Fill in your email address to obtain the download verification code.
Enter the verification code
Please fill the fields below, & share with us the article's link and/or upload it:
upload file as pdf, doc, docx
SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

The Unprecedented Killing of Journalists Is Affecting Coverage of Gaza

Thursday , 11 January 2024
Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images
Jad Shahrour does not often get the chance for time off. So when his work phone started buzzing on Oct. 13, 2023, he ignored it. As the communications officer for the Samir Kassir Eyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom (SKeyes), an independent monitor of press rights in the Middle East, Shahrour documents violations of press freedom. While those are common in the region, less so was the chance to be out, uninterrupted, with his newborn son.

But this time, the buzzing persisted longer than usual. When he finally stepped aside to check his phone, he saw that he was being tagged in messages in a number of press chats, all asking the same question:

“Do you know anything about the journalists who were wounded in Alma al-Shaab?” — a reference to a village in southern Lebanon bordering northern Israel.

He did not. In fact, he only knew there were journalists in Alma al-Shaab because his best friend, Issam Abdallah, told him the night before that he would be there, reporting for Reuters, where Abdallah worked as a staff videographer. Shahrour called him. The line rang initially, a hopeful sign, but there was no response. He called again. This time, the line cut out right away. He sent Abdallah a message asking for an update.

“Tell me what’s going on,” he said. “They’re saying some journalists were hit or something.”

Less than 48 hours after Abdallah’s death, Shahrour agreed to speak on air. He felt that, as a seasoned press advocate, there was more to be said about Abdallah’s killing. The attack was more than another example of Israel’s blanket aggression; it revealed a new, deadly attention being paid to the region’s reporters. But separating grief and critical analysis was challenging. During his first appearance on New TV, the host’s first question broke any stoicism still enduring in Shahrour’s expression.

“How are we doing?” she asked him. Already, he was fighting tears. “It has been the hardest 48 hours of my life,” he said, his voice breaking.

After that, Shahrour continued to give on-air interviews nearly every day for two weeks. He said not only that the attack on Abdallah was the result of what the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate has described as Israel’s calculated targeting of journalists, an egregious war crime in and of itself, but also that it appears as if the mere presence of an Al Jazeera satellite news gathering (SNG) vehicle sufficed to inspire the missile strike. Based on Shahrour’s own assessment, Israel appeared to be strategically targeting and attempting to silence its most popular media critic, as if to literally fight the war of narratives using lethal force. Indeed, three weeks after Abdallah was killed in the tank strike on Alma al-Shaab, a similar bombardment occurred in Yaroun, where an Israeli airstrike narrowly missed a number of news crews stationed in the southern Lebanese town. Among them, again, was an Al Jazeera van. The response to these attacks, Shahrour said, has also revealed a polarization in the war’s reporting between Western media, which has largely underreported it, and Arab media, which has not missed reporting on any killing. The extremity of this dichotomy is new.

The dividing lines, Shahrour told me, have never been this obvious. Before Reuters reported that an Israeli strike killed Abdallah, its initial statement appeared to pussyfoot around the issue, saying only that Abdallah was “killed in missile fire from [the] direction of Israel.” For Shahrour, the use of the passive voice and ambiguous language was the kind of journalistic failure that has become too common in coverage of the region by Western media.

Similarly, in a Nov. 3 article on the death of the Palestinian journalist Mohammed Abu Hatab and his family, The New York Times referenced the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders’ investigation into the killing of Abdallah but wrote only that the report found that he “had been ‘targeted’ by a strike that the group said came from the Israeli border.” While accurate, it notably omits the report’s claims that the journalists were “identified in the area by the [Israeli] forces present before the bombing,” that there was an Israeli Apache helicopter flying over the scene moments before the attack and that there were notable similarities between the Oct. 13 strike and an Oct. 9 attack on journalists in the southern Lebanese village of Dhayra — where, again, an Israeli helicopter appeared to scan the area moments before a missile hit. Of this opaque border-blaming, Shahrour joked facetiously: “This leads to three conclusions. Either Israel killed him, or Hamas somehow shot a missile into south Lebanon, or maybe my aunt-in-law actually did it. I mean it’s unbelievable.”

