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Australians Should Know That Apartheid Is Still Happening Today

When Media Misrepresent the International Legal Term, They Ill-Serve the Public

Protestors hold placards as they take part in a rally in Melbourne, Australia on May 15, 2021. © 2021 William West/AFP via Getty Images

When Human Rights Watch released its report on April 27 finding that Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, it was covered by dozens of global media organizations, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC.

But in Australia, the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) recently tried to restrict its reporters’ use of the word apartheid in reporting on Israel and Palestine. According to a leaked internal memo, ABC management told staff that “the term has a very specific meaning in South African history and should not be applied to Israel by the ABC itself.” It is disappointing that Australia’s most trusted news source, while not banning the use of the word per se, failed to accurately explain to its reporters and audience what the word apartheid actually means in international law.    

The crime of apartheid consists of three main elements: an intent to maintain the domination by one group over another, a context of systematic oppression by one group over another, and an inhumane act or acts carrying out that oppression. Apartheid is a crime against humanity, defined in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While revulsion at the practice in South Africa shaped the decision to define apartheid as a crime against humanity, the international community has moved on from the term’s historical origins and developed a universal legal prohibition against it. That’s one of the reasons why the Rome Statute included the crime several years after apartheid in South Africa ended.

Human Rights Watch concluded in April that Israeli officials have committed the crime of apartheid under the standards set out in international law, and not on the basis of any comparison with South Africa. And it’s not just Israel – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both previously determined that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State constitutes the crime of apartheid under international law.

As a former Middle East correspondent for the ABC, I know how coverage of Israel and Palestine can work. It’s not that anybody tells you specifically not to cover something, it is just routinely put in the ‘too hard’ basket, with editors fearful of complaints over coverage of the controversial topic.

The ABC should explain to its audience the modern-day legal definition of apartheid. Failure to do so will lead to misunderstanding and self-censorship, and ill-serve the millions of Australians who rely on the broadcaster for news.

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