ABC, O'Reilly dredged up dubious claim that Newsweek article was responsible for deadly riots in Afghanistan

››› ››› ANNA DIMOND

During a report on a videotape of American soldiers desecrating the bodies of two alleged members of the Taliban, ABC News correspondent Dan Harris made a misleading reference to a May 9 Newsweek article, repeating the disputed claim that the article was responsible for deadly riots that erupted in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the week after the article's publication. The since-retracted Newsweek article referred to the alleged desecration of the Quran by U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, along with other alleged abuses of prisoners there. In fact, both top American military commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have stated that they do not think the article sparked the riots.

In his report on the October 20 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, Harris stated: "Last May, 15 Afghans died in riots sparked by a report in Newsweek, which was later retracted, that guards in Guantánamo Bay flushed a Quran down a toilet."

But as Media Matters has previously reported, the claim -- widely repeated at the time -- that the Newsweek piece incited the riots was rebutted by then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers and Karzai. Myers stated on May 12 during a press briefing that the violence was "not at all tied to the article in the magazine," which reported that internal FBI emails alleged that interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, "flushed a Quran down a toilet." Citing Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, Myers explained the violence "was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Quran" but was "more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan." Myers noted Eikenberry's belief that the violence "was not at all tied to the article in the magazine." Myers and Eikenberry's assessment was confirmed by Karzai during a May 22 press conference with President Bush, in which Karzai was asked about the article:

QUESTION: Just to follow up on the treatment of the prisoners. Mr. President, you know, anti-American feeling is running high in the Muslim world. We've seen it in Afghanistan after the alleged disintegration of the Quran in Guantanamo. After meeting with the president, how do you assure the Muslim world and Afghan people that have seen death as a result of the article, that this incident in Bagram and other treatment of prisoners is isolated incident, and it's not systemic?

[...]

KARZAI: Ma'am, yes, we discussed those questions on the -- on the demonstrations, or the so-called demonstrations in part of the -- parts of Afghanistan. You saw that government buildings were burned and private property was damaged, broken. Those demonstrations were, in reality, not related to the Newsweek story. They were more against the elections in Afghanistan; they were more against the progress in Afghanistan; they were more against the strategic partnership with the United States.

We know who did it. We know the guys. We know the people behind those demonstrations. And if -- unfortunately, you don't hear -- follow the Afghan press, but if you listen to the Voice of America, the Radio Liberty, and the BBC, the Afghan population condemned that -- those acts of arson in Afghanistan.

Of course, we are as Muslims very much unhappy with Newsweek bringing a matter so serious in the gossip column. It's really something that one shouldn't do, that responsible journalism shouldn't do at all. But Newsweek's story is not America's story. That's what -- that's what we understand in Afghanistan. America has over a thousand mosques. I have gone and prayed in mosques here in America; I've prayed in Virginia; I've gone and prayed in Maryland; I've been to a mosque in Washington. And thousands of Afghans have been to mosques here in town, and as a matter of fact, tens of thousands of Muslims are going on a daily basis to mosques in America and praying.

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly made a similar reference to the Newsweek controversy on the September 29 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor. During a discussion about U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein's recent ruling to allow the public release of more evidence in the Abu Ghraib case, including photos of prisoners being abused, O'Reilly said: "Apparently, Hellerstein missed the Newsweek Quran debacle, where 15 people were killed immediately after a bogus report by that publication, inciting impulsive violence is done on a case-by-case basis."

From the October 20 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

HARRIS: While there was little reaction to the videotape across Afghanistan today, one Muslim leader warned of, quote, "very dangerous consequences." Last May, 15 Afghans died in riots sparked by a report in Newsweek, which was later retracted, that guards in Guantanamo Bay flushed a Quran down the toilet. A senior military official said today there is no doubt the tape is authentic, and that "there was outrage at the Pentagon." The official said the videotape could overshadow all the good will created by the military's humanitarian work after the earthquake in Pakistan. The State Department says embassies across the world have been instructed to counter any potential anti-American backlash.

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