or impartial because I’m Palestinian, whereas HonestReporting writes something horrible and [news media] don’t question it, they surrender to the pressure,” she said. 

On a podcast episode in early December discussing HonestReporting’s tactics with Toronto Star columnist Shree Paradkar, CANADALAND news editor Jonathan Goldsbie noted a “comprehensiveness” to their advocacy, which includes a step-by-step guide to monitoring media. 

“[Their advocacy] is a deterrent, but I don’t think that should be the reason that we should abandon principle,” said Paradkar on the podcast. Paradkar was singled out by HonestReporting Canada after she discussed concerns that the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) contested definition of anti-Semitism could be used to block criticisms of Israel.

The central argument in many of HonestReporting’s call-out articles is that the journalists in question have demonstrated what the watchdog deems to be anti-Israeli bias in their personal lives, and are therefore unfit to report on Palestinian struggles. Based on their dismissal of journalists targeted by HonestReporting campaigns, publications like the Times align with this logic. Horowitz, among other journalists, believe that there’s a double standard for what constitutes a conflict of interest or bias, especially given HonestReporting’s close and visible relationships with the Israeli state.

In early 2010, Electronic Intifada, a digital news publication focusing on Palestine, reported that the Times’ then-Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s son was serving in the IDF at the same time that Bronner was reporting on Israel-Palestine struggles. Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt wrote an op-ed suggesting that Bronner be reassigned, summarizing the conflict: “The Times sent a reporter overseas to provide disinterested coverage of one of the world’s most intense and potentially explosive conflicts, and now his son has taken up arms for one side.”

In the piece, the Times’ executive editor Bill Keller said that even if Israel launched an invasion in the Gaza Strip and Bronner’s son were involved, he would not have an issue with Bronner’s position. Bronner, too, spoke to Hoyt about the issue, saying, “I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography.” Bronner remained in his post for two years.

Horowitz said that whether or not HonestReporting believes a journalist is guilty of bias appears to depend on what perspectives they hold: “In [the HonestReporting] context, it’s being defined for Palestinian journalists in one way that it is not being defined for any other journalist working on the issue.”

In some instances, publications’ dismissals of Palestinian workers after HonestReporting campaigns have sparked outrage from other journalists. When the Times cut ties with Palestinian photojournalist Hosam Salem in October based on an HonestReporting probe, more than 300 Palestinian and Arab media workers signed an open letter condemning “incitement campaigns” and news media’s capitulation to such campaigns. 

The dismissals are preceded by broader industry movement to strengthen reporting on Israel and Palestine. In June 2021, a group of more than 500 journalism professors and journalists, signed a letter “calling on journalists…to recognize that obfuscating Israel’s oppression of Palestinians fails this industry’s own objectivity standards.” The letter referenced a report from an Israeli human rights organization which characterized Israel’s rule as “ethnic supremacy,” and cited a paper which concluded that American news media disproportionately favor Israeli narratives. “The evidence of Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians is overwhelming and must no longer be sanitized,” the letter declared. 

In an email to Study Hall, HonestReporting staffers said the letter was “far from factual and far from promoting objective journalism.”

The Palestine affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists, an organization that represents more than 600,000 media professionals worldwide, found that Israeli forces violated media rights at least 479 times in the first half of 2022. One of those violations was the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was on assignment for Al Jazeera. (Another pro-Israeli watchdog organization attempted to discredit Palestinian journalist Shatha Hanaysha’s account of Abu Akleh’s death. Hanaysha was standing next to Abu Akleh when she was killed.)

Based on tax returns and quarterly reports, HonestReporting is quickly growing. The organization’s 2020 tax records show that their total revenue from donations and grants jumped over 60 percent from the year prior, amounting to roughly $3.2 million USD, and has nearly tripled since 2016. In 2021, their donations were just over $2 million, slightly higher than in 2019.

Some of those resources are used to promote their perspective to younger audiences. HonestReporting Canada’s 2022 Q4 quarterly impact report advertises a program that trains post-secondary students at a “virtual media bias workshop,” and requires that they submit pro-Israel op-eds as well as share pro-Israel content on social media. Students are offered $1,000 CAD to participate.

