In the post-2016 period, reporters and the job of a free press seem to have vaulted in importance in the eyes of the US establishment. Tributes to the power of journalism were suddenly everywhere. Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on journalists press were regularly cast as posing a Hitler-like threat to press freedoms. It even had geopolitical reverberations: when the Saudi crown prince’s assassination of journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi triggered such outrage, it broke open probably the largest fissure in the decades-long US-Saudi relationship. Now, the Israeli government is killing not just journalists but their families, sometimes in deliberately targeted strikes, and all that sentiment seems to have melted away.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as of this past weekend, the Israeli government’s nearly four-week-long indiscriminate bombing campaign on Gaza has killed thirty-six journalists and other media workers, thirty-one of whom were Palestinian. A further eight are injured, and three are missing.
The twenty-day period following October 7 was the deadliest period the CPJ has on record for reporters covering a conflict, having started keeping track in 1992. For Reporters Without Borders (RSF), it’s the deadliest conflict for reporters since the start of the twenty-first century, outdoing the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine, with Israeli forces killing more journalists in a matter of weeks than they had slain over the entire period from 2000 to last year.
In either case, the fundamental point is the same: even in a long-running conflict notorious for endangering members of the press, Israel’s current assault on Gaza is an exceptionally violent and deadly one for media workers.
Some of these deaths have almost certainly been deliberate. An earlier RSF investigation concluded that the Reuters photojournalist killed and his two colleagues injured in an October 13 Israeli air strike “were not collateral victims of the shooting,” a polite way of saying they were intentionally targeted by the Israeli military. The investigation based this on several factors: that the two strikes they were hit with came within roughly thirty seconds of each other; that the reporters were standing on a hill in the open, wearing their clearly labeled press gear for more than an hour; and that several Israeli helicopters were spotted flying over the group before the strike, including just seconds before they were attacked.
The October 13 strike is hardly an isolated incident, with other reporters receiving warnings from the Israeli military to leave their homes or face certain death. Al Jazeera correspondent Youmna ElSayed’s husband was told by someone calling from a private number, claiming to be from the Israeli army and who knew his full name, to evacuate south or “it is going to be very dangerous in the area where you are at.” None of the other six families who live in their building received the same call, and partly as a result, ElSayed and Al Jazeera took the message as a direct threat to herself and her family.
Similarly, Palestine TV, the broadcast channel of the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank, accused the Israeli military of recently carrying out a “deliberate assassination” of one of its reporters, Mohammed Abu Hatab, whose apartment building it says was hit by an air strike shortly after he arrived, killing him and ten of his family members, including his wife, son, and brother. The murder prompted his colleague Salman al-Bashir to rip off his “press”-emblazoned helmet and vest live on air.
“There is no international protection at all and no immunity,” al-Bashir said. “These shields and hats do not protect us. They are just slogans that we only wear and they do not protect any journalists at all.”
A War on Families
Abu Hatab’s death is sadly typical of another grim trend for journalists in this war: it’s not just reporters themselves being killed by the Israeli military, but their families, too. Seven of the three dozen journalists listed by CPJ have been the victims of Israeli strikes on their homes, while six were killed along with their family members.
Perhaps the most prominent case is that of Al Jazeera reporter Wael al-Dahdouh, who was on air when he got word that his wife, son, seven-year-old daughter, and one-and-a-half-year-old grandson were all killed in an Israeli air strike. Like so many Palestinian civilians, al-Dahdouh’s family had evacuated from the neighborhood where they lived because it had come under bombardment, and moved south, to the Nuseirat refugee camp where they were eventually killed, because it was located in an area specifically designated by the Israeli government as a safe zone. Shortly before they were bombed, al-Dahdouh’s son and older daughter (who survived) had recorded a video pleading with the world to “help us to stay alive.”
Likewise, Ahmed Abu Artema, a Gaza journalist, poet, and peace activist who helped organize the 2018 Great March of Return, survived an Israeli bombing of his family home that killed six of his family members: two aunts, his aunt’s daughter, his stepmother, ten-year-old niece, and thirteen-year-old son.
“The priority now is to protest,” Artema had told the readers of Electronic Intifada shortly before the attack. “We need very, very, very huge protests in the United States, Europe, everywhere, to say enough, to say stop the genocide.”
Freelance journalist Assaad Shamlakh was similarly bombed in his family home. Unlike Artema, he didn’t survive, and nor did nine members of his family: his parents, four brothers, his sister-in law, and two nephew,s aged two years and three months, respectively. Shamlakh’s family is one of now dozens of cases of Israeli bombing wiping out not just entire families, but entire family bloodlines.
Just yesterday, two more Arab journalists had their families incinerated by Israeli air strikes. Lebanese reporter Samir Ayoub saw his three nieces and their grandmother killed, burned to death in the car behind his as they traveled between two towns in southern Lebanon, while Mohammed al-Aloul, a photographer for the Turkish state-owned Anadolu Agency, had four of his five children and a number of other relatives killed when his neighborhood was bombed. Three of his kids were four years old, while his youngest, a one-year-old son, is in critical condition.
