UK TV regulator rejects Saeb Erekat complaint of unfair coverage of Palestine Papers

The UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom has rejected a formal complaint by PLO “chief negotiator” Saeb Erekat that Al Jazeera English had treated him unfairly in its programs on the Palestine Papers, broadcast over four consecutive nights from 23-26 January.

The Palestine Papers are made up of thousands of pages of documents leaked to Al Jazeera related to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, including minutes of high-level meetings between top American, Palestinian and Israeli officials spanning a period from about 1999 to 2010.

Ofcom also found that any infringement of privacy resulting from using leaked documents “was warranted, given the significant public interest, both in the Middle East and globally, in the issues looked at in the programmes.”

Had Erekat’s complaint been upheld, Ofcom would have had the power to force Al Jazeera, which operates in the UK, to broadcast a summary of its findings.

Dynamite revelations

The documents revealed that Erekat and his associates had, among other things, made major territorial concessions to Israel in and around eastern occupied Jerusalem, colluded in the siege of Gaza, and worked to torpedo a prisoner exchange that could have seen a thousand Palestinian prisoners freed from Israeli jails.

I took part in the Al Jazeera programs as an on-set guest, and also spent some time in Doha at the invitation of Al Jazeera English to examine the leaked documents along with other journalists and experts and write about them for the network.

Erekat was treated fairly, Ofcom finds

The ruling, the full text of which is included in the Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin for 10 October 2011, states:

Ofcom has not upheld this complaint of unfair treatment and unwarranted infringement of privacy made by Dr Saeb Erakat on his own behalf and on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (“PLO”).

Summarizing its findings, Ofcom states:

  • Material facts in relation to the negotiation meetings looked at in the programmes were not presented or omitted in a way that resulted in unfairness to Dr Erakat.
  • The use of dramatic reconstructions of negotiation meetings was not inappropriate and did not result in an unfair portrayal of Dr Erakat.
  • Dr Erakat was given an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond to the criticisms of him in the programmes. Although he did not participate, his position (and that of the PLO) was included in the programmes.
  • To the extent there was an infringement of privacy in relation to obtaining and using documents, the infringement was warranted, given the significant public interest, both in the Middle East and globally, in the issues looked at in the programmes.

The ruling by Ofcom is a blow to Erekat who has claimed – as recently as last week in an interview with The Electronic Intifada – that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Palestine Papers was variously part of an in-house, CIA or Israeli Mossad or Qatari plot against the Palestinian Authority.

In February, Erekat allegedly resigned, acknowledging that the documents had been leaked from his office. He now claims that his resignation was never accepted and therefore never took effect.

All of the Palestine Papers were made public by the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit and can be searched and examined by anyone. Some of the key documents were compiled in a book along with analysis, by Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher.