Is RTS Journalist Anne-Frédérique Widmann Impartial on UNRWA, Israel & Antisemitism?

GENEVA, December 17, 2020 — Ahead of this evening’s Radio Télévision Suisse documentary about UNRWA, an agency that has been accused of being hostile to Israel and inciting antisemitism, the show’s lead journalist Anne-Frédérique Widmann should disclose to viewers the fact that she is reporting on issues upon which she has already taken adverse stands, in her numerous social media posts defending UNRWA, downplaying and dismissing concerns about antisemitism, and endorsing the portrayal of Israel as an “apartheid” state that commits “ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians.

Click here for UN Watch’s new 15-page report documenting Ms. Widmann’s partisan record.

UN Watch today wrote a letter to RTS chief Pascal Crittin, submitting the report and requesting “that RTS inform its viewers about Ms. Widmann’s highly partisan position regarding UNRWA when the program is broadcast.”

“Ms. Widmann’s partisanship on this issue appears to violate RTS’s Code of Ethics which places a strong emphasis on impartiality and objectivity,” wrote UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer.

UN Watch is a Swiss human rights organization that was founded in 1993 in Geneva to monitor the United Nations by its own principles, and to promote human rights for all.

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Anne-Frédérique Widmann’s UNRWA Documentary for RTS

Anne-Frédérique Widmann is a Geneva-based investigative journalist with Temps Présent, the current affairs weekly magazine show of Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS). She has been working on a 52-minute documentary about UNRWA that will be aired on 17 December 2020, on Temps Présent, and in all French-speaking countries through the TV5Monde global television network. The show’s stated purpose is to examine UNRWA’s recent crisis, including the departure of commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl, and the future of the organization.

UN Watch learned of the above when Ms. Widmann earlier this year contacted our Executive Director, Mr. Hillel Neuer, to request an interview for the program, which was accepted and scheduled for 12 October 2020. Shortly thereafter, we discovered troubling information concerning Ms. Widmann that raised serious questions, as detailed below, about her capacity to impartially investigate and present the subject matter of her RTS report. UN Watch spoke with Ms. Widmann to request clarifications about the nature of her documentary, indicating that Mr. Neuer would speak about UN Watch’s reports that revealed systematic incitement to antisemitism and terrorism by UNRWA teachers and other staff, and inquiring whether Ms. Widmann’s documentary would ask UNRWA for a response, including as to whether the organization ever took disciplinary action against those employees identified in our reports as inciting to racism or terrorism. Shortly thereafter, in an abrupt email, Ms. Widmann summarily canceled the interview with Mr. Neuer. She provided no explanation, despite her having invested significant efforts—including through her numerous emails, phone calls and even a visit to UN Watch’s office together with the director Xavier Nicol—in order to secure the interview.

UN Watch is a Geneva-based NGO that monitors the United Nations for its compliance with the UN Charter, including the principles of universality and non-discrimination. Since 2015, UN Watch has produced six separate reports detailing neutrality violations by UNRWA staff, specifically 100 UNRWA staff and school Facebook pages containing antisemitism and terrorist incitement. Following the publication of UN Watch’s February 2017 report, the culture of hate among UNRWA teachers was reported widely in Switzerland by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, SonntagsZeitung and Basler Zeitung, as well as internationally by The Times of London, Bild and the Wall Street Journal.

Switzerland Recognizes UNRWA’s Problem With Incitement to Antisemitism

Switzerland is one of several UNRWA donor states that has recognized the problem of antisemitism in UNRWA schools. In 2017, Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter took the floor in the lower house of the Swiss legislature to acknowledge that “the Federal Council has become aware of the allegations contained in the report from the NGO UN Watch, stating that UNRWA employees allegedly propagated racist and anti-Semitic messages over social networks.” [1]

“The Federal Council condemns this in the strongest terms,” added Foreign Minister Burkhalter. “We condemn these forms of racism and anti-Semitism.”[2]

The minister told the parliament that the Swiss government “has opened discussions with UNRWA also about the cases mentioned, and an examination of these allegations is underway. Therefore, we expect our partners, such as this organization, to carry out investigations and to take disciplinary action if these allegations are proven.” [3]

More recently, the Swiss Federal Council once again highlighted its ongoing concerns in a report about UNRWA released on October 14, 2020.[4] The Swiss government report acknowledged that notwithstanding various training sessions undertaken by UNRWA, the agency’s schools were still using “unbalanced textbooks from host countries.”[5]

The report also cited to the recent findings of the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressing concern about statements by Palestinian public figures, politicians and media officials, as well as in school textbooks and curricula, pointing to “hate speech against Israelis” which the Committee found “fuels hatred” and “may incite violence” and “antisemitism.”[6]

The Swiss government report condemned UNRWA “school materials that run counter to the spirit of a two-state solution, glorify violence, racism and antisemitism,” saying these “are not in line with the Swiss Near East position.” The report emphasized that Switzerland does not finance the textbooks or curricula.[7]

Despite the Swiss government’s expression of concern, UNRWA employees continue to publish Facebook posts celebrating radical Islamic terrorism, and inciting antisemitism.

 

Serious Concerns About Anne-Frédérique Widmann’s Impartiality on UNRWA, Israel & Antisemitism

UN Watch is deeply concerned that RTS is producing a documentary that relates to UNRWA, Israel and antisemitism where the show’s lead journalist has a substantial and consistent record of making numerous public and prejudicial statements on each of these matters.

Ms. Widmann’s lack of objectivity in matters relating to UNRWA or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is evident from her Twitter and Facebook accounts, both of which are her official and public accounts that she advertises in the signatures of her RTS emails. On her social media, Ms. Widmann consistently downplays or dismisses concerns about antisemitism, manifests a sharp bias against Israel, and strong favor for UNRWA.

Despite the deep concerns expressed by the Swiss government and media, as well as by other international actors, concerning UNRWA schools and staff that promote antisemitism, Ms. Widmann on her social media has only supported and never criticized UNRWA. As reflected in the examples below, Ms. Widmann’s social media posts reflect her personal partisan positions, indicating that she lacks objectivity when it comes to UNRWA and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UN Watch is not calling for the program to be canceled, even if it is difficult to imagine how it could be objective and impartial in light of Ms. Widmann’s personal views as reflected on her social media posts. However, at a minimum, Ms. Widmann and RTS should disclose to viewers the fact that she is investigating and reporting on issues upon which, as documented below, she has already taken adverse stands to relevant parties, and pronounced herself on the merits of the very questions purportedly being investigated, all of which give rise to actual bias or the appearance thereof. The integrity, independence and impartiality of Radio Télévision Suisse require no less.

[1] Swiss FM condemns UNRWA teacher’s incitement in ‘strongest terms’, UN Watch (March 7, 2017), https://unwatch.org/swiss-fm-condemns-unrwa-teachers-incitement-strongest-terms-defends-organization/.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] UNRWA: Review and Outlook after 70 years, Swiss Federal Council (Oct. 14, 2020), https://www.newsd.admin.ch/newsd/message/attachments/63248.pdf.

[5] Id.

[6] https://unwatch.org/breaking-un-urges-palestinians-to-stop-hate-speech-against-israelis-that-fuels-antisemitism/

[7] See Swiss Federal Council, supra, at note 4.

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