“Everyone calm down” was the message from global news director Phil Chetwynd to Agence France-Presse (AFP) staff recently, in an email leaked to Declassified acknowledging the “strong emotions” that events in Israel and Gaza had provoked among its staff.
AFP journalists had voiced concerns about what they viewed as bias for and against Israel in AFP’s reporting. Elsewhere, from the BBC to the New York Times, there have also been concerns over editorial bias, ranging from grumblings among staff to sackings and resignations.
Declassified’s own analysis of over 100 front pages from Western mainstream media found systematic dehumanisation of Palestinians.
AFP editorial guidelines issued in mid-October leaked to Declassified do little to reassure.
The guidelines for reporting on the conflict say all stories’ “opening paragraphs should at least mention” three elements: the deaths on both sides, the hostages held by Hamas, and Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel.
There is no requirement to mention decades of Israeli occupation of Palestine and ethnic cleansing, apartheid, the persecution of the Palestinian people or the belief among experts that Israel’s actions may constitute genocide.
The guidelines acknowledge Israel’s “relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip” and suggest AFP reporters add as context that “Israel declared a complete siege of Gaza, cutting off supplies of water, electricity and food. The United Nations expressed concern over the full siege of the territory.”
There is, however, no requirement to mention that such a siege, amounting to collective punishment, is illegal. On war crimes, the guidelines say: “When appropriate, we can explain that according to legal experts interviewed by AFP, both sides could be accused of war crimes.”
AFP’s Chetwynd told us: “These are general and ADDITIONAL guidelines for the Israel-Palestinian story. They complement existing guidelines in our stylebook which have much more detail. These guidelines are updated regularly, and the demand is for these details to appear in the body of the story.”
He added: “Bear in mind that at the height of the story we were writing hundreds of stories per day from datelines in the region and around the world, including in bureaus who are not used to writing about this subject. Hence the need for simple and clear background…It would be flat wrong to imply that our stories lack historical context on the Palestinian issue.”
Declassified reviewed a 2018 AFP style guide for its Middle East reporting and a 2016 AFP English stylebook, neither of which instructs reporters on what information to include or emphasise in their Israel/Palestine reporting.
Neither does AFP’s response address why there is no similar requirement for reporters to mention Israel’s crimes against Palestinians in their first paragraphs.
Blurring Israel’s role in shelling
AFP’s apparent deference to Israeli government sensitivities extends to coverage of the wounding, by Israeli tank rounds, of its own journalists.
On 13 October last year, Reuters reporter Issam Abdallah was killed and two AFP journalists were wounded, among others, in southern Lebanon. Declassified obtained the internal edit logs for the AFP article about the event.
They reveal AFP’s initial reports emphasised Lebanese authorities’ and its own reporters’ eyewitness testimony that “Israel on Friday shelled a border region in southern Lebanon”, and that the Israeli military was “currently responding with artillery fire” towards Lebanon.
“The edits rolling back attribution for the strikes to Israel were made by a senior editor”
Around 6pm local time, two targeted missile strikes about 40 seconds apart hit the group of journalists, who were clearly marked “press”, according to a Reporters Without Borders investigation.
Shortly after Abdallah died, AFP removed language attributing the strikes to Israel, instead calling them “cross-border fire” before settling that evening on “caught up in cross-border shelling”. This remains in the current version of the article.
The edits rolling back attribution for the strikes to Israel were made by a senior editor for the Middle East and North Africa following a request from AFP’s Paris headquarters.
“It was a very tense situation. We’d just discovered that our colleagues [Christina Assi and Dylan Collins] had been seriously hurt”, describes an AFP journalist speaking to Declassified on condition of anonymity.
AFP did, however, eventually recognise that Israel was responsible for the strikes following a joint investigation with Airwars published eight weeks after the strike.
“The decision was taken by AFP’s editorial hierarchy in line with the rules and functioning of the agency,” responded Chetwynd.
“The editor-in-chief’s team is responsible for all the content on our wires and so it is their job to ensure that all the content on our wires conforms with AFP’s standards. This team is based in Paris. This is not a mystery, it is our standard operating procedure.”
On the changes to the article, Chetwynd stated: “We did not have strong enough material to support the initial attribution” of the strikes to Israel.
The material on which the attribution of strikes to Israel is based comes from Israeli military and Lebanese sources, which AFP cited throughout the day and which remain in the current version. The only source testimony that editors substantially rewrote following Abdallah’s death was their own correspondents’ eyewitness testimony that the strike that hit them appeared to come from Israel.
AFP responded: “The first attribution to say the journalists were killed and injured by Israeli fire quoting an AFP journalist was too strong and needed to be changed. The information from the eyewitnesses at the scene was that the fire ‘seemed’ to come from the Israeli side. To respect AFP’s strict sourcing guidelines, we had to come up with a more prudent formulation.”
After a seven-week joint investigation with Airwars, AFP attributed the strike to “a tank round used only by the Israeli army”.
Crises and caution
Some AFP journalists who spoke to Declassified on condition of anonymity are concerned about a worrying trend in its Palestine coverage. Two recall a similar “rolling back” of Israel’s role in AFP’s coverage of the killing by Israeli sniper fire of Al Jazeera reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, in May 2022.
One journalist told us: “It was a very similar set of events where we had our own journalist on the ground. We had our journalist on the ground and he saw her get shot. That’s what we had initially, she was shot by Israeli forces. And then also based on a phone call, Paris walked it back”.
AFP’s condolence note to Al Jazeera that day reads that Abu Akleh was killed “while she was covering clashes in the Palestinian city of Jenin”. The result is that, according to one AFP journalist, “even people who weren’t in the newsroom that day know by now that Paris asked us to walk it back”.
Declassified was not able to independently verify that changes were made to AFP’s report of Abu Akleh’s death.
On her death, AFP stated: “There was a need to phrase the information with more prudence” due to “problematic sourcing in real time. The AFP journalist on the scene was capable of saying that Shireen was shot and was able to give the general context of Israeli fire. But the AFP journalist could not say with 100 percent certainty at that moment that Shireen had been killed by an Israeli bullet.”
One hundred percent certainty arrived a few months later, as the IDF admitted she was “likely” killed by an Israeli soldier, which AFP reported.
AFP also did not attribute to Israel the strike that destroyed its Gaza city bureau on 3 November. Even the IDF later acknowledged it struck “to eliminate an immediate threat” “near the building”, but denied targeting it.
AFP was the only major international news agency operating a live video feed from Gaza City.
‘Complex and divisive story’
AFP has also come under fire in the opposite direction, accused of being too friendly to Hamas and “overcautious” with Israeli sources.
In October, the head of the AFP political service, Hervé Rouach, acting in his personal capacity, shared with senior editors his indignation at AFP’s “delays”, “minimisations” and “the rarity of victims’ voices” in its reports about Hamas killings. This included kibbutz Be’eri and the Nova music festival, and that descriptions of mutilated bodies had been pulled from one article.
In a long note published on 2 November, Chetwynd begins by characterising the Israel-Hamas war as “one of the most complex and divisive stories AFP has covered”.
He adds: “The emotion is driven by the scale and brutality of the Hamas attack on October 7 and the existential questions it poses for Israel.” On Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza and its increasingly genocidal rhetoric and actions, “[The emotion] is heightened by stories of immense suffering in Gaza.”
According to the Gaza Health Ministry, 1 out of every 100 people in the territory are dead and the number grows. It’s unlikely many at AFP will heed their editors’ advice to “calm down.”