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Ofcom's ruling on the Palestine papers offers hope to the Middle East

May 4, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Nine months ago, when al-Jazeera and the Guardian jointly published the Palestine papers, revealing the scale of concessions secretly made by Palestinian negotiators in a decade of talks with Israeli leaders, we were accused of biased, agenda-driven coverage. As head of the investigative team that produced the papers, I was accused on live television by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, of being a CIA agent on a mission to destroy the chances of Palestinian statehood. Today Ofcom, which was asked by the PLO to investigate whether our coverage had been unfair to both it and to Erekat, published a 19-page ruling that unequivocally vindicates our coverage.

The Palestine papers represented the largest leak of diplomatic documents in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They included more than 1,600 files, including high-level meeting minutes, maps, security documents and assorted proposals. The PLO, which initially labelled them as “forgeries”, quickly acknowledged their authenticity.

Their publication dominated the global news agenda from January 23 to 26, before being overtaken by the dramatic events in Egypt. In less than a week, Palestinians faced more hard truths about a peace process run amok and the negotiating behaviour of its unelected “representatives” than they had perhaps in a lifetime.

The usual pundits weighed in. The Middle East Quartet envoy and former British prime minister, Tony Blair, called us “destabilising“, saying “we have to be big enough and strong enough to say ‘OK, look, whatever al-Jazeera are putting out we are just going to get on with making peace.'” The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman added “thanks to the nasty job that Qatar’s al-Jazeera just did in releasing out of context all the Palestinian concessions – to embarrass the Palestinian leadership – it’s now obvious to all how far the Palestinians have come.”

For the PLO and Erekat, our broadcast meant a declaration of war, and a fight for survival. With anger mounting against Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, then the PLO’s chief supporter, the main faces behind the Palestinian negotiation efforts found themselves needing “damage control.” True to the spirit of authoritarian Arab regimes, that meant ransacking our Ramallah offices and threatening our journalists.

The most sensible PLO reaction was to take the matter to Ofcom, which Erekat did by letter in February. He told regulators that his privacy and that of the PLO had been infringed as the papers “broadcast details of confidential documents that were stolen from his office”. According to Ofcom, Erekat went on to say that our programme had “damaged the opportunity to reach a negotiated agreement in the Middle East”. Erekat succeeded in triggering an exhaustive investigation into our journalism, perhaps in the false hope that it would shake our commitment to honest reporting.

As broadcasters, we were obligated to comply with the subsequent investigation. At the same time, on both al-Jazeera Arabic and BBC Hard Talk, Erekat insisted I was a CIA agent and that the documents had been “stolen”. Yet a defamation claim against him in the UK would have meant suing fellow journalists for not controlling his tirades, something I was unwilling to do.

Erekat’s resignation over the leak on 12 February calmed his attacks, as he spent the next several months rebranding himself as the fiery defender of Palestinian rights at the UN. In May a former PLO lawyer who worked for Erekat admitted to the Guardian that “Israel’s attack on Gaza and the disastrous ‘peace talks’ compelled me to leak what I knew”.

Having cleared our name of theft, Ofcom formally laid to rest Erekat’s principal claim, stating: “Material facts in relation to the negotiation meetings looked at in the programme were not presented or omitted in a way that resulted in unfairness to Dr Erekat”. The statement added: “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.”

The Middle East desperately needs more truth-telling. To that end, the Ofcom ruling on the Palestine papers could be perhaps the UK’s best contribution to the region in some time.