Other outreach campaigns include trips to Israel which promise involvement from a slate of current and former Israeli army officials and government personnel like Yoram Ettinger, a controversial former Israeli diplomat who serves on HonestReporting’s Israeli board.

HonestReporting attributes its increase in resources to a “significant uptick in antisemitism, and more specifically antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism.” In an email, the staffers added, “Falsehoods and misinformation are being spread daily, and people are looking for someone to get the truth out.” 

Sarah said that HonestReporting’s success has risen on the larger tide of reactionary Zionism. In her view, it’s part of a broad coalition of Zionist and right-wing lobby groups that, for over 40 years, have leveraged well-intended concerns about antisemitism to build media and public support for Israeli and American state positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like HonestReporting, these groups target speech or actions that are incompatible with official state views.

The anonymously-run Canary Mission, for example, maintains a lengthy database—complete with photos and details on location—of post-secondary students, professors, medical professionals, and organizations that support Palestine, under the pretense of investigating “hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews on North American college campuses and beyond.” The organization’s Twitter account has been temporarily suspended at least twice for violating the platform’s terms (most recently in December 2022), and in 2018, The Intercept reported that Canary Mission’s targeting of pro-Palestine activists was having a significant impact on campus activism in the United States. That same year, another report revealed that it appeared Israeli border officials were using the website to screen people coming into the country.

Another group, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), is headquartered in Boston with offices in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Israel. It was founded in 1982 to track the Washington Post, but over time, its reach expanded. A 2006 report from the American Prospect revealed that CAMERA had orchestrated a campaign to erase Palestinian perspectives from Wikipedia pages and slant articles toward more favorable views of Israel. In 2003, a Boston Globe writer opined that CAMERA was “trying to impose its pro-Israeli views on mainstream journalism.”

These criticisms have been around almost as long as CAMERA. Five years after the group’s creation, investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman wrote that it was founded “to keep the U.S. press in line.” Friedman said that CAMERA and its allies “don’t want fairness, but bias in their favor. And they are prepared to use McCarthyite tactics, as well as the power and money of pro-Israel PACs, to get whatever Israel wants.”

Like CAMERA and Canary Mission, HonestReporting’s advocacy hinges on a false but powerful equivalency: that criticism of Israel and support of Palestine are immutably antisemitic. That axiom provides cover for advancing neoconservative state agendas. From the start, like its predecessors, HonestReporting has been supported by neoconservative Zionist groups which share interests in maintaining power and control in the Middle East. “It isn’t really just an issue about Israel,” said Jeremy Appel, an independent journalist and contributor to the Canadian Jewish News. “It’s a broader trend of right-wing pressure groups attempting to shape media coverage, because that’s the most effective way to shape public perceptions of a particular issue.”

These issues are implicitly tied to the never ending struggle over what constitutes objectivity and bias in news media. Jon Allsop, who writes the Columbia Journalism Review’s newsletter “The Media Today,” articulated what’s causing backlash against Palestinian journalists and coverage that is critical of Israel: “Privileged perspectives and practices have ossified, over time, into core tenets of journalism, such that deviating from them can be perceived as deviating from journalism itself.” 

Horowitz said his criticism of HonestReporting is outweighed by his criticism of news outlets caving to the organization’s campaigns. “An organization like HonestReporting has as much power as we give it,” said Horowitz. “If we understand that it is coming from this biased and oftentimes racist perspective, we don’t have to give them the currency and power that they are given.” 

In the end, Sarah’s bosses didn’t keel under HonestReporting’s pressure. They stood by her, and advised her not to respond. Sarah moved on with her career, but the article and the accusations still loom large in Sarah’s mind, and in internet searches of her name. When she speaks about the realities of life in Palestine, or reports on Israeli and Palestinian events, she is always afraid she could be targeted again. Along with potential loss of employment, she suspects this silencing of Palestinian voices is the goal of groups like HonestReporting. 

“Whenever I remember this article is still out there,” Sarah said, “It’s a nightmare for me.”

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