It’s Becoming Impossible to Report From Gaza—Journalists Are Working While Fleeing For Their Lives

From a Washington Post story by Laura Wagner headlined “It’s becoming impossible to report from Gaza”:

Over the years, NPR has relied on Anas