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Organ theft article 'a perversion of journalistic standards'

The Local · 26 Oct 2009, 10:50

Published: 26 Oct 2009 10:50 GMT+01:00

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Allegations that Israel plunders and trafficks Palestinians' organs are ugly, false, and harmful to peace efforts. No less dangerous—such libels spread.

The August 17 story by Donald Boström in Aftonbladet, Scandanavia's leading daily, has quickly metastasized to mainstream Muslim media, spawning cartoons of Jews stealing body parts and drinking Arab blood. These have been published in Syria, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, to name a few.

In early September, Algeria's al-Khabar newspaper echoed Mr. Boström in a new fantasy claiming Jewish-directed gangs of Algerians and Moroccans round up Algerian children, spirit them into Morocco and thence to Israel to have their body parts harvested and sold. On September 17, Iran's PressTV breathlessly declared "an international Jewish conspiracy to kidnap children and harvest their organs is gathering momentum."

Hate-filled Web sites have also taken up the theme. Almost invariably, wherever such permutations on the idea of Israeli organ theft appear, Aftonbladet is cited.

Of course, Mr. Boström has enjoyed newfound acclaim in some quarters for his article. As the fresh rumours of child-snatching and organ theft circulated in Algeria, the National Federation of Algerian Journalists welcomed him last month to bestow an award for excellence, and promised support for his work.

Meanwhile, editors at Aftonbladet have neither acknowledged nor corrected any of the factual errors that litter the article, and instead react with indignation to charges of misconduct. In a perversion of journalistic standards, Editor-in-chief Jan Helin admitted on his own blog on August 19 that Aftonbladet had no evidence for the incendiary charges against Israel. Nevertheless, according to another Aftonbladet editor cited in Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper on August 20, Mr. Helin's publication "stands behind the demand for an international inquiry" into Israeli actions.

In his original article, Mr. Bostrom wove a tenuous web of guilt by association among unconnected events, in the classic mode of conspiracy theorists. He linked a criminal New Jersey group—that included several Jews—engaged in organ-trafficking, to sweeping charges against Israel's supposedly unethical medical establishment. Into this he injected a lurid event from 17 years ago involving Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian Bilal Ahmed Ghanem, whose organs Mr. Boström says were later removed for trafficking.

His account also contains errors concerning Israel, its physicians, laws and military. Take the overarching claim that Israel's medical establishment is grossly "unethical." Mr. Boström asserts Israel "is the only western country with a medical profession that doesn't condemn the illegal organ trade." Yet, as of eighteen months ago, Israel has one of the most stringent laws in the world regarding human organs. It prohibits receiving compensation for organs, bans the sale of organs from the dead as well as the living and minutely defines "compensation" to prevent evasion of the law. Unlike laws in other countries, it prohibits the use of insurance for pre- and post-operative treatment for those Israelis who go abroad and receive purchased-organ transplants. But Mr. Boström omits any mention of this.

In seeking to underscore Israel's supposed pariah status in the medical realm, the reporter cites a Jerusalem Post story from 1992 which, he claims, reported Israel being ostracized by France for its "unethical ways of dealing with organs and transplants." But the June 29, 1992 article only recounted that, like Italy, Israel was being dropped from a European organ-coordinating group because it had contributed too few organs in proportion to the number used for transplants. No hint is given of unethical activity in the Jerusalem Post story. That charge is invented by Mr. Boström.

Francis Delmonico, a Harvard surgeon and international transplant specialist who was quoted in the Aftonbladet article on the issue of organ theft in general, told me he found the Aftonbladet charges completely inconsistent with his extensive interaction with Israeli doctors. Dr. Delmonico said he considered their professional conduct exemplary, and described physicians in the Jewish state as "noble and caring." He added: "[Mr.] Boström has a responsibility to validate his assertions or withdraw them." Like many others, Dr. Delmonico noted that Mr. Boström's scenario in which Ghanem was supposedly shot before having his organs removed for trafficking was "not feasible from a surgical vantage."

This indifference to the facts is telling with regard to the article's depiction of Ghanem. Contrary to the reporter's version, Ghanem was not an innocent "stone-thrower." Rather—according to sources that include the Jerusalem Post, Agence France-Presse, and a United Nations casualty summary—he was wanted for kidnapping and assaulting other Palestinians at a time of rampant internecine Palestinian violence.

There are also inventions out of thin air, such as Mr. Boström's connection of an ordinary 1992 campaign in Israel aimed at enlisting future volunteer organ donors to alleged abductions and organ theft committed against Palestinians. The reporter declares: "While the campaign was running, young Palestinian men started to disappear from villages in the West Bank and Gaza. After five days Israeli soldiers would bring them back dead, with their bodies ripped open." Mr. Boström adds, "There were rumours of a dramatic increase of young men disappearing, with ensuing nightly funerals of autopsied bodies." But evidence for this netherworld is, again, non-existent.

In one of the most seemingly damaging charges, Mr. Boström claims Ghanem's family itself accused Israel in 1992 of killing the man and removing his organs. However, according to recent in-person interviews with the family by the Jerusalem Post, Ghanem's mother, Sadeeka Ghanem, "denied that she had told any foreign journalist that her son's organs had been stolen." Another relative agreed, saying the family never told Mr. Boström Israel stole organs from the dead man's body.

Still, Aftonbladet's culture editor Åsa Linderborg, in whose section the article appeared, wrote in a semi-hysterical August 21 defense of the piece entitled "Examine Israel!": "In the black of night, [Mr. Boström] takes a unique photograph of the mangled body, cut open and stitched from the chin down to the groin, while the boy's frantic relatives are crying and screaming that the Israelis are plundering their son's organs." Fevered imaginations seem to be prevalent at the paper.

While visiting Algiers to pick up his award last month, Mr. Boström added embellishments to his original story, announcing that fully 1,000 Palestinians had endured the "harvesting" of body parts, and that all this began as early as 1960. The reporter has evidence for not even one case of organ theft, yet he's now charging 1,000 cases.

Rational and responsible editorial judgment would have discarded Mr. Boström's surreal story at the outset. Such judgment would also have considered the real world effects of inciting yet more enmity in a volatile conflict, stoking misconceptions and raising greater hurdles to reconciliation.

Story continues below…

But Aftonbladet's view of the parties involved appears strikingly crude, perceiving a realm populated by evil stick-figure Israelis preying mercilessly on romanticized Palestinian "stone-throwers." One cannot in this context forget Aftonbladet's unsavoury pro-Nazi sentiments during the Hitler regime. This past seems to have done little to inoculate the paper against related bigotries today.

In an age of diminishing communication barriers, when false images and ideas can mislead hundreds of millions of people in minutes, it is more important than ever to reinforce the tenets of honourable journalism, and to expose malfeasance for all to see.

Behold, Aftonbladet.

Andrea Levin is executive director and president of CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

Republished with permission from The Wall Street Journal Europe

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