United Nations Declares UNRWA Terrorism Story “Misinformation” – JONATHAN TURLEY

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has issued a warning that a story about its staff holding hostages in Gaza is possible “misinformation” and should be removed from the media. The UN has long supported censorship and we previously discussed how figures like World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for such action to combat what he called the “infodemic” — a claim made as his own organization came under fire for its actions vis-a-vis China on the pandemic. Now UNRWA is raising possible defamation of the group. Indeed, the latest statement reads like a notice letter in a defamation case, but how serious is it?

This controversy began with the report on Israeli Channel 13 that a UNRWA teacher held an Israeli hostage in an attic for 50 days:

“A teacher with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reportedly held an Israeli hostage taken captive by Hamas on Oct. 7 in an attic.

The teacher, a father of 10 children, kept the hostage for almost 50 days, barely provided food, and neglected the hostage’s medical needs, Israeli Channel 13’s Almog Boker reported Wednesday. A Gazan doctor also held another hostage, according to Boker.”

The Times of Israel has also reported that Israeli forces have found boxes bearing the UNRWA logo at terrorist sites and found rockets underneath boxes with UNRWA markings in a residential home. The allegations have led to a call from one U.S. Senator for an investigation.

The use of the “misinformation” label to demand removal of the story is unfortunately predictable. The UN has long been a hostile organization to free speech and fostered calls for international blasphemy laws and censorship policies.

Faced with this alarming story, UNRWA immediately pushed back with a statement that reporters were spreading “unsubstantiated claims” and “must stop immediately.”

The organization insisted that the reporter has not shared the basis for the story and suggested that it may be false.

The story has not been vetted by outside organizations and this blog is in no position to do so. There have been prior stories linking UNRWA to terrorist activities or celebrating the attack in Reuters, UNWatch, and the Washington Examiner.

If the story is false, there could be a defamation claim by the teacher if he is identified. The teacher may be a public figure or limited public figure in Gaza. It is hard to tell, obviously. Non-public figures in the United States can base claims under a negligence or fault standard. Otherwise, they have to show that the reporter knew that the story was false or showed reckless disregard for the truth under the New York Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” standard.

The question is UNRWA itself. The group invoked defamation in its public demand for the story to be withdrawn:

“UNRWA is the largest humanitarian organization in the Gaza Strip and is currently hosting more than 1 million people in its shelters. Defamation attacks and the spread of misinformation about UNRWA -from any side- directly endanger the lifesaving operations of the Agency and its staff operating on the ground…These harmful and presumably gratuitous acts must stop, immediately.”

This story is not a matter of opinion. It is a factual claim that a UNRWA teacher held a hostage in Gaza. In the United States, truth would remain a defense for the media.

However, group libel claims in the United States are notoriously difficult.

We have previously discussed this tort theory. Such lawsuits are very difficult to maintain.  In Neiman-Marcus v. Lait (1952), a New York federal district court addressed a defamation claim arising from the publication of the book “U.S.A. Confidential.” The author wrote that “some” models and “all” saleswomen at the Neiman-Marcus department store in Dallas were “call girls.” It also claimed that “most” of the salesmen in the men’s store were “faggots.” The store had nine models, 382 saleswomen and 25 salesmen. The court found the size of the group of women was too big to satisfy a group libel standard. However, the size of the group of salesmen was viewed as sufficiently small to go to trial.

When Donald Trump was sued by a Chinese American group for his use of the term “Kung Flu,” the court dismissed the claim and wrote:

To state a claim for defamation under New York law, a plaintiff must allege, among other elements, a statement that is “of and concerning” the plaintiff. However, “[u]nder the group libel doctrine, when a reference is made to a large group of people, no individual within that group can fairly say that the statement is about him, nor can the ‘group’ as a whole state a claim for defamation.” The group libel doctrine thus defeats the “of and concerning” element of a defamation claim. The group libel doctrine can be overcome only by a showing that the “the circumstances of the publication reasonably give rise to the conclusion that there is a particular reference to the member.”

However, the group did not allege a defamation claim on its own behalf. Here UNRWA is effectively making such a claim. Moreover, UNRWA could claim that its staff in Gaza is relatively small and that story paints them all as in league with Hamas and its terrorist operations.

Neiman-Marcus shows how leery courts have been in allowing group libel cases to go forward, even with relatively small groups like a sales staff. UNRWA assists a million refugees in Gaza and must have a much larger staff and associated individuals on the ground.

Even in business defamation actions, free speech protections loom large.  That is even more the case with UNRWA, which is the subject of considerable public debate and controversy over its operations.

While the teacher could raise a defamation claim, the UNRWA would be hard pressed to make a group libel claim in my view. That is assuming that the story is false and the reporter lacked sourcing for the story.

There is another approach to suppressing the story as “misinformation” or suing as defamation. UNRWA could use its own free speech (as it has) to rebut the allegations and leave the conclusions to the public to reach as a result of the ensuing debate.


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