Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries has rejected a complaint put forward by Dr Saeb Erekat on his own behalf and on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) against Al-Jazeera for publishing the Palestine Papers.
Dr Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator, claimed that he was unfairly and unjustly treated in the four part series which was broadcasted by Al-Jazeera English channel between January 23-25, 2011. He also alleged that the station had breached his personal privacy and that of the PLO.
The media watchdog ruled that:
- "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 Erekat.
- The use of dramatic reconstructions of negotiation meetings was not inappropriate and did not result in an unfair portrayal of Dr Erekat.
- Dr Erekat 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 Palestine Papers series examined 1,600 'leaked' diplomatic documents relating to the Middle East peace process. They related to Jerusalem, refugees, security and Gaza.
In his submission, Dr Ereket claimed that Al-Jazeera had breached confidentiality by publishing the confidential documents and had in the process damaged the opportunity to reach a peace settlement on the Middle East conflict.
In its defense, Al-Jazeera said that the material published were of the greatest public interest and importance, not only within Palestine and Israel but throughout the Middle East region and beyond.
The station said that it had verified the authenticity of the documents with American officials who were part of the negotiations as well as former members of the CIA and British intelligence service. Israeli officials also confirmed the accuracy of the details and facts.
Al-Jazeera said that Dr Erekat and others within the PLO knew about the potential story prior to broadcast. Programme makers had in fact contacted a number of people within the PLO, all of whom had refused to participate.
In response to the complaint that the programme included details of confidential documents that were stolen from Dr Erekat's office in breach of confidentiality and without consent from him or the PLO, Al Jazeera said that the provisions of Ofcom's Broadcasting Code were clearly intended to protect the privacy of an individual's private and family life. The broadcaster however pointed out that, "the subject matter of the programmes had nothing to do with the private lives of Dr Erekat or any other individual within the PLO and that there was nothing in the programmes over which Dr Erekat or the PLO could reasonably expect a right to privacy."
In reaching its decision, Ofcom carefully considered all the relevant material provided by both parties. This included recordings of the programmes as broadcast and transcripts and both parties' written submissions.
With regard to the specific reference of Dr Erekat saying during negotiations that he had offered "the biggest Yerushalem in history", Ofcom noted that Dr Erekat had claimed that this quotation was wrongly attributed to him. Ofcom said, "the Palestine Papers recorded him as having made this statement in a meeting on 15 January 2010 and, as set out above, the programme makers took a number of reasonable steps to verify the authenticity of the documents. Having verified the authenticity of documents which were diplomatic records which were in the possession of the PLO, it was not unfair to use them in the way Al-Jazeera did."
In its adjudication Ofcom said that "the issues considered in the series, namely the manner in which the Middle East peace process was conducted and the roles of the many participants in the process, were of significant public interest both in the Middle East and globally. The part played by Dr Erekat and the PLO was an important element of that process, and the documents obtained from Dr Erekat's office were clearly important and useful in informing viewers' understanding of their part in the peace process. In these circumstances, even to the extent that Dr Erekat's and the PLO's expectations of privacy were engaged, Ofcom took the view that the public interest outweighed this expectation and considered that the obtaining and use of the material was warranted."
Accordingly, the regulator found that there was no unwarranted infringement of Dr Erekat's privacy or that of the PLO in the making or the broadcast of the programme. It therefore rejected Dr Erekat's complaint against Al-Jazeera.