The Media Today

The toll on the press so far in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon

October 17, 2023
Mourners carry the body of Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah who was killed by Israeli shelling during his funeral procession in his hometown of Khiam, southern Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. Abdallah was killed Friday, Oct. 13, when an Israeli shell landed in a gathering of international journalists covering clashes on the border in south Lebanon. Six other journalists were injured in the incident. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

On Friday, Issam Abdallah, a video journalist for Reuters, was filming a live shot in the south of Lebanon, just across the border from Israel, amid an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and the Hezbollah militia. At least six other journalists—from Reuters, Al Jazeera, and Agence France-Presse—were in the area. Abdallah’s camera was trained on an adjacent hill when, suddenly, a huge explosion rocked the picture; off-screen, someone could be heard shouting, “I can’t feel my legs.” Abdallah, who was sitting on a nearby wall, was killed; the other six journalists were wounded. One of Abdallah’s colleagues and other witnesses said that missiles had been fired from the direction of Israel. “Obviously, we would never want to hit or kill or shoot any journalist that is doing its job,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s envoy to the UN, said afterward. “But we’re in a state of war. Things might happen.” Israel said that it is investigating. Yesterday, Alessandra Galloni, the editor of Reuters, called for that process to be “swift, thorough, and transparent.” At Abdallah’s funeral, colleagues laid news cameras on his grave

Abdallah was at least the fifteenth journalist to have been killed in the region—at work and not—since Hamas invaded southern Israel from Gaza the previous weekend and massacred over a thousand of the country’s citizens. All wars are dangerous to cover. But the Committee to Protect Journalists said that last week was the deadliest it has ever recorded for journalists covering Israel and Palestine. The day of the Hamas attack alone, at least eleven members of the media were either killed, wounded, or detained, or disappeared, according to CPJ’s figures. 

Ayelet Arnin, a twenty-two-year-old news editor at Israel’s public broadcaster, and Shai Regev, a twenty-five-year-old gossip and entertainment reporter at the newspaper Ma’ariv, were among those killed when Hamas gunned down revelers at a music festival in the Israeli desert. Yaniv Zohar, a photographer for the newspaper Israel Hayom, and his immediate family were killed on the kibbutz where they lived near the Gaza border. (Amir Tibon, a journalist for Haaretz who lives on the same kibbutz, survived after hiding with his family in a safe room for ten hours.) Roee Idan, a photojournalist for the news site Ynet, who lived on a different kibbutz, went missing with his three-year-old daughter; they are feared abducted by Hamas. Two Palestinian journalists, Mohammad Al-Salhi, of the Fourth Authority news agency, and ​​Ibrahim Lafi, of Ain Media, were killed on the Gaza side of the border; a Palestinian press-freedom group said that Israel was responsible for the deaths. Mohammad Jarghoun, of Smart Media, was shot and killed while covering fighting in the south of Gaza. Haitham Abdelwahid, also of Ain Media, went missing. And at least three journalists were either detained by Israeli forces or injured.

Since that first day, nine more journalists have lost their lives in the conflict, according to CPJ’s data. Aside from Abdallah, all of them were killed in retaliatory Israeli air strikes on Gaza. On October 8, Assaad Shamlakh, a freelancer, was killed in his home. On October 9, Israeli strikes hit an area of Gaza that is home to a number of media organizations; three journalists—Saeed al-Taweel, Mohammed Sobh, and Hisham Alnwajha—were covering the strike when they were killed in the blast. On October 11, Mohamed Fayez Abu Matar, a freelancer, was killed. On October 12, Ahmed Shehab, of the radio station Sowt Al-Asra, was killed at his home.

Threats to the region’s press are not new, of course. As far back as 2007, an Islamist group in Gaza kidnapped a BBC reporter and held him for months; in recent years, Israeli forces shelled buildings that housed media offices—including those of the Associated Press—in Gaza and shot and killed the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during a raid in the West Bank. In the weeks prior to the Hamas attack—which took Israel by surprise at a time of domestic political turmoil—many journalists inside Israel were raising the alarm about proposed media reforms that they saw as a significant threat to the freedom of the press, as I wrote last month

Now, in the aftermath of the attack and Israel’s response, those fears have taken on a worrying new salience. And the physical danger that reporters are experiencing, clearly, has massively intensified. As Israel prepares a widely anticipated ground assault on Gaza—and the wider region, from Lebanon to as far afield as Iran, confronts the possibility of a broader explosion of violence—the risks faced, and losses sustained, by the press so far are likely just the beginning.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Relatively few major Western news organizations have full-time reporters on the ground in Gaza, as
Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo noted last week. Over the past week or so, as Israeli air strikes have rained down, those who are there have contributed powerful reports, both written and visual, attesting to the scale of the destruction. In one dispatch, Adnan Elbursh, a journalist with the BBC’s Arabic service, and his cameraman teared up inside a hospital after spotting friends and neighbors receiving treatment. “I have seen things I can never unsee,” Elbursh said. “You never want to become the story. But in my city, I feel helpless.”

Reporters in Gaza also face profound logistical difficulties. Last week, Mohammed Mhawish told Vanity Fair’s Brian Stelter that most of those reporting from the ground are, like him, freelancers who aren’t necessarily affiliated with a news outlet or being paid in a timely fashion. (“Even if I were to be paid, I can’t even go down the street and have my money in my hand,” Mhawish added, since neighborhoods in central Gaza are “being shut down.”) Journalists have had to grapple with shortages of power and internet; according to the New York Times, some reporters based themselves at a hospital since it was the only place they could guarantee access to both. Last Friday, Israel ordered over a million people to flee the north of Gaza and head south, and “what was a challenging reporting environment” became “nearly impossible,” as the Times put it. Yet journalists who joined the mass evacuation continued to get the word out.

