HonestReporting accepts news groups had no prior warning of Oct. 7 Hamas attack

People take part in a candlelight vigil in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in Beirut
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(This Nov. 10 story has been refiled to remove double negative in paragraph 1)

By Crispian Balmer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The executive director of Israeli media advocacy group HonestReporting said on Friday he accepted as "adequate" statements by four media organisations that they had no previous knowledge of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, adding he was "so relieved".

Reuters, the Associated Press, CNN and The New York Times issued adamant denials after HonestReporting published an article on Thursday that questioned whether Palestinian photojournalists had tipped off the four outlets, which had used their images.

HonestReporting's Gil Hoffman told Reuters his organisation had not claimed to know that there had been any prior knowledge by the news groups of the Hamas attack.

"I was so relieved when all four of the media organisations 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 organisations themselves."

He added that there was nothing "problematic" with the two photojournalists from whom Reuters acquired images.

Reuters said it acquired photographs from two Gaza-based freelance photographers who were at the border on the morning of Oct. 7 and with whom it did not have a prior relationship.

HonestReporting also distanced itself from Israeli government accusations that were sparked by its article.

"There are those who took our story and pretended that they knew the answers - the Israeli government, cabinet ministers, various Twitter personalities - we didn't claim to know," Hoffman said.

Reacting to the HonestReporting article posted on X, the Israeli Foreign Ministry had described the use of the various images by the four news groups as "a serious violation of journalistic ethics."

'SHOCKED'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office wrote on X: "These journalists were accomplices in crimes against humanity; their actions were contrary to professional ethics."

Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party and a former Israeli envoy to the United Nations, wrote on X after the release of the HonestReporting article that the Palestinian photojournalists should be eliminated.

"We will hunt them down together with the terrorists," he wrote.

Hoffman said he had been "shocked" to read Danon's comments. He also said: "There are clearly things in the prime minister's office statement that are not based on fact. We did not say anything firmly."

Danon and Israel's government did not immediately respond to Reuters' requests for comment in response to Hoffman's remarks.

"We are deeply concerned about the irresponsibility of HonestReporting in publishing such damaging accusations. Its executive director has accepted that there is no evidence to support the incendiary insinuations in the report," Reuters said in a statement.

"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 news agency added.

The AP, CNN and The New York Times referred back to their previously published statements, which included denials that they had any prior knowledge of the Oct. 7 attack.

'IDEOLOGICAL PREJUDICE'

Hoffman, who was a veteran reporter with the Jerusalem Post newspaper before joining HonestReporting, defended his group's decision to post its article without first seeking comment from any of the news organisations it had named.

He said that after the article was posted he had asked his team why they had not sought comment before publication.

"They said 'well we do not claim to be a news organisation'," he said. "With media monitoring it's more effective (to ask for a response) afterwards, in general."

HonestReporting describes itself on its website as "a charitable organisation" with a mission "to combat ideological prejudice in journalism and the media, as it impacts Israel."

Hoffman said he thought international media coverage of the ongoing war against Hamas was no longer giving prominence to the Oct. 7 events, when Hamas killed around 1,200 people and kidnapped a further 244, according to an Israeli tally.

Israel's counteroffensive in Gaza since then has killed more than 11,000 people, according to Palestinian figures.

"(Our) article for two days now has returned the international public discourse to Oct. 7. That alone is a very important accomplishment," he said.

Despite HonestReporting's suggestions that the Palestinian photojournalists had secured their images in coordination with Hamas, he said he was "happy" their pictures had been published. "Absolutely I want the world to know what happened on Oct. 7," he said.

After speaking to Reuters, HonestReporting issued a statement saying: "We unequivocally condemn calls for violence or death threats aimed at bona fide media workers."

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Edmund Blair)