Watchdog accepts news orgs weren’t tipped off about Oct. 7: We just ‘raised questions’

Reuters: HonestReporting’s ‘baseless speculation’ poses ‘grave risks to journalists’ after group insinuated photographers working with outlets may have had prior knowledge of assault.

Palestinians from the Gaza Strip enter Kibbutz Kfar Aza on Oct. 7, 2023, amid a massive assault by the Hamas terror group. (The Times of Israel: AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)
Palestinians from the Gaza Strip enter Kibbutz Kfar Aza on Oct. 7, 2023, amid a massive assault by the Hamas terror group. (The Times of Israel: AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

(THE TIMES OF ISRAEL) The executive director of an Israeli media watchdog organization said Thursday it was simply “raising questions” by publicly wondering whether Palestinian photojournalists who documented the devastating October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel — and sent some of the first images  — had been tipped off in advance that the attack would happen.

The report by HonestReporting, however, caused potential ramifications at a time of war, including prompting a warning by minister Benny Gantz that if the photojournalists had known about the massacre “and chose to stand as idle bystanders while children were slaughtered,” they “are no different than terrorists and should be treated as such.”

Several of the world’s biggest news organizations — CNN, The New York Times, The Associated Press and Reuters — issued statements Thursday strenuously denying they knew about the attack ahead of time.

HonestReporting, which describes itself as an organization devoted to fighting media disinformation about Israel and Zionism, did not specifically make those accusations against the companies.

It did, however, suggest that freelance photographers, whose work from that day was used by the outlets, might have known.

“Is it conceivable to assume that ‘journalists’ just happened to appear early in the morning at the border without prior coordination with the terrorists?” HonestReporting wrote on its website Wednesday. “Or were they part of the plan?”

A house is on fire in Kibbutz Kfar Aza during an attack by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

Gil Hoffman, executive director of HonestReporting and himself a former reporter, admitted Thursday the group had no evidence to back up that suggestion.

He said he was satisfied with subsequent explanations from several of these journalists that they did not know.

“They were legitimate questions to be asked,” Hoffman said.

Despite the name “HonestReporting,” he said, “we don’t claim to be a news organization.”

Hoffman told the Reuters news agency that HonestReporting hadn’t claimed to know whether the news organizations had advance knowledge of the devastating onslaught.

“I was so relieved when all four of the media organizations said they didn’t have prior knowledge,” Hoffman said in an interview by telephone about the article.

“We raised questions, we didn’t give answers,” he said. “I still very much think that the questions were legitimate and the answers were adequate from the media organizations themselves.”

Gazans celebrate by a destroyed Israeli tank at the broken Israel-Gaza border fence, east of Khan Younis, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Masoud)

In response to Hoffman’s comments, Reuters issued a statement slamming the “irresponsibility” of HonestReporting “publishing such damaging accusations.”

“[HonestReporting’s] executive director has accepted that there is no evidence to support the incendiary insinuations in the report,” the news agency said. “The baseless speculation in HonestReporting’s post, presented as ‘raising ethical questions,’ has posed grave risks to journalists in the region, including those working for Reuters.”

“The Israeli government and others amplified HonestReporting’s baseless speculation. HonestReporting must take responsibility for the spread of misinformation it has triggered, and for the risk and reputational harm its inflammatory claims have caused to journalists reporting on this conflict,” Reuters said.

Reuters used pictures credited to Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa and Yasser Qudih, two freelancers it had no prior relationship with.

Its first photo was published more than 45 minutes after Israel said terrorists had crossed the border under the coverage of a massive barrage of rockets, the news agency said.

The New York Times said that Yousef Masoud, whose photographs of an Israeli tank captured by Hamas were used by the newspaper and AP, also did not know.

His first photographs that day were filed 90 minutes after the devastating onslaught began.

The newspaper said there was “no evidence for HonestReporting’s insinuations” about Masoud, and said the accusation that anyone at the newspaper had advance knowledge of the attacks or accompanied Hamas was “untrue and outrageous,” and put journalists in Israel and Gaza at risk.

Rushing into danger in conflict zones already puts freelance photojournalists at risk, the newspaper said.

“This is the essential role of a free press in wartime,” the Times said in a statement. “We are gravely concerned that unsupported accusations and threats to freelancers endangers them and undermines work that serves the public interest.”

“It is reckless to make those allegations, putting our journalists on the ground in Israel and Gaza at risk,” the newspaper said.

The Associated Press said in a statement that it “had no knowledge of the Oct. 7 attacks before they happened. The role of the AP is to gather information on breaking news events around the world, wherever they happen, even when those events are horrific and cause mass casualties.”

