The Media Today

A deadly six months for a press at war

April 8, 2024
A Palestinian man inspects the damaged home of the Palestine TV journalist Muhammad Abu Hatab, who was killed along with his family members during an Israeli bombing of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by: Mohammed Talatene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

A week ago today, a series of Israeli strikes killed seven aid workers in Gaza. The victims worked for World Central Kitchen, a group founded by the celebrity chef José Andrés; one was Palestinian, while six were foreign nationals, hailing variously from the US and Canada, the UK, Australia, and Poland. Israeli forces struck the WCK convoy even though its cars were marked with the organization’s logo and it had coordinated its movements with officials. Within twenty-four hours, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, had put out a video statement calling the strikes a “tragic case of our forces unintentionally harming innocent people,” though he added that such things “happen in war.” On Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces briefed reporters on their investigation into the incident; on Friday, they said that the strikes were a “serious violation” of their operating procedures, and that two officers would be fired as a result. WCK has maintained that its staffers were targeted “systematically,” and called for an independent probe.

The strikes provoked an international reckoning, or at least a huge outcry, including in the press. The Biden administration was sharply critical of the strikes; then, on Thursday, Biden himself suggested in a call with Netanyahu that US policy on Gaza would be conditioned on Israel immediately taking “a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.” Hours later, Israel announced that it would open up more aid routes. In the press, the call was widely characterized as a possible turning point in the Biden administration’s approach, though it isn’t yet clear exactly how, or when, this might play out in practice.

Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer why it had taken the WCK strikes for Biden to consider changing course, John Kirby, a top spokesperson, said that while the incident was a “catalyst” for Biden’s call with Netanyahu, “I think it’s important to remind that his frustration has been growing over recent weeks and months over the dangers to the civilian population in Gaza and to aid workers.” Some media coverage, too, used the strikes as a point of entry to this broader toll—by one widely shared count, some two hundred aid workers have been killed in recent months. Still, as Politico noted even before Biden called Netanyahu, the strikes seemed to “galvanize official Washington” in ways other deaths haven’t (not least because Andrés is a long-standing darling of the liberal establishment). And they got more attention in the media, too.

The day before the WCK strikes, Israeli forces—targeting, they said, the command center of the militant group Islamic Jihad—struck a tent encampment on the grounds of a hospital in Gaza. According to the BBC, seven journalists were wounded, including one of its own freelancers. The strike, which attracted international media coverage but nothing on the scale of the World Central Kitchen attack, was a reminder of the ongoing impact of the war on the press, which, like the humanitarian community, has sustained devastating losses since Hamas attacked Israel six months ago yesterday and Israel responded by hammering Gaza. These deaths have themselves attracted international media and diplomatic attention (Blitzer, for example, mentioned them in his interview with Kirby). But some critics have argued that the level thereof has been inadequate. And even those attacks on the press that have provoked the most outrage have not inspired a WCK-size reckoning, even if that reckoning itself appears incomplete.

One month into the war, I reported in this newsletter that the toll for journalists was already close to unimaginable. According to a widely cited tracker maintained by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least thirty-six journalists had been killed to that point—mostly in Israeli strikes in Gaza, but also at the hands of Israel in southern Lebanon and Hamas inside Israel—adding up to the deadliest period for journalists in any conflict that the group has ever recorded. As I wrote at the time, the exact total was a matter of dispute, since it depended on whose deaths were recorded and counted. There was dispute, too, as to whether Israel was deliberately targeting journalists. Officials claimed that they weren’t; they said that they couldn’t pledge to keep journalists safe either, but blamed Hamas for conducting operations in their vicinity. Dozens of regional and international press groups said that Israel was targeting journalists, systematically so. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reconstructed the death of Issam Abdallah—a Reuters journalist killed while covering cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon—in an Israeli tank strike, and suggested that he appeared to have been targeted. The same group also reported nine killings of journalists—eight in Gaza; one in Israel—to the International Criminal Court, making the case that they constituted war crimes.

Now, six months into the war, CPJ’s total number of killings stands at ninety-five. Of the deaths since I wrote a month into the war, Israeli strikes on Gaza were responsible for the vast majority. (Israeli officers or snipers shot three journalists inside Gaza, while two more—journalists for a channel associated with Hezbollah, per CPJ—were killed in an Israeli strike in Lebanon.) Again, the exact number of killings and their circumstances are not a matter of consensus. As of last week, RSF had counted more than a hundred and five journalist deaths since the war began, twenty-two of which the group has confirmed as coming “in the course of their work.” The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate has pegged the toll higher still—and late last year blasted RSF over the course of their work distinction, accusing the group of “whitewashing” Israel’s actions. (RSF strongly defended its record and methodology.) But the numbers are terrible however you slice them. Even CPJ’s figure represents a higher death toll in one conflict in six months than the group has ever logged globally over the course of an entire year.

