An Al Jazeera investigative reporter who worked on the network’s high-profile probe into Yasser Arafat’s death was fired last Monday after raising concerns about the objectivity of the network’s Arafat coverage.
Since 2012, Al Jazeera has aggressively promoted the controversial theory that Arafat was assassinated with polonium in 2004 and did not die of natural causes.
Investigative journalist Ken Silverstein, who joined Al Jazeera two months ago and co-wrote the network’s November scoop about a team of Swiss scientists that found unusual traces of polonium-210 in Arafat’s bone samples, was fired after he refused to travel to Paris to cover the pending release of a French laboratory study on Arafat’s bone samples, multiple sources familiar with the situation told the Washington Free Beacon.
The French findings, released the following day, ended up contradicting the assassination theory.
Silverstein declined to provide a comment to the Free Beacon. A spokesperson for Al Jazeera said she could not discuss personnel issues.
Al Jazeera investigative unit chief Clayton Swisher, who has spearheaded the network’s promotion of the Arafat assassination theory, did not respond to requests for comment.
Silverstein’s story (co-bylined with David Poort) reported on a Swiss lab study that found “moderate support” for the claim that Arafat may have died from a lethal dose of polonium and dominated the international press for several days in November.
The article was released in conjunction with Swisher’s Al Jazeera documentary that heavily pushed the assassination narrative.
Silverstein, a veteran Washington reporter who frequently writes about the intersection of money and politics, left his long-term perch at Harper’s in October.
The Swiss study published in November bolstered a theory, promoted by some Arafat supporters, that the late Palestinian leader was assassinated by either the Israeli government or by turncoat members of his own inner circle.
The study also backed up a 2012 report by the same Swiss lab, obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera, that claimed there were unusual traces of radioactive substances on the late Palestinian leader’s clothing and personal belongings.
But two studies conducted by French and Russian labs and released after the Swiss report in November, did not find evidence to support the assassination theory.
Al Jazeera launched a broadside against the Russian study after it was released.
The outlet quoted an anonymous source who called the Russian report “inferior” to the Swiss study and claimed the Russian Foreign Ministry instructed the research team to spin the results.
Swisher has been closely involved with the Swiss forensic investigation and with Suha Arafat.
Swisher helped Arafat’s widow commission the Swiss study at the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne (CURML), according to the lab. He said last month that he believed the CURML conducted the investigations pro bono.
However, a spokesman for CURML told the Free Beacon that Suha Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority paid for the studies.
The lab said that Swisher was informed of this financial arrangement in early 2013.
“Mr. Swisher knew early 2013 that this would be our policy,” said CURML spokesman Darcy Christen in an email to the Free Beacon and Swisher. “As our experts were mandated by both Mrs. Arafat and the PNA, it was [decided] that all costs from the beginning be equally distributed among them.”
This is not the first time Al Jazeera reporters have allegedly raised concerns about bias. Twenty-two members of the network’s Egypt staff reportedly resigned in July because they said its coverage of the Cairo demonstrations that led to Mohammad Morsi’s ouster had a pro-Muslim Brotherhood slant.
The Israel Project’s Omri Ceren, whose organization has criticized the accuracy of the Swiss report, said the circumstances surrounding Silverstein’s dismissal are problematic for the network.
“These are exactly the kinds of stories that have the potential to do real additional damage to Al Jazeera and other outlets positioning themselves in the new media landscape,” said Ceren.
“It has all the makings of a perfect storm: they look like they have an agenda that puts them on the side of some really bad actors, and that they're so committed to their agenda they're willing to sacrifice not just good reporting but even famous reporters.”
BuzzFeed reported last week that the network’s Arafat coverage has generated internal criticism and sparked concerns of bias amongst news staff.
In one internal email obtained by BuzzFeed, an Al Jazeera journalist worried that the network’s heavy reliance on analyst David Barclay to interpret the Swiss lab report “is going to look biased.”
“We should be bringing in another independent investigator,” wrote the reporter.
Another email reportedly discussed compensation to be paid to Suha Arafat for her cooperation with the story. A spokesperson for Al Jazeera denied she was paid.