It’s not always reporters. The October 31 bombing of the Jabalia refugee camp — which the Israeli military shelled three days in a row, despite the international outcry sparked by the first attack — killed nineteen family members of Mohamed Abu al-Qumsan, a broadcast engineer for Al Jazeera, including his father, two sisters, brother and sister-in-law, and eight nephews and nieces. The news network condemned the attack as “heinous” and “unforgivable.”
Targeting Media Outlets
Much like during the “war on terror” and Iraq War, when an Al Jazeera cameraman was falsely imprisoned at Guantanamo and the network’s Baghdad offices were bombed by the US military as coalition officials complained about its coverage, the attacks on Al Jazeera workers have come alongside both the US and Israeli governments targeting the network with censorship for its reporting on the war. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boasted that he had pressed the prime minister of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered and whose government owns the network, to “turn down the volume on Al Jazeera’s coverage because it is full of anti-Israel incitement.”
The far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, who had already tried to ban Al Jazeera once before, has charged that the network is a “propaganda mouthpiece” that “incites against the citizens of Israel” and is again trying to shutter its Israel bureau. The push is part of the Netanyahu government’s wider clampdown on the free press, with its communications minister seeking broad powers to arrest or confiscate the property of reporters and other civilians who disseminate information that “undermines the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents in the face of the enemy” or “serves as a basis for enemy propaganda,” even if the information is true.
Though the US and Israeli governments clearly have a fixation on Al Jazeera, this hostility to the press goes much deeper. The war has seen “the deliberate, total or partial, destruction of the premises of more than fifty media outlets in Gaza,” according to an October 31 complaint RSF filed with the International Criminal Court claiming that Israel’s killing of journalists constitute war crimes.
Last week, an Israeli air strike hit Gaza’s Hajji Tower, where several local and international news agencies are headquartered, including Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse, which at the time of the bombing was the only international news agency running an uninterrupted live feed of Gaza City. When asked about this strike, Blinken praised the “extraordinary work under the most dangerous conditions” of journalists in Gaza, whose reporting “we deeply admire, deeply respect, and we want to make sure that they are protected.”
But with Blinken and the rest of the Biden administration’s refusal to back a cease-fire, there’s little chance that will happen. Instead, we’re likely to see more tragic cases: cases like cameraman Sameh Murad, who stayed behind to show the world what was happening in Gaza while his wife and daughters fled to the safety of the south, only to be bombed as they did so, killing his wife; or Mondoweiss correspondent Tareq Hajjaj, displaced from his home with his wife, mother, and infant son, who he says have only survived by “coincidence.”
“Dear God, I only ask you one thing, just keep me alive so I can see my son growing old,” he wrote on Twitter.
Besides the level of human carnage contained in just these journalists’ personal stories, what’s remarkable is the relative silence and lack of solidarity from a media establishment that a few years ago was suffused with fears about the physical safety of reporters and the survival of press freedoms.
Just consider some of the responses to the genuinely outrageous but (by comparison to Israel’s murder of journalists) far less alarming tendency by Trump to verbally insult journalists and denigrate the press. This was considered “beyond the pale,” an “existential threat to American freedom of the press,” “the stuff of authoritarian governments,” and “only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.” Trump revoking Jim Acosta’s press pass led the CNN anchor to write an entire book and tell the nation it was “a dangerous time to tell the truth in America” and recount the harrowing experience of having “to change the settings on my social-media accounts because of these threatening messages” that poured in.
Trump’s rhetorical incitements against the press were no doubt serious. But why is there no comparable feeling about the literal killing of reporters by a US-backed government?
It’s only been five years since the Saudi government’s grisly assassination of Jamal Khashoggi sparked global outrage, leading now-president Joe Biden to promise to treat the country as a “pariah” (a vow he soon reneged on) and inspiring tributes and outpourings of grief from the US media establishment. The likes of CNN’s Jake Tapper and the New York Times’ Nick Kristof read portions of Khashoggi’s final column out loud on video. The New Yorker published a moving memorial from a former colleague that paid tribute to Khashoggi as a “symbol of freedom of speech around the world.”
How things have changed. The Israeli government hasn’t felled just one reporter, they’ve killed dozens; and not only them, but sometimes their children, parents, and other family members. Yet there is no comparable rush of outrage and tributes for these murdered journalists. In fact, the New Yorker published a piece last week that appears to tacitly rationalize Israel’s actions, casting Al Jazeera in particular as serving part of a global “Hamas propaganda war.” Outlining the tragedy of al-Dahdouh, the Palestinian journalist who found out about his family’s murder on air, the magazine took care to note that Hamas’s “leaders have sometimes saluted his coverage for conveying their perspective” and that “at least four relatives” of his were part of a militant group.
But as much as the Israeli government’s war on journalists has dramatically ramped up with the current war, its tendency to unleash lethal violence is depressingly not new. The Israeli government has been killing journalists, sometimes American ones, and bombing newsrooms for years with relatively little outcry, zero accountability, and no real lasting effect on the Israeli-US relationship or on the broadly positive way that the Israeli state is viewed by broad swaths of the Western press.
The level of violent hostility and indifference aimed at the press that we’ve seen in this war should, ideally, change all that. But then, none of these brave reporters should’ve lost their lives in the first place.