Harmeet Sooden, an active opponent of the American occupation of Iraq, was taken captive in Baghdad in November 2005 and held until March 2006 by a group calling themselves the Swords of Justice Brigade. His complaint concerned an item that appeared in the Sunday News on October 5, 2008, after he had been deported from Israel during an attempt to visit Palestinian territories. The complaint was not upheld.

The Complaint
Mr Sooden complained that a Sunday News columnist, Martin Devlin, was inaccurate in references to the events in 2005-06. The columnist referred to the release of Mr Sooden and two fellow survivors as a “rescue”. Mr Sooden said the governments involved have never said how they were freed. He also said he was not a “Canadian-born.....part-time New Zealand resident”, he was a New Zealand citizen and was born in Zambia. Furthermore the column was wrong, he said, to describe him and his companions as “self-styled freedom fighters” and “peace prophets”. They were members of an organisation called Christian Peacemaker Teams which Mr Sooden described as a “legitimate human rights organisation”. And it was not true, he said, that he “refused to thank his rescuers”. His gratitude was on record. He contested the column's description of his work as, “thinking they could fly to Baghdad, walk the streets, stop the war and change the world...”. He did not agree that it was “twisted logic” to blame the occupying forces for his capture and said he never blamed individual soldiers, only the United States Government. He also objected to a statement that more recently he was “attempting to enter a part of Palestine he was neither wanted nor invited to be in.” He said he went there, “at the behest of Palestinian communities”.

He added that he considered Sunday News “a valuable resource in the struggle to promote human rights” and would gladly assist the newspaper to write a serious story on his deportation from Israel.

The Newspaper's Response:
Sunday News was slow to respond throughout this case. Mr Sooden made his initial complaint on October 15, 2008. It was resent on November 19 after the then editor told the Press Council he had not received it. On January 20, in response to another reminder from the Council, the editor said he would offer Mr Sooden an interview in an attempt to deal with the issues.
The interview was discussed during March. Mr Sooden preferred to have a list of questions submitted by email which he would answer the same way so that there would be “less chance of me making a blunder''. He had a meeting with a reporter from the Sunday News in July but nothing came of it. In August and September the Press Council sent reminders to Sunday News that Mr Sooden's complaint was still standing. A formal response from the newspaper was not received until November. In it, the Assistant Editor, Steve Hopkins, said that since Mr Sooden had forfeited an opportunity to resolve his complaint by way of an interview, Sunday News believed his complaint should be dropped. But in response to the specific points of complaint Mr Hopkins contended that each of them fell into the category of either fair comment by a columnist or information that had been widely reported.

The Decision
The Press Council finds that the opinions expressed in the Martin Devlin column were fair comment based on what was publicly known about Mr Sooden's activities before and after his captivity in Baghdad.

On contested issues of fact - the complainant's country of birth, his expressed gratitude to the governments that worked for his release, and whether he was invited to Palestine last year - the Council finds the errors, if they were errors, forgivable. It was widely reported that Mr Sooden was a Canadian at the time of his capture and that he was applying for New Zealand citizenship (since granted). If he expressed gratitude for his rescue the sentiment was overwhelmed in reports of a press conference in which he criticised the Iraq occupation and believed the risk he posed to his rescuers was no worse than any they faced by being in Iraq.

The information in his complaint is not sufficient to allow the Council to rule on whether or not he was invited to Palestine. The Council notes that Mr Sooden is guarded in offering any information to support his complaints. For example, he objects to the word “rescue'', saying, “A bona fide rescue is just one of many possibilities of what might have constituted a release scenario. There is currently no evidence available in the public domain that supports this or any other eventuality.''

Mr Sooden may have good reason for saying very little, then or since, about what he and his companions were doing when they were captured, what happened to them over the months they were held and how they were released. But if he makes it his mission to go into conflict zones and put himself in harm's way he must expect critical comment.
If he considers press coverage to be “a valuable resource in the struggle to promote human rights'', as he said of Sunday News, he will need to be more candid about his activities. He will not find newspapers content with interviews by email and cannot expect that his attitudes and conduct will be always described in the terms he appeared to be trying to prescribe with this complaint.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.


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