“AP uses images taken by freelancers around the world, including in Gaza,” it said.

It was clear that morning from the first launch of missiles from Gaza into Israel that something serious was happening, said Julie Pace, senior vice president and executive editor of the AP.

“It was a fast-moving development in a very small territory,” Pace said.

“We carried out a very typical news-gathering process when a big event, a big moment, is happening and we need to figure out what it is and inform the world about it,” she said. Part of that involves fielding calls from freelancers who have photos and video to offer.

Besides Masoud, the AP used photos that day credited to Hassan Eslaiah, Ali Mahmoud and Hatem Ali.

AP and CNN have said that they would no longer work with Eslaiah. HonestReporting posted a photo of him being kissed by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Eslaiah posted the photo on January 9, 2020.

Channel 12 journalist Amit Segal posted a video on X from Eslaiah’s Facebook page that he said showed the photographer on a motorcycle in Israel, carrying a hand grenade.

Eslaiah told the Times that while he had been given a ride back to the Gaza Strip, he was not the individual holding the weapon.

The names of several of the photographers have since been removed from images of the attacks in the AP database. (At time of writing, Eslaiah’s credit had been removed in AP’s database from the photo at the top of this article and from other photographs he took on October 7.)

Hoffman said that “some people with an agenda” had made HonestReporting look bad.

“They acted as if we were stating facts instead of asking questions,” he said.

With much attention now on Israel’s military action in Gaza, Hoffman said HonestReporting wanted more attention focused on the October 7 massacres in which some 1,200 people were killed — most of them civilians — and some 240 people kidnapped to Gaza, where they are being held hostage.

“We raised questions and it led the media outlets to clarify the truth,” he said. “Great, that’s what we do.”

Palestinians celebrate by a destroyed Israeli tank at the Gaza Strip fence east of Khan Younis, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

However, the “raised questions” led to accusations and warnings from the government and politicians to media outlets.

The National Information System, a department of the Prime Minister’s Office, said Thursday that it “takes very seriously the phenomenon of journalists working with international media joining [with attackers] to cover the brutal massacres by Hamas terrorists on Saturday 10/7/2023 in the communities surrounding Gaza.”

It said the Government Press Office “issued an urgent letter to the heads of the media systems where these photographers are employed, and asked for clarification on the matter.”

Still, without receiving answers, it concluded that: “These media people are complicit in crimes against humanity.”

War cabinet member Minister Benny Gantz and Likud MK Danny Danon condemned and warned any journalists who may have known about the attacks ahead of time.

Gantz said in a post to his X (formerly Twitter) feed: “Journalists found to have known about the massacre – and still chose to stand as idle bystanders while children were slaughtered – are no different than terrorists and should be treated as such.”

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz tours Israel’s northern Galilee region, October 29, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Danon claimed journalists “took an active part in the massacre” on October 7.

“While Hamas savages murdered, raped, tortured and brutally abused our people, the vile photographers did not stop, turn away or leave the scene. Instead they filmed and participated in the crimes,” Danon wrote. “We will hunt them down together with the terrorists.”

At least 40 journalists and media workers have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war so far, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That’s the deadliest monthlong period for journalists since the committee began keeping track in 1992.

Several of the journalists were Israelis killed in the October 7 Hamas assault. Ynet photographer Roee Idan was murdered in his hometown of Kfar Aza, Israel Hayom photographer Yaniv Zohar was murdered in Nahal Oz along with his wife and two daughters, and Kan news editor Ayelet Arnin and Maariv reporter Shai Regev were murdered at the Nova music festival near Re’im.

On October 7, Hamas led over 3,000 terrorists who burst through the Gaza Strip border and rampaged murderously through southern Israel. The gunmen overran communities, slaughtering some 1,200 people, the vast majority of them civilians in their homes or at a massive outdoor music festival. At least 240 people were taken hostage and dragged into Gaza. Hundreds of cases of brutality and abuse were recorded.

Many of the attackers recorded their acts on body cameras or other video equipment and the images were published online by Hamas.

Other terrorists live-streamed or photographed their atrocities from the phones of their victims, and uploaded them onto their social media accounts.

The onslaught, which began at around 6:30 a.m., came under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israel. It was reportedly planned under great secrecy with only senior Hamas commanders being aware of the full scale and scope of the attack before it went ahead.

Israel’s Channel 12 stated on Thursday, without attribution, that the photographers named by HonestReporting “were not there at 6:30 in the morning” when the border fence was breached in multiple locations, “and apparently not in the first wave after the breach.”

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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