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Gaza war is deadliest conflict for journalists in over 30 years, press advocates say

Journalists, relatives and friends pray over the bodies of journalists Sari Mansour and Hassouna Esleem after they were killed in an Israeli bombardment at Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip on Nov. 19.
Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Journalists, relatives and friends pray over the bodies of journalists Sari Mansour and Hassouna Esleem after they were killed in an Israeli bombardment at Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip on Nov. 19.

LONDON — "This might be the last video I post," Ayat Khaddoura, a Palestinian journalist and podcaster, said in a post on Instagram Oct. 13.

It was one of many videos Khaddoura had been sharing with her hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, talking about living under Israeli bombardment and trying to survive with limited water and electricity.

On Nov. 6, in a video she called her "last message to the world," she said: "We used to have big dreams, but now our dream is only to be killed in one piece so people know who we are." A week later, she was dead. An Israeli airstrike on her home in northern Gaza killed her.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says the Israel-Gaza war has "led to the deadliest month for journalists" since it started gathering data in 1992. Of 61 deaths of journalists and media workers CPJ has recorded as of Friday, 54 were Palestinian journalists, four were Israeli and three were Lebanese.

By comparison, according to CPJ, a total of 68 journalists and media workers were killed worldwide in all of 2022. That total includes deaths in conflicts around the world, and those due to dangerous assignments, targeted killings and crossfire.

The rising toll comes as the Israel-Hamas war enters its third month, and Israel continues its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which has so far killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Israel's offensive is in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. Press freedom advocates have decried that journalists, even when they're visibly marked as press, are among the casualties in Gaza.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit, says the majority of Gaza journalist casualties since the start of the war were killed while doing their jobs. The organization classifies 43 of the 50 journalists killed so far as being on a "dangerous assignment." It says investigations into the circumstances of the deaths are ongoing and that it is investigating whether some were targeted attacks.

"The Israeli army is making choices and those choices to use lethal force against journalists and media facilities have to be warranted and proportional. Failing to do so constitutes possible war crimes," says Sherif Mansour, coordinator for the CPJ's Middle East program.

Of those killed, 90% have been Palestinian journalists and media workers in Gaza. The organization says the four Israeli journalists were killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel. It has confirmed that two of them were working at the time. The three Lebanese journalists were killed while on duty in Lebanon on the Israeli border, in what their respective organizations believe were targeted attacks. Al-Mayadeen TV journalist Farah Omar had given a live update an hour before she was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

Israel's military denies targeting Palestinian or other journalists and says it tries to avoid civilian casualties.

Reporting and living through the war

Gaza's journalists have shouldered the responsibility of telling the world what is happening while also suffering personal losses and tragedies during the war. Their task of newsgathering has been made more difficult by communication blackouts in Gaza, where phone and internet links have gone down periodically throughout the war. Palestinian officials blame Israel for severing lines and limiting fuel deliveries to power telecom towers and generators.

Some Gaza journalists, including those working with international outlets, may receive support such as the provision of protective gear and equipment. Others who work on a freelance basis do not. Gaza-based journalists may also work for local outlets that are coming under bombardment themselves.

But the risks are high for all in the besieged territory — most people in Gaza cannot get out. The Israeli military told Reuters and the Agence France-Presse that it could not guarantee the safety of their journalists operating in the Gaza Strip, after the news agencies had sought assurances that their journalists would not be targeted by Israeli strikes, Reuters reported.

Nour Swirki, a freelance journalist who is currently living in a shelter in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, says it has become increasingly difficult to carry on reporting when fearing for her life and that of her family. She is a mother of two.

"I am playing two roles in this war: the professional one as a journalist, and as a mother. I'm terrified of losing myself as a civilian, as a journalist," she tells NPR in a voice message. "I'm always thinking, what if something happens to my children. It's not an easy situation for us, as journalists, male and female, and as mothers and fathers."

Salman al-Bashir, a journalist for the Palestinian Authority's TV channel, tore off his protective gear in the middle of a live broadcast when he found out his colleague, Mohammed Abu Hatab, had been killed in an Israeli airstrike.

