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Why Palestinian journalists aren't valued by their western colleagues

Western journalists are turning a blind eye to Israel's deliberate targeting and killing of their Palestinian colleagues, an unprecedented attack on press freedom in recorded history
A relative mourns Palestine TV journalist Mohamed Abu Hatab and 11 family members the day after they were killed in Israel's bombardment of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on 3 November 2023 (AFP)

It's happening again. 

Between managing political calculations and self-perceptions as the vanguard of the liberal order, integrity among western mainstream journalists is quickly plummeting to new depths.

How does that overused journalistic adage go? If two people contradict each other about it raining outside, just look out the window.

Well, it's raining Israeli bombs on Palestinian homes, hospitals, schools, residential towers, water and sewerage infrastructure, refugee camps, and refugee camps within refugee camps across Gaza - and all in full view of the world. 

The western press, however, seems quite content to drop the blinds.

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And as this genocidal campaign hits fever pitch, with the Palestinian death toll crossing 11,000, including nearly 5,000 children, and 1.2 million others forcibly displaced by some of the most intense air strikes in the past 100 years, the need for professional, moral and ethical clarity in covering this tragedy is becoming more urgent with each passing day.

But coverage has by and large remained appalling. Large swathes of the mainstream press have fallen into a cesspool of what Palestinian journalist Mohammed el-Kurd describes as a volley of "war crime denialism, state stenography, fact omission, fabrication, passive voice and the deliberate undermining of Palestinian interviewees".

But over and above the twisted mainstream coverage, another war is playing out.

A narrative war involving reams of disinformation, lies and obfuscation, emanating from the Israeli state. And intrinsic to this disinformation campaign has been a noted attempt to target and eliminate free speech and dissent in Israel and crucially, journalism, particularly from Gaza.

Indeed, the deliberate targeting of Palestinian journalists represents another layer of war crimes that the western mainstream press doesn't appear to be taking seriously.

Why is it that western journalists who purportedly defend press freedom globally are silent when it comes to front-line reporters in Gaza?

Showing contempt

Over the past 30 days, 34 Palestinian journalists in Gaza were killed in Israeli air strikes in what many observers have described as an unprecedented attack on the press in recorded history.

While several were massacred along with their families, at least one-third of journalists killed were visibly working as members of the press, often wearing flak jackets labelled "press" when they were killed.

It has been particularly chilling to observe the utter contempt that western journalists have shown their colleagues in Gaza

In Lebanon, the deliberate targeting of journalists on 13 October resulted in one journalist being killed and six others injured.

Some Gaza journalists, like Al Jazeera’s Wael Dahdouh, lost their families while they were out in the field. With no opportunity to grieve as scores of other civilians in Gaza continued to be killed, Dahdouh immediately resumed his reporting.

Mohammad Abu Hasira of Wafa News Agency was killed along with 42 of his family members while they slept in their beds.

Others have received pointed phone calls telling them their homes were about to be incinerated.

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Four Israeli journalists were also killed when Hamas fighters broke out from Gaza on 7 October, with at least two of those journalists reportedly killed at the rave. 

But between the handful of articles and a few petitions, you would be hard-pressed to know that Israel's systematic war on journalists has in any way pricked the conscience of western mainstream journalists. 

As the bodies of journalists began to pile up, the Foreign Press Association, for instance, could only manage a meek statement that sounded as if journalists were in the midst of a natural disaster.

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"The Foreign Press Association call on all parties, Israel and Hamas, to ensure the safety and freedom of reporting of our Palestinian members on the ground in Gaza, who are reporting the news despite extremely dangerous circumstances," it read.

Indeed, the grotesque violence against Palestinian journalists, condemned as "terrorists" and marked for execution by the Israeli government, hasn't registered so much as a light protest from journalists in the West.

As a reporter from the Global South, it grates.

For those of us who work with Palestinian journalists and have a window into the many hurdles they must overcome just to do their jobs - let alone having to continuously prove they aren't antisemitic - it has been particularly chilling to observe the utter contempt that western journalists have shown their colleagues in Gaza.

Yet while it remains shocking, given all that I know about western mainstream media, it isn't terribly surprising.

The lack of care, concern, or frankly, outrage over the murder of Palestinian journalists is inextricably linked to their very dehumanisation by the same western media, today, yesterday and for decades prior.

On their own

As key interlocutors of the liberal order, journalists are known to jealously guard their freedom of speech. The ability to report, ask questions, speak up against the powerful and then return home safely are examples of "our" rights that they stridently champion.

Not so, however, when it comes to Black or Brown people operating in "faraway places" where bad things happen, naturally.

It is the same media that beat the drums of war ahead of the invasions of Afghanistan and the Iraq War; amplified Islamophobia during the Global War on Terror; mischaracterised the devastating Israeli wars on Gaza between 2008 and 2014; undermined the Great March of Return Protests in 2018-2019; distorted the truth about the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh in 2021; and have ceremoniously underwritten the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

It's the same media that then supposedly recanted and then offered an op-ed here and a story there to illustrate a diverse opinion, only to revert to the same cycle of absurdity.

If you are a Palestinian journalist working for an Arab media outlet in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, the message is clear: you are most certainly on your own.