By contrast with Gaza, foreign reporters have descended on Israel en masse since Hamas attacked, including the hosts of a variety of top US news shows. They, too, have faced the threat of air strikes, from Hamas. CNN’s Clarissa Ward broadcast live while lying horizontal in a ditch, and her colleague Nic Robertson did likewise while sheltering on the tarmac at the airport in Tel Aviv; if Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system appeared to kick in on both those occasions, loud explosions could be heard very close to NBC’s Richard Engel as he reported while pressed up against a hedge. 

Israeli journalists, meanwhile, have repeatedly had to run from their newsrooms to bomb shelters, as Avi Mayer, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, told Stelter. “It is so hard to go about business as usual, when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and scream,” Linda Dayan, of Haaretz, told Voice of America last week. Amy Spiro, of the Times of Israel, added that “at this point in time, every reporter we have is a war reporter. There’s nothing else. There’s no other story. There’s no other news.” 

Journalists have faced other types of threat inside Israel, too. A team from the BBC’s Arabic service was driving through Tel Aviv in a vehicle marked “TV” when Israeli police pulled them over, interrogated them, and allegedly assaulted a reporter who tried to film the encounter. Then, on Saturday night, right-wing protesters besieged the home of Israel Frey, a journalist who is ultra-Orthodox and on the political left, after he posted a video prayer for victims of the recent violence in Gaza. The demonstrators reportedly fired flares at Frey’s building and tried to break in. When police came to escort him to safety, Frey alleged that officers spat at him and accused him of complicity with Hamas. (Police officials denied this.)

On Sunday, Haaretz reported that Shlomo Karhi—Israel’s communications minister, who has recently pushed reforms to the broadcast media landscape that many Israeli journalists view as a threat to their independence, as I wrote recently—is now pushing a new set of wartime proposals giving police the latitude to seize property from, or even arrest, anyone who spreads information that is deemed to be harmful to national morale or helpful to enemy propaganda, even if the information is true. In a radio interview, Karhi suggested that the measures were explicitly intended to hobble the work of Al Jazeera, but other news outlets could easily be swept up, too. At time of writing, it was unclear whether the proposals would pass legal muster. But the fact officials were pushing them is one more sign of trouble for an already besieged press.

Last Thursday, Mohammed Salem, a journalist for Reuters in Gaza, was filming the aftermath of an Israeli air strike when he received a message and rushed to the hospital: his wife had gone into labor. Salem was glad that his wife was going to give birth during the daytime since “it is hard to get around during the night, with all of the attacks and ambulances,” he
told his colleagues at Reuters. The news combined “happiness with pain,” Salem said, “but then again, such is life and life must go on.” His wife gave birth to a baby boy. They named him Abdallah.

Other notable stories:

  • Over the weekend, a landlord in Illinois allegedly stabbed two of his tenants because they were Palestinian American, killing Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old boy, and seriously injuring the boy’s mother. Per the Chicago Sun-Times, prosecutors said that the man “became agitated” after hearing reports about Israel and Gaza on conservative talk radio. Meanwhile, in the UK, The Guardian cut ties with Steve Bell, a veteran editorial cartoonist, after declining to run a drawing he made of Benjamin Netanyahu. (Editors reportedly deemed it anti-Semitic.) The BBC backtracked after characterizing pro-Palestinian demonstrations as supportive of Hamas. And the BBC has reportedly received fifteen hundred complaints about its coverage of the conflict so far—split evenly between those who see it as biased against Israel and those who see a bias against Palestinians.
  • Yesterday, Tanya Chutkan, the federal judge overseeing Donald Trump’s trial on charges that he plotted to subvert the 2020 presidential election, issued a gag order banning Trump from attacking people involved in the case; Trump has recently used social media to savage a top prosecutor and likely witnesses, and could now face sanctions if he does so again. “First Amendment protections yield to the administration of justice and to the protection of witnesses,” Chutkan said. Meanwhile, Politico’s Brian Faler reports on new filings in a separate criminal case against Charles Littlejohn, a former consultant for the Internal Revenue Service who leaked information about the taxes of Trump and other wealthy individuals to reporters at the Times and ProPublica, respectively. 
  • Last week, my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote in this newsletter about the high levels of secrecy shrouding the federal government’s ongoing antitrust trial against Google, which a judge has ordered despite the potentially historic significance of the case. Now the Times—supported by other outlets including Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post—has filed a motion urging the court to provide more transparency, arguing that “excluding the public from the courtroom not only impedes its ability to understand how this consequential case is being litigated—it also undermines the public’s faith in its justice system.” Nilay Patel has more details for The Verge.
  • Greg Braxton, of the LA Times, spoke with CNN’s Abby Phillip and Laura Coates ahead of the launch of their new nightly shows, which premiered yesterday. “Phillip and Coates say their respective shows will move beyond the headlines and be more analytical than the standard CNN newscast. They also praised the network for elevating two Black women into its prime-time slate,” Braxton writes. “Right now I think there’s a real appetite for understanding the news,” Phillip said. “Part of my role as a TV journalist is not just to tell people what is happening, but to help them digest and put it in the proper context.”
  • And a court in Guatemala overturned a six-year prison sentence handed to Jose Rubén Zamora, the founder of the independent newspaper elPeriodico—though the court also ordered that Zamora be retried, and that he be kept in detention in the meantime. (He had been convicted of money-laundering charges that many observers view as bogus.) Reporters Without Borders welcomed the decision to overturn “an unjust conviction that followed a trial marred by irregularities,” but called for Zamora to be freed immediately.

ICYMI: Horror in the Middle East

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.