By Somdeep Sen
In the battle over how the war is reported from Gaza, journalists have become the first victims.
Not so long ago, the world witnessed very contrasting images.
On the one hand, we saw on our screens Palestine TV journalist Salman al-Bashir, visibly overcome with grief after the news of the death of his colleague Mohammad Abu Hatab. The latter had been on the air for 30 minutes and when he returned home, he and eleven members of his family were killed in an Israeli airstrike.
Mr. Al-Bashir burst into tears: “We can’t take it anymore. We are exhausted, we are here victims and martyrs waiting to die, we are one after the other and no one cares about us or the catastrophe and large-scale crime in Gaza.” He then removed his protective gear, adding: “No protection, no international protection at all, no immunity to anything, this protective gear doesn’t protect us, nor do these helmets.”
We also saw CNN footage, carefully choreographed and edited, following the Israeli army’s ground operation in Gaza. We were told that CNN was “on board” with them. To be able to enter Gaza with Israeli air force support, media must “submit all documents and footage to the Israeli military for review before publication.” And CNN had accepted these conditions…
If it wasn’t already obvious, media and journalism have become a central battleground in this war between Israel and Gaza. And in the battle over how the war is reported from Gaza, journalists have been the first victims.
On December 3, Shima El-Gazzar, a Palestinian journalist with the Almajedat network, was killed along with members of her family during an Israeli airstrike on the town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
On November 23, an airstrike on his home in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza claimed the lives of journalist Muhammad Moin Ayyash and around 20 members of his family.
On November 19, Bilal Jadallah, director of Press House-Palestine, a nonprofit organization that supports the development of independent Palestinian media, was killed by an Israeli airstrike on his car.
On November 7, Palestinian journalist Mohammad Abu Hasira was killed along with 42 members of his family during an Israeli air raid on his apartment building near Gaza City.
Two days earlier, media reported that Mohamed al-Jaja, another aide to Press House-Palestinewas killed with his wife and two children during an airstrike in northern Gaza.
On October 30, Nazmi al-Nadim, Palestine TV’s deputy director of finance and administration, was also killed in an airstrike alongside his family members.
On October 26, the whole world witnessed the funeral by Wael Dahdouh, head of the Arab office ofAl Jazeera, of “his wife, his son, his daughter and his grandson”, killed during an airstrike on the Nuseirat camp. In a statement, the Israeli army dared to claim that it was targeting “terrorist infrastructure in the region”.
On October 13, Issam Abdallah, a prominent journalist from Reuterswho was wearing protective gear emblazoned with the word “press,” was killed by an Israeli rocket fired from the Israeli-Lebanese border.
In total, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 63 journalists and media workers – the vast majority of them Palestinians – were killed in the Gaza Strip and its surrounding areas during the two months between October 7 and on December 6.
Jonathan Dagher, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East office, said: “What is happening in the Gaza Strip is a tragedy for journalism… The situation is urgent. We demand the protection of journalists in the Gaza Strip, and that foreign journalists be allowed to enter the territory, so that they can work freely.”
However, the battle is not just about who can account for this war. It is also a battle over how war is reported. The words, phrases and images used on air to describe events on the ground are important.
In conversation, John Collins, professor of global studies at St. Lawrence University and director of the independent media outlet Weave News, reminded me that “words construct reality for us. In war, the words journalists use are supposed to help us clarify what is happening and why. But too often, these words serve to distract us, mislead us, or shield the powerful from accountability.”
This deception occurs at a very basic level in the way Palestinian deaths are portrayed in news reports. While Palestinians are said to be “dead,” Israelis are “killed.”
The latter formulation recognizes an active act of murder on the part of someone, while the former is passive. As if to say that no one is to blame for the Palestinian deaths or to suggest – as Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht did after the attack on the Jabalia refugee camp – that the deaths Palestinians are nothing but an inevitable “tragedy of war”.
Of course, downplaying the Palestinian death toll was also made when President Biden questioned the accuracy of the numbers, given that the health ministry in Gaza is run by Hamas. He said: “I am sure that innocent people were killed, and that is the price of waging a war… But I have no confidence in the figures provided by the Palestinians.”
This allegation effectively sowed doubt about the true severity of Palestinian suffering, with several media outlets assessing and reporting on how the health ministry calculated casualties – while international aid agencies insisted the figures of the ministry were indeed reliable.
How the media presents the “why,” “how,” and “what’s next” of this ongoing war also shapes public opinion. Nicholas Rabb, a specialist in disinformation and propaganda, found that the “misleading rhetoric and incessant, biased coverage” of American and Israeli media have served to “uncritically demonize the Palestinians.”
These include right-wing media outlets in the United States engaging in fear-mongering over an upcoming “World Jihad Day” called by Hamas.
A Homeland Security official said there was no credible evidence of an imminent threat on U.S. soil. Nevertheless, after listening to conservative radio and worrying about the imminence of “jihad day x”, a 71-year-old man attacked his tenant, an American woman of Palestinian origin, before stabbing to death her son six years.
The group Honest Reportingwhich monitors and exposes anti-Israeli bias in the media, has also raised ethical questions regarding Gaza-based photojournalists who work for agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, CNN And The New York Timesand how they were able to take images of the border areas breached on October 7.
The question is asked: “What were they doing there, so early, on this Saturday morning which would normally have been calm? Was this coordinated with Hamas? Did the respectable news agencies, which published their photos, approve of their presence in enemy territory, alongside the infiltrated terrorists? »
While all of the accused agencies vehemently denied allegations that they had knowledge of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked up the story and said: “These journalists were complicit in crimes against humanity; their actions were contrary to professional ethics.”
Outraged by attacks on journalists, independent journalism and the media’s portrayal of the war, 750 journalists signed an open letter calling for the protection of journalists.
The letter also encourages journalists to “tell the whole truth without fear or favor” and to use “precise terms well defined by international human rights organizations”, such as “apartheid”, “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”, in their reports.
The letter concludes by saying: “Recognize that distorting our words to hide evidence of war crimes or Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is journalistic malpractice and an abdication of moral clarity. The urgency of this moment cannot be overstated. It is imperative that we change course.”
Given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, few can deny the urgency of this moment. However, only time will tell whether this will result in recognition of the importance of protecting journalists and journalism in times of extreme crisis.
December 8, 2023 – Al-Jazeera – Translation: Chronicle of Palestine