Why else would the American mainstream media, knowing that Palestinians in Gaza, living under siege for the past 17 years, without electricity for up to 14 hours a day or access to clean water (more than 90 percent is polluted); with a chronic shortage of medical supplies, without freedom of movement, without functioning infrastructure, and having suffered four previous devastating bombing campaigns since 2008; why else would the American mainstream media then publish stories like "The Palestinian Republic of Fear and Misinformation", when the layers of disinformation and obfuscation is precisely Israeli policy?

How else can we explain why The Atlantic would publish an article titled "Understanding Hamas's Genocidal Ideology" as Israel is built on Zionism, a settler-colonial ideology that exercised genocidal intent from its inception?

Even as a sprinkling of high-ranking officials in the State Department and at the UN resign, and multiple dissent cables are submitted by concerned diplomats urging the government to change course, there is little respite.

If you are a Palestinian journalist working for an Arab media outlet in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, the message is clear: you are most certainly on your own

Consider this 30 October newsletter from the New York Times in which the writers allude to unverified and unsubstantiated claims that hospitals, mosques and schools are overrun by Hamas fighters. The disdain is so naked that it unashamedly points to one article from eight years ago that relies heavily on Israeli sources and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank established by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), a well-known pro-Israel lobby group.

In other words, the best that the New York Times could do to justify its claim was from a story with a similar claim from 2014. On 8 November, this new claim became a vile cartoon in the Washington Post.

The cartoon, created by Michael Ramirez, a Pulitzer Prize winner, showed a Palestinian family strapped to what appeared to be a Hamas leader, asking the question: "How dare Israel attack civilians?"

After pressure, the Post deleted the cartoon, saying it "deleted an editorial cartoon criticised as racist". It added that it was meant to "caricature a specific Hamas spokesman" but had it removed after the backlash to the cartoon convinced the Post's editorial page editor that he had "missed something profound and divisive".

Whereas the Post could have used the opportunity to acknowledge how this cartoon was a manifestation of a naked dehumanisation and humilation of Palestinian life that had now slipped into the obscene, and required deep introspection, the newspaper just glazed over it. 

It offered no apology. It insinuated instead that it had heard the cries and taken action.

It certainly didn't link its cartoon to the largesse of dehumanising words, images and insinuations that blamed and manifested distrust over the Palestinian narrative in western circles. 

In fact, the article that announced that the cartoon had been deleted ensures to clarify that where the image may have been indecent, it wasn't necessarily inaccurate.

Deep down in the article, it refers to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza as "Hamas-run".

Because what can be more important than reminding the reader that the death toll was controlled by the same ugly man who tied children around his belly as human shields?

Slanted coverage

The inability or wilful refusal to do their due diligence as journalists to understand the context before parroting US and Israeli talking points is perplexing.

What of the reams of liberal texts, the UN General Assembly resolutions, and UN Human Rights Council reports that have described the horrendous conditions in Gaza over the years? Are mainstream journalists not reading? Battling to comprehend? Is it disbelief?

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Weeks ago, Jodie Ginsberg, the president of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), was asked in an interview with Al Jazeera why Palestinian journalists keep on getting killed by Israel. "I don't know why it keeps happening… but we need to see accountability," she responded.

Ginsberg's response is startling.

Israel targets Palestinian journalists as a means to punish, deter and suffocate journalism. It is able to do so because it enjoys impunity owing to unparalleled support from the US war machine, American business, American cultural producers like Hollywood and the American media.

If the CPJ, the bastion of journalist protection on the planet, is fork-tongued at a time in which it has itself documented the unprecedented murder of journalists in Gaza, then the CPJ is just another cog in the dehumanisation of Palestinian journalists, too.

Moreover, as the grotesque coverage from the New York Times, the New Yorker and others illustrate, the national media has not changed, despite its attempts to "diversify" its newsrooms.

As Arab-American and Muslim journalists will attest, they have been deliberately sidelined on this issue or made to walk on eggshells in newsrooms across the country.

And much of this has to do with racism and parochialism.

Just as Joe Biden doesn't need to see photos of beheaded babies to believe they exist, given the testimony of Israeli and American media or officials (the White House had to clarify that he didn't see any photos), the mainstream media feels entitled enough to suspend belief in Palestinian testimony - be it man, woman, child, fighter, doctor, teacher, preacher or journalist, be it in-house or on the ground - until they verify themselves.

How else shall we understand the slanted coverage, the lack of care for Palestinian journalists who have been targeted, and the dehumanisation of Palestinians across the board when CNN decides to embed with the Israeli army, accepting the military's conditions of having their material checked by the army before it goes to air?

In other words, foreign journalists will sit in the protected company of genociadaires and call it journalism?

If CNN or any other outlet that chose to embed with the Israeli army had an ounce of integrity, it would press Israel to protect the journalists within Gaza itself, not sell its independence in pursuit of presenting itself as the arbiter of truth and information coming out of the besieged strip. 

But, of course, it can't do that.

To do that would affirm Palestinian humanity. And who wants that?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

| Senior Reporter
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of 'Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel' (Pluto Press, Feb 2023)
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