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Birdbrained fact-checking at the ABC

Jul 22, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro

Birdbrained fact-checking at the ABC
news_item/bird.jpg

An ABC interview with the Australian organisers behind the building of a park in Gaza took a bizarre and embarrassing turn last month, when an outlandish and demonstrably false claim made during the interview was later employed to promote the interview on the ABC website.

During the June 7 interview, pro-Palestinian humanitarian aid advocate Moira Kelly, one of the founders of the “Global Gardens of Peace”, told ABC News Breakfast hosts Michael Rowland and Beverly O’Connor that “there are no birds in Gaza” – a claim so shocking on face value that O’Connor repeated it back to her, yet she did not actually question its authenticity.

One might have been tempted to simply let such a nonsensical claim go, yet this became more difficult after ABC decided to draw further attention to it when it posted the interview onto their website under the heading “Peace garden to bring birds back to Gaza” along with the following description:

A new garden dubbed ‘The Garden of Hope’ is set to bring a sense of peace and serenity to the war torn Gaza Strip. It’s said that no birds inhabit the region but it’s hoped the garden will provide a habitat for them to return.

It is hard to imagine how ABC news staff could have not caught Kelly’s blatant exaggeration and even felt free to put the ABC‘s imprimatur on the claim by including it in the story summary. Yet even the most cursory investigation would have confirmed that the Gaza Strip, like its neighbour Israel, is literally teeming with avian life.

Type “birds in Gaza Strip” into Google and the very second response you get, in terms of relevance (the first being a Wikipedia article) is a bird checklist by the World Bird Database which lists 171 species of birds in the Gaza Strip.

The third most relevant response is a scholarly paper from 2011 by Dr. Abdel Fattah N. Abd Rabou from the Department of Biology at the Islamic University of Gaza.

The paper, “Notes on Some Palestinian Bird Fauna Existing in the Zoological Gardens of the Gaza Strip” focuses mainly on birds in captivity in the Strip. However, the paper also includes a survey of the natural bird life in the area.

Writes Dr. Abd Rabou:

The Gaza Strip, which is located at the southern portion of the Palestine coast along the Mediterranean Sea, is blessed with a considerable number of bird fauna including terrestrial and aquatic forms. Dense concentration of birds occurs over the Gaza Strip during spring and autumn migration seasons [5, 6]. It is worth mentioning that wetlands, including the wetland ecosystem of Wadi Gaza, are considered as very productive ecosystems, having rich bird fauna. They provide bird fauna with all necessary requirements such as shelter, protection, food and breeding, resting and roosting places … etc [7-13].

It should be noted that, in spite of the abundance of bird life in the Strip, the biologist does identify threats to the bird population. It’s worth mentioning here that none of them have anything to do with the conflict with Israel, but rather suggest an indictment of internal Palestinian mismanagement of ecological issues.

In autumn, scores of fine nets are erected each year along the Gaza coastline to illegally catch migratory birds such as the Common Quail Coturnix coturnix [1, 9, 10]. In addition to poaching and hunting, urbanization and residential creeping, ecosystem alteration and destruction, environmental pollution and the extensive and intensive use of pesticides impose real threats on birdlife in the Gaza Strip.

 

What about visual evidence to support the existence of a healthy bird population in Gaza? There is tons. Take, just for one example, this photo essay by Palestinian photographer Abed Rahim Khatib from April 2012. Flocks of birds literally fill his lens.

Khatib’s caption:

Migratory birds in the spring season also come from all over the world and pass in the skies of the Gaza Strip.

Given the abundance of evidence to be found regarding the proliferation of birds in Gaza, there is no need to belabour the point.

Summing up, this blog post should not be construed as some sort of objection to the building of a park in Gaza. On the contrary, one should only hope that Gazan children of the future should enjoy a plethora of wholesome recreational pursuits in parks rather than the Hamas paramilitary “summer camps” and hateful indoctrination and incitement against Jews and Israel they are currently exposed to.

Furthermore, there is no disputing that any trees in a new park will provide additional perches for birds traversing the area and this is undoubtedly a positive (although from the pictures of the park site, it seems that the land that was given to Kelly for the park is not actually situated in a densely populated neighbourhood).

At the same time, though, one can only wonder why Rowland and O’Connor failed to ask Kelly why Hamas, which rules Gaza, chooses to pour its money into building offensive weapon capabilities against Israel instead of building and supporting its own parks.

But more importantly, ABC goofed by giving Kelly a license to exaggerate claims about conditions in Gaza as a fundraising and propaganda tool. Even before the construction of this park, Gaza most certainly did, and continues to have, trees, bird life as well as green spaces (even some lavish ones, like the Dolphin Water Park and Resort which opened in April, compensating for another one which Hamas destroyed in 2010).

Kelly and the ABC effectively conspired to distort the reality on the ground in the interests of manufacturing sympathy for a doubtlessly worthwhile project. But when Australia’s public broadcaster uncritically promotes such storytelling, it is acting counter to the principles of ethical journalism, and its own charter.

While this incident is, of course, peripheral to the more substantive issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for ABC‘s journalists and editors to “parrot” the bizarre notion that Gaza is devoid of birdlife without anyone along the way bothering to exercise the most basic level of fact-checking is indeed troubling.

It raises the question of what other fact-checking, if any, is employed by the ABC regarding news items originating in Palestinian controlled areas on more important subjects.

Ahron Shapiro

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