"We are victims, live on air," he cried. "It is only a matter of time until we are killed. We wait our turn, one after the other."

Al Jazeera's Gaza correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh was broadcasting when he received the news that his family had been killed by an Israeli airstrike. His wife, son and daughter, grandson and at least eight other relatives were all killedin an Israeli attack on the home they had been sheltering in.

Moments after he learned the news, the channel switched to footage of him, still wearing his press vest, kneeling over the body of his son.

When he came back on air days later,he told viewersthat despite his pain and "open wound," he felt it was his duty to get back in front of the camera and carry on reporting.

Foreign journalists came in, embedded with Israeli forces

Hind Khoudary, a 28-year-old freelance journalist, says she feels disheartened that international correspondents were able to come in on embeds with the Israeli military when local reporters in Gaza had no information about what was happening to the homes and families they were forced to leave behind in the north of Gaza.

Khoudary, like many others, fled her home in Gaza City after the Israeli military told people there to move south. Her house was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Communication blackouts have made it difficult for people in Gaza to know what is happening in other parts of the territory.

"I feel so sad seeing the Fox News and CNN correspondents, visiting Gaza and reporting about what's going on, when me and my colleagues who are Palestinian journalists, we have been here since day one," she says.

"We were forced to flee our homes, we don't know anything about what is happening in the north, we don't know anything about our families. We don't know what's bombed, what's not bombed, who's injured, who's killed, we literally know nothing," Khoudary says.

Some journalists in Gaza say wearing press vests makes them feel unsafe

Plestia Alaqad, a 22-year-old freelance Palestinian journalist, posted a photo of her press jacket on Instagram last week. "I used to always wear my press vest and helmet... but lately I stopped wearing them," she wrote in an accompanying caption. "I don't feel safe in Gaza no matter what ... especially when wearing [the] press vest and helmet."

"I hope this nightmare ends soon, I hope we don't lose anymore journalists," she wrote.

Alaqad has since left Gaza. She told her followers on social media that she left out of fears that her role as a journalist was putting herself and her family at greater risk.

Before she left, Alaqad had been documenting the war in Gaza to her 4 millionInstagram followers, who watched her flee her home, walk around her neighborhood after it was reduced to rubble and shelter in the dark during power blackouts. In most of her posts, she wore her protective press vest.

Other Palestinian journalists also say they feel less safe wearing a press vest. They say they believe being identified as members of the press could make them and their families targets for Israeli forces.

"I don't feel safe at all with the press vest," Swirki tells NPR. "As journalists here, it is considered part of the danger and risk, to wear this vest."

She believes some of her colleagues have been targeted by Israel.

"There is no safe place at all in the Gaza Strip. And with these targets for our colleagues we know we aren't protected. We are facing death every single moment in the field," Swirki says.

"A deadly pattern becoming more deadly"

But the Committee to Protect Journalists says it has found evidence of the Israeli army targeting journalists in the past. It points to the case of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead last year while reporting in the occupied West Bank. Human rights groups and news outlets concluded after independent investigations that the Palestinian American journalist was killed in a targeted attack by Israeli troops. She was wearing a press vest at the time.

The Israel Defense Forces later acknowledged the "high possibility" one of its soldiers shot Abu Akleh but said there wasn't evidence they intentionally targeted her.

"The IDF have not respected [press] insignia in the past," says Sherif Mansour, coordinator for the CPJ's Middle East program.

A CPJ report published in May showed the majority of the journalists killed by the Israeli military in the past 22 years had press insignia showing on their bodies and their vehicles.

"What we have seen in this war is a deadly pattern becoming more deadly," Mansour says.

He says it's a pattern that has wider implications for a war in which foreign press has largely been unable to report on what is going on in Gaza, and where there have been several communication blackouts.

"This pattern leaves Palestinian journalists in a precarious situation and leads to a chilling effect about covering IDF operations," says Mansour.

Mansour says this makes the work of Palestinian journalists in Gaza all the more vital — and attacks on them all the more troubling for those trying to understand the conflict.

"Millions around the world rely on journalists to have accurate information and commentary," says Mansour. "Without them, we end up with a sea of mis- and disinformation that can only fuel the conflict."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab
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