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Israel has continued to deny that it targets journalists. But recently, a United Nations report on Abdallah’s killing in Lebanon found that he and nearby colleagues (several of whom were wounded in the same attack) were clearly identifiable as press at the time and were standing in an area that had not seen any cross-border shelling for at least forty minutes prior to the strike. (The report stopped short of establishing a reason for the strike.) The Washington Post, meanwhile, published a detailed account of an Israeli strike in January that killed Hamza al-Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuraya, two journalists working with Al Jazeera. Israeli officials said at the time that they had struck a “terrorist” who posed a threat to their forces, then appeared to backtrack, suggesting that the journalists had been mistaken for terrorists because they were flying a drone—before alleging that the journalists did have ties to militant groups after all. After reviewing footage from the drone and interviewing witnesses, however, the Post found “no indications that either man was operating as anything other than a journalist that day,” and noted that both had recently been vetted by officials and allowed to pass through checkpoints. (Dahdouh had been given permission to leave Gaza.) Israel said it had nothing “further to add.”

Journalists in Gaza have recently reported that other civilians don’t want to be in their physical vicinity for fear they will be targeted. That fear, needless to say, is shared by the journalists themselves. “They are under threat and used to living with the voice of the drones in the sky the whole time,” Rania Khayyat, a communications officer at the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, told CPJ recently. “Outside of [the southern Gaza city] Rafah, it’s very dangerous. They really expect to die daily. Every time you call them, they always tell us the same sentence, it may be their ‘last call.’ When you call them, you feel like you’re in a nightmare.”

Of course, the bleak conditions for journalists in Gaza go beyond the fear of imminent Israeli strikes. In its tracker, CPJ has also been monitoring injuries, arrests, and journalists going missing. (Last month, for instance, journalists reported being detained, stripped nearly naked, and beaten at a Gaza hospital; the IDF said it had no record of the incident.) According to Khayyat, well over a hundred journalists are still based in northern Gaza, which is widely reported to be on the cusp of famine; journalists throughout the territory are facing shortages of food as well as of money, transport, and connectivity. Women journalists, in particular, are expected to continue their caretaking responsibilities while still working. Numerous journalists have already evacuated Gaza, including Wael al-Dahdouh, the father of Hamza, who in the early weeks of the war was internationally recognized for his courageous reporting on air for Al Jazeera even after an Israeli strike killed several other members of his family, including his wife. (Earlier this year, he was taken to Qatar to receive treatment for injuries of his own.)

And yet, through these awful circumstances, the work of these journalists has been vital—not only because the stakes are so high for Gaza, but because Israel has only allowed foreign journalists to enter with a military escort, despite the protestations of major Western news organizations. (CNN’s Clarissa Ward was able to go in with an Emirati medical team, but only for a short period.) Those journalists remaining on the ground, Wafa‘ Abdel Rahman, the founder and director of the Palestinian NGO Filastiniyat, told CPJ, have also become “human rights defenders” (“whether they like it or not”)—and, in a sense, aid workers. “They’re covering where you can go, what you can do, where you can find vaccines,” Abdel Rahman said. 

A month into the war, I wrote that the line between journalists and other groups of civilians was already a blurry one. Establishing whether journalists have been targeted matters immensely, for legal reasons and because it affects the flow of information. But the boundaries of their profession are always porous—in this case, not only in terms of the roles that they have taken on, as Abdel Rahman noted, but in terms of the role that other civilians in Gaza have played in sharing information with the outside world. Ultimately, they are all just people, living through similar dangers—and dying by them, too. All deaths deserve attention, and a reckoning. 

The reckoning that followed the WCK strikes was in many respects incomplete. While thanking Israel for its speed in investigating, Andrés has continued to demand an independent probe; while two officers have been fired, the Israeli report made no mention of possible legal consequences, and contained some contradictions in its accounting of what happened. Some of the Israeli rhetoric was similar to that which has followed the deaths of certain journalists in the war. But there at least was a swift investigation on this occasion, and some form of consequences, including, it would appear, in the diplomatic arena. If this can be done, it can be done for journalists as well.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.