The passivity has sullied the respect that Shahrour once personally held for certain Western institutions.

“There are Western reporters for whom we were excited when they received a platform, who now we can’t trust, who seem to know nothing about media ethics and who have been held up as the standard for the latter,” he said.

In the West Bank, these effects are even more pronounced. Rania Hamdalla, for example, has paused her show entirely since the war began. Pivoting to work with the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, she leads their committee focused on press rights from Jerusalem.

Her pivot toward advocacy reflects a growing need in the media landscape in Gaza, which is, strangely, both violently threatened and somehow still growing. Since the start of the war, Israel has either completely or partially destroyed 66 Palestinian media and journalistic institutions, stranding reporters in the field with little editorial support or direction. But despite the devastation, the field has gained in numbers.

Though the conflict means that exact statistics are impossible to compile, Hamdalla said that most of the Syndicate’s 1,200 members have continued to work in Gaza even throughout its escalation. Israel’s continued barring of foreign journalists from accessing the strip has also only increased pressure on Palestinian reporters, many of whom now live and work out of Gaza’s shelters. And, given the death toll, the larger sector is probably essential: At least 95 Gazan media workers have been killed since Oct. 7 — a horrendous level of fatalities silencing almost 1 in 10 journalists registered with the syndicate over the course of three months. Such a figure does not account for the personal loss endured by the surviving journalists, some of whom have lost their entire families in Israeli strikes. When we spoke in early December, of the roughly 1,200 media workers, Hamdalla told me, “910 of them have had their homes wiped out. Do you understand what I mean by wiped out? They have no home left.” That number is now closer to 1,100.

In light of the casualties, Hamdalla and the syndicate have devoted significant energy to international outreach: They have submitted photographs, videos and written documentation to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) seeking to prove that the Israeli army has been targeting reporters. They filed similar claims to “nearly every other syndicate internationally.” They have also submitted an amicus brief in U.S. federal court that highlights the unprecedented attacks on Palestinian journalists. The brief is in support of the lawsuit, Defense for Children International-Palestine v. Biden, that is trying to stop U.S. diplomatic and military support to Israel on the grounds that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. On Nov. 21, the IFJ’s director visited Ramallah to collect testimonies from Palestinian journalists who had been wounded in the West Bank. The process is tedious, rife with bureaucratic hurdles and, among the international syndicates, challenging language barriers. But the formalities of what Hamdalla describes as “diplomatic advocacy” obscure the urgency of material aid needed on the ground.

“How can you ask a reporter to step back into the field if they cannot find bread to feed their child?” she said. The syndicate’s most important provision for reporters? Tents for shelter. “It’s true that the syndicate’s job shouldn’t be providing this kind of material or food support for reporters in the field,” she added. “But it’s necessary for the moment, given you might not find a single can of tuna in all of Gaza.”

Hamdalla seems, also, to be growing disillusioned with the ability of local reporting to inspire change among Western and other international political actors. We were exchanging audio messages on the morning of Dec. 15, shortly after Samer Abu Daqqa, the Al Jazeera cameraman, had been shot. By then, he had been bleeding out for five hours and 15 minutes. Hamdalla was in a sort of simmering panic; Al Jazeera had been trying to contact the Red Cross, asking them to mediate a safe passage with Israel for medical assistance to reach Abu Daqqa. The Red Cross, she said, was refusing to get involved. “I guess we need journalists from Europe and America to challenge them and ask them why they’re behaving in this way,” she said, fighting back tears.

