In a sane world, it would not be al-Jazeera‘s overblown boast on Saturday of supposed scientific confirmation for its 2012 ‘scoop’ that Yasser Arafat might have been poisoned by polonium-210 which would have made headlines, but instead the revelation on Tuesday of genuinely new and apparently decisive information contradicting any such theory. That’s when a senior Russia toxicologist who had access to testing of samples of Arafat’s body tissues stated that, according to these definitive tests, Arafat “could not have died of polonium poisoning.”
However, perversely, the media, in Australia and elsewhere, largely didn’t see it that way, preferring to focus on al-Jazeera‘s incorrect claims and efforts to recycle old information as fresh and overlook the subsequent real news about Arafat.
The backstory to this whole controversy begins in July 2012 when an al-Jazeera report made worldwide headlines with its 45-minute story in which it said European scientists had recently tested personal items that had belonged to Arafat before his death in November 2004, and found contamination with the radioactive element polonium-210.
Al-Jazeera claimed its investigation was prompted by a suspicion that Arafat’s seemingly mysterious demise mirrored that of an ex-Russian spy who died in 2006 from polonium poisoning.
A useful look at the inconsistencies in the claim that Arafat was poisoned can be found in a blog post from 2012 by AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro.
Arafat’s body was exhumed in November 2012 and samples taken to test for traces of polonium and to date no findings have been forthcoming. That is where the story remained.
However, for those who missed it, the spotlight returned last Saturday when al-Jazeera reported that the Lancet, “one of the world’s leading medical journals has supported the possibility that Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, was poisoned with the radioactive element polonium 210” on the basis that it “has published a peer review of last year’s research by Swiss scientists on Arafat’s personal effects”.
Wire services picked up on the al-Jazeera claims resulting in similar, though usually more cautious and balanced, stories about the Lancet paper.
In fact, al-Jazeera‘s assertions were a clear case of overegging the pudding.
As Deborah Blum, the science writer for Wired explained, the Lancet piece was actually “an essay written not by a panel of independent experts but by scientists affiliated with the Institute for Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland. This is the laboratory that did the initial testing on which Al Jazeera based its report on Arafat’s death. And these are the scientists reviewing that work; this essay is far more cautious than the news agency’s analysis would lead you to believe.”
Moreover, the essay was actually called “Improving Forensic Investigation for Polonium Poisoning” and according to Blum the researchers recommended “that in the future, when poison might be suspected, tissue and blood samples be taken and preserved for later investigation.”
Pertinently, Blum asked some obvious questions of al-Jazeera:
So why would Al Jazeera describe this as all out support for the poisoning theory? The Swiss scientists note that after the exhumation (which apparently they did not recommend) three different teams were assigned to analyze samples from Arafat’s body: “Because of legal procedures, the date of publication of the detailed results of the exhumation analyses is unknown.”
Perhaps this is just keeping a story alive. And, perhaps, a little bit of wishful thinking. And maybe, just maybe, a hint for more solid information to come.
Furthermore, the al-Jazeera claim that the editorial team at the Lancet, a journal with a somewhat checkered track record where Israel is concerned, had “supported the possibility that Yasser Arafat, was poisoned” is at best very doubtful. It certainly does not appear to have issued a statement or expressed a position on the matter. All that happened is they published an article on the general subject of the detection of polonium poisoning by scientists from the same laboratory that did the testing on Arafat’s personal effects, and in it, they repeated the already known facts about their findings in those tests.
In Australia, the story received fairly limited exposure. The Australian newspaper ran a report and used the sensationalist headline that “Arafat kill claim backed” which was not an wholly accurate reflection of the AFP story. Ninemsn and SBS‘s website both ran an AAP report on the story.
Jeanette Francis from SBS TV‘s “The Feed” used the Lancet article as a starting off point for a two-and-a-half minute story that was fair and balanced.
Strangely, though, at the tail end of the segment, almost as an aside Francis noted that the “investigation is still ongoing. The Russian team that contradicted the finding, now says it is still looking into the case”.
In other words she seemed to know that the Russian forensic scientist had ruled out polonium poisoning but to most viewers this throwaway line would have been largely missed.
Aside from this snippet, none of these outlets reported on a story which actually shed new light on the claims regarding the reasons for Arafat’s death.
That is, as noted by Reuters, Russia’s Interfax news agency had quoted Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia’s Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA), saying that Arafat “could not have died of polonium poisoning – the Russian experts found no traces of this substance.”
That’s right, we have an actual leak regarding the results of the forensic tests on Arafat’s body – much more decisive on the whole polonium theory than tests on Arafat’s personnel effects, which could have been tampered with at any time since his death in 2004. Yet it went unreported in favour of an al-Jazeera-linked beat-up amounting to simply repeating old information.
While the FMBA subsequently finessed Dr. Uiba’s public statement to insist it “has made no official statement about the results of research on the remains of Yasser Arafat,” the cat was out of the bag and should have been reported.
There is no conceivable reason for Dr. Uiba to lie about the test results and according to this report, the “deputy editor of Interfax’s political news section stood by the story, saying Uiba had made his comments in a sit-down interview. ‘If the [Federal Medical-Biological Agency] later decided to issue that kind of statement, then it will rest on their conscience,’ he said.”
The report also hints at the probable reason for the backtracking with “a foreign ministry source [saying that] Russia had no right to publicise the forensic review’s conclusions because the study was commissioned by the Palestinian leadership. ‘Our position on announcing the results of Arafat’s exhumation remains the same: only the Palestinian authorities can release this information,’ the unnamed source told the ITAR-TASS news agency.”
Further clarification of the al-Jazeera story came from the Chinese news service Xinhua which ran a story quoting Tawfi Al-Tirawi, head of a Palestinian committee investigating Arafat’s death, explaining that the Lancet had “‘brought nothing new'” and that its report was based “on a 2012 investigative report by the pan-Arab news network Al-Jazeera.”
However, unfortunately, even this Palestinian criticism of al-Jazeera‘s misrepresentation of the Lancet piece both received almost no media coverage, and did not alert journalists that the al-Jazeera story might be a self-serving beat-up.
While one can understand why Arafat might make for attractive copy, it is a pity that too many newsrooms avoided following the basic rules of journalism in this story, instead following the politically-biased and unprofessionally sensationalist agenda of al-Jazeera.