'HonestReporting' Website Backtracks On Implication Palestinian Journalists Were Involved In Massacre

Soon after a report published Wednesday implied that several Palestinian journalists may have been somehow involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, members of the Israeli government were calling for blood.

In “Broken Borders: AP & Reuters Pictures of Hamas Atrocities Raise Ethical Questions,” HonestReporting — which describes itself as a nonprofit focused on “anti-Israel media bias” — described freelance Palestinian photojournalists documenting Hamas’ attack, and suggested the journalists were somehow complicit.

“Was it coordinated with Hamas?” the report asked of the journalists’ coverage. And later: “Is it conceivable to assume that ‘journalists’ just happened to appear early in the morning at the border without prior coordination with the terrorists? Or were they part of the plan?”

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office stated, “These journalists were accomplices in crimes against humanity.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said journalists who knew about the massacre and nonetheless acted “as idle bystanders” should be treated as terrorists. Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi wrote to news outlets that “certain individuals” working for them “had prior knowledge of these horrific actions.” An accompanying social media post from him said that anyone who stayed silent about the attack ahead of time should be treated like a terrorist.

And Danny Danon, a member of Israel’s parliament and the government’s former permanent representative to the United Nations, noted that Israel’s internal security agency had announced it would “eliminate all participants of the October 7 massacre.”

“The ‘photojournalists’ who took part in recording the assault will be added to that list,” Danon said.

The outrage spread to the U.S., as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent a letter to the Justice Department in which he insisted that the journalists “almost certainly knew about the attack in advance” and that filming Hamas militants qualified as active participation with them. He called for an investigation into news agencies to determine whether they committed federal crimes by working with these photojournalists — and by extension, he suggested, supporting members of Hamas.

But within a day of its publication, HonestReporting’s executive director walked back the implications of the group’s piece, saying there was no evidence to back up the notion that the journalists were involved in the attack — despite the original piece including lines such as “if their people on the ground actively or passively collaborated with Hamas to get the shots, they should be called out to redefine the border between journalism and barbarism.”

The day after the report was published, HonestReporting Executive Director Gil Hoffman, a former Jerusalem Post reporter, told The Associated Press that his organization was just “raising questions” and conceded that it didn’t have evidence that the journalists were involved with the attack.

“They were legitimate questions to be asked,” Hoffman told the AP, adding that “we don’t claim to be a news organization.” Hoffman, the AP noted, said that he believed journalists who subsequently said they hadn’t known about the attack before it happened.

In a statement Friday morning, HonestReporting said it “stands behind the legitimate questions we asked media outlets in our recent expose,” but condemned calls for violence against “bona fide media workers.”

“We wish to clarify that we do not believe that journalists should be treated as terrorists unless they commit acts of violence,” the statement said.

By then, the damage had been done, and both the individual photojournalists and the media outlets that printed their work have struggled to protect their safety, defend their reputations and distance themselves from accusations of terrorism. Hamas militants’ Oct. 7 attack killed approximately 1,200 people, most of them civilians, according to Israeli government numbers. Israel’s counteroffensive has now killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials.

HuffPost reached out to HonestReporting for further comment Friday, after the the Jewish Sabbath had already begun in Israel, and received an email saying that Hoffman would respond Saturday night.

Hoffman’s comments to the AP stood in stark contrast to what HonestReporting had posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

On that platform, HonestReporting referred to “journalists who appear to be complicit in a massacre,” and Hoffman shared posts from three other accounts that explicitly claimed or implied the journalists were at fault. One described the journalists as “ISIS-embedded stringers,” referring to the Islamic State group. Anotherexpressed concern about “possible collusion between photojournalists and Hamas,” and a third said of the journalists, “They knew the attack was coming, and participated in it.”

All of the outlets named by HonestReporting in its Wednesday report — Reuters, The Associated Press, The New York Times and CNN — released statements denying any prior knowledge of the attack. Reuters noted that the first photographs it received were taken more than 45 minutes after the Israeli government says Hamas militants crossed the border into Israel, and the AP said its first photos were taken “more than an hour after the attacks began.”

The Times said claims made by HonestReporting were “vague,” “reckless” and “insinuations.” And a lawyer for the paper, in a letter to Cotton, wrote that the senator was “merely parroting disinformation harvested from the Internet based on a website that has conceded it had no evidence for its claims.”

HonestReporting’s initial report was updated to specifically call out freelance journalist Hassan Eslaiah, noting that he had years agotaken a photo with Hamas leader Yehia Sinwar.

CNN and the AP both specifically said in their statements that they were no longer working with Eslaiah. Spokespeople for the two organizations declined to answer HuffPost’s questions about why they were distancing themselves from the journalist, instead simply resending their public statements, which provided no explanation. CNN also noted that it had found no reason to doubt the journalistic accuracy of the work Eslaiah had done for the outlet.

On social media, Muhammad Shehada, a spokesperson for Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, posted photos that he received from Eslaiah, saying they showed the journalist on a balcony inside Gaza nearly an hour after the attack began.

Eslaiah told the Times that he was “very worried and scared” after HonestReporting issued its report, and noted a double standard: Israeli journalists (and Americans) have accompanied Israeli troops during their ongoing ground offensive into Gaza without similar backlash.

HuffPost was unable to reach Eslaiah or several other journalists named by HonestReporting for comment, but a Telegram channel appearing to belong to Eslaiah posted a message Wednesday saying that he was being subjected to an incitement campaign.

The dispute over HonestReporting’s implications comes at a perilous time for press freedom in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

At least 40 journalists and media workers have been killed in the conflict since Oct. 7, according to the Committee To Protect Journalists, in what the organization said was “the deadliest month for journalists since CPJ began gathering data in 1992.” The dead include 35 Palestinian and four Israeli media workers, in addition to one who was Lebanese, CPJ said.

On Thursday night, demonstrators led by the groupWriter’s Bloc occupied the lobby of The New York Times, passing out imitation newspapers under the banner of “The New York War Crimes” and the tag line “All the Consent That’s Fit to Manufacture.” The papers were a nod to the activism group AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, the arts website Hyperallergic noted.

The imitation papers included names of thousands of Palestinians killed in the conflict and a faux editorial labeled “WE KILLED OUR COLLEAGUES.” A Times spokesperson defended the paper’s coverage in a statement to Hyperallergic.

Separately, hundreds of journalists have signed a statement urging “integrity in Western media coverage of Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians.”