The number of media deaths had doubled since the first time we spoke in early December. The urgency in her demands was notably more desperate, as she insisted that international organizations — like the Red Cross — had given up on Gaza, and that, by doing so, they had become complicit in the bombardment. Over a series of WhatsApp audio messages, she pleaded, “Our reporters in Gaza have been trying to talk about this, but nobody has listened.” A single Red Crescent ambulance was trying to make its way to Abu Daqqa but, according to Wael al-Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, it came under Israeli fire and retreated. Dahdouh himself has also endured immense loss, including the killing of his wife, their grandchild, their 7-year-old daughter and their 15-year-old son. On Jan. 7, Wael’s eldest child, Hamza — a fellow journalist at Al Jazeera — was also killed in an Israeli missile strike.

In the midst of the action, I asked Hamdalla if she was free to call. After a long pause, she replied, instead, with a photo of Abu Daqqa and another audio message.

“Samer died. Samer’s dead,” she was crying. “For six hours he was bleeding on air, every camera in the world recording him, and there’s not a paramedic who dared come help him.”

Abu Daqqa’s death received widespread coverage. Among the outlets who reported on the killing was Reuters, whose article on the death closed with a quote from John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman. “We still have no indications that the Israelis are deliberately going after journalists covering this war,” he said. In a video meeting broadcast on Al Jazeera, Abu Daqqa’s oldest son told Dahdouh, “And just as our father’s loss pains us, the loss of [Wael’s] family pains us.”

Hamdalla followed the photo of Abu Daqqa with another audio message; she was inconsolable. “What did he do to die like this? What did we do, us? Tell me why?”

Abu Daqqa was, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the 65th journalist killed in the conflict. How many deaths would it take, I wondered, listening over and over to Hamdalla’s message, before the killing of a colleague was no longer so painful?

About a month before Abu Daqqa’s murder, Jad Shahrour’s wife was going through his phone, looking for photos of their newborn son, Zayd. She couldn’t find any. Instead, there were rows and rows of killed Palestinians. They were saved on his phone, he said, in case he needed to share anything to SKEyes’ social media. “It was like walking into a cemetery,” he told me.

Later, in that same conversation, I asked him if he had found time to rest in the two months since Abdallah’s burial.

“Look, I don’t know if I can move on,” he said. “Everyone else, even his friends, can get distracted in their work, but this is what I do. I’m in the chaos.”

Then, the first names started trickling in: Carmen Joukhadar, an Al Jazeera correspondent, had been injured. Christina Assi, a photo editor from Agence France-Presse (AFP), was also wounded, seemingly more severely. Abdallah still wasn’t answering. “I started worrying,” Shahrour said. “But I knew nothing was going to happen to Issam. The thought didn’t even cross my mind.” Finally, there was a photo.

“He was, I’m sorry to use this word, all chopped up,” Shahrour told me, sounding troubled over the phone.

Still, there was hope: The body in the photograph was severed and badly scorched. More remains than person, it did not look like Abdallah. Quickly, though, the confirmation came from Reuters.

Abdallah had been livestreaming when the attack came. The first tank missile’s impact, visible on camera, killed him instantly. Ali Hashem, a correspondent with Al Jazeera, told me he was with Abdallah just before the attack. By chance, he and Ramez El Kadi — a correspondent with New TV, an independent news station in Lebanon — moved to a separate location an hour before the first shell hit. On their way, Abdallah sent El Kadi a message, warning them about the danger of where they were headed.

“Imagine that,” Hashem said. “The guy who was so cautious was killed in the end.”

Shahrour later told me that, at Abdallah’s burial, he cycled, uncontrollably, between laughter and sobs. “What is happening?” he thought to himself. “You’ve become a part of the news.” He had not yet slept; he had been up all night working to get Abdallah’s death certificate notarized. In a Nov. 13 Instagram post memorializing Abdallah, Assi wrote that, only a day before the attack, Abdallah told Dylan Collins, a colleague at AFP, that he didn’t want to cover conflicts anymore. Now, he was permanently tied to the war.

