Jul. 29, 2002
ANDREA LEVIN'S EYE ON THE MEDIA: When Editing Is Censoring at the New York Times
By ANDREA LEVIN
Professor Anne Bayefsky, noted scholar of international and human rights law, had a striking encounter with editors at the New York Times. An op-ed of hers critical of the United Nations and human rights groups for their distorted focus on Israel and their "diversion" from confronting actual rights abusers was accepted for publication on May 8. But so radically altered was the final column ("Ending Bias in the Human Rights System" May 22, 2002) that Bayefsky went public with the obfuscations demanded by the newspaper.
Her unexpurgated version as submitted to the Times has been reprinted in the June 2002 edition of Justice, the journal of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. Appended to it are some of the alterations required by theTimes.
The original is a detailed and spirited description of the challenges and failures of organizations in handling human rights issues, with particular emphasis on the disastrous effects of the continuous scapegoating of Israel, especially by the UN. Bayefsky names some of the worst offenders: "UN intergovernmental human rights machinery is not keen on specifics. Its members include some of the most notorious human rights violators in the world today: China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Those countries prefer devoting UN funds, (22% of which are from the United States), to criticizing Israel - lest attention wander too close to home."
But this passage and others critical of the UN, human rights groups and nations manipulating these organizations to avoid inspection of their own wrongdoing had to be excised, and the "dynamic" of the article had to be modified, as a "condition" of publication in the Times.
Indeed, it took "six new drafts" and "four additional drafts with smaller changes and corrections, seven drafts from the editors and six hours of editing by telephone," before the neutered column was finalized for publication.
Deleted, for example, was reference to Human Rights Watch having rushed within weeks to publish a caustic report on Israel's military action against Palestinians in Jenin, while the organization's long-awaited report on suicide bombings of Israelis was "still coming" after 20 months of slaughter.
Throughout, Bayefsky's specific criticisms were blurred into generalities.
Similarly, Bayefsky was compelled to remove her observation that the incoming High Commissioner for Human Rights should be willing "to confront the UN's internal resistance to professionalism and transparency." Her emphasis on the corrupting effects of the focus on Israel was diluted to a single cautious and couched observation that avoids affixing any specific blame on anyone. The Times' only mention of Israel's gross ill-treatment by the UN read this way: "...in almost all cases [Human Rights] commission members seek to avoid directly criticizing states with human rights problems, frequently by focusing on Israel, a state that, according to analysis of summary records, has for over 30 years occupied 15% of commission time and has been the subject of a third of country-specific resolutions."
One phrasing suggested by the Times referred to members of the UN Human Rights Commission being "especially tough on Israel (which is both politically offensive to many member states and very weak at the United Nations) ..."
Bayefsky refused to put her name on this outrageous wording.
The Times' aggressive intervention to protect the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from criticism by an expert in the field of law and human rights, and to whitewash their scapegoating of Israel, will hardly come as a surprise to those who follow the Times. More surprising, and refreshing, is Bayefsky's exposure of the lengths of tortured editing to which the Times will resort to maintain its bias.
Since the episode recounted here, Amnesty International departed from its usual pattern of one-sided criticism of Israel and issued a report that characterized the mass murder of Israeli civilians by Palestinians as "crimes against humanity." But the New York Times remained true to form. Although it has routinely given prominence to Amnesty's allegations against Israel, in this instance the organization's 44-page report was relegated to an incidental mention at the end of one story and to a three-paragraph brief. Few readers would have any notion that the world's largest human rights group had issued a scathing review of Palestinian actions, and their remaining uninformed apparently suited the Times' editors just fine.
Andrea Levin is Executive Director of CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America