In the 12 weeks since Abdallah’s killing, at least 109 journalists have also been killed in the conflict. The unprecedented rate of death has made experiences like Shahrour’s ubiquitous in the region, with journalists asked to dissociate their grief from their reporting. This has extended to southern Lebanon — where Abdallah was killed — and the West Bank, where the threat of violence is a more daily engagement.

“Any Palestinian reporter who speaks about Israel is, by default, already a martyr,” Rania Hamdalla, a talk-show host and reporter for Palestine TV, told me.

What’s more, a hesitancy among Western publications to assign blame for these attacks to Israel (it took Reuters, for example, 55 days to conclude that Israel killed Abdallah) has forced journalists to more readily advocate for their slain colleagues. Bereavement, then, has not been the only shift. The sheer scale of media targeting has jarred journalism in the region, blurring the lines of advocacy, reporting and grief.

It has also revealed internal challenges in some of the reporting emerging out of the Arab world. Diana Moukalled, the co-founder of Daraj Media and a friend of both Abdallah and Shahrour, has felt that a nuanced approach, one that acknowledges the atrocities of the Israeli occupation but asks questions of Palestinian armed groups — that interrogates, for example, whether those groups have asked too much of the Gazan community — has been missing.

When we spoke, Moukalled pointed to a video she had seen two days prior of a young boy and his family running through the Gaza Strip, pleading to be evacuated from it. “I can’t forget it,” she recalled. “They were yelling, ‘Let us out, let us out, we don’t want to be in Gaza.’” This kind of footage, she said, receives less coverage because it is met with accusations of defeatism and claims that it deters the “resistance.” These aspersions have resulted in a local coverage that can be myopic, one that strains the resolve of Gaza’s citizens in the present but hesitates to confront what the resoluteness will be for, that asks Gazans to sacrifice but “doesn’t ask where we’re going,” Moukalled said.

“The priority should be on ending the killing. We’re pushing people to be steadfast, but they don’t have the resources for that,” she said, referring to what she perceives as the local media’s propensity to focus on the resilience of Palestinians rather than to question the underlying narrative of resilience and who, if anyone, has benefited from it. It’s a difficult proposition: Conceding anything to an Israeli state that has been unrelenting in its bombardment and collective punishment could be seen as ambivalence toward the ongoing atrocity. But does that leave room for gradation in the coverage? “I don’t think it can be done,” Moukalled said.

When it comes to covering the war in Gaza, the journalists doing this job are too often becoming the story, and by enduring the violence themselves they become entangled in the very narrative they are trying to cover. Shahrour has struggled with this, particularly when describing Abdallah’s death. Depending on the context, he has switched between using the words “killed” and “martyred,” a division he attributes to a “necessary professional ethic” when reporting on the death, even though avoiding the latter identifier, he said, “could almost rub to the side of betrayal.”

Shahrour told me that, as a matter of fact, “Issam was killed, not martyred.” And despite publicly identifying Abdallah as a martyr — since he was killed by Israel while filming its shelling of southern Lebanon — in settings where he is speaking as a press advocate, he has avoided the question of martyrdom entirely. This distinction hasn’t been well received. Even when Shahrour has identified Israel as the assailant, describing Abdallah as anything other than a martyr has brought about fervent backlash on social media. “They say I’ve betrayed them, they say things like ‘Killed? Killed, ya ibn al kalb (son of a bitch)? It’s martyred,’” he said. “But I’m like, wait a minute, I’m not an activist, I’m a journalist.”

The descriptor, Shahrour maintains, regardless of his personal feelings about Abdallah’s death, is actually a political one. Therefore, professionally speaking, Shahrour insists that it should be avoided. Still, the accusations have hurt. “His stuff is literally still at my house; he’s like my brother. How could I not want to do him right when reporting his story?” he said. But that volatile question of right has made for a challenging pitfall to navigate. “It’s a terrible trap,” he said. “You lean on one side and you further the betrayal, you stay silent and you’re accused of being afraid to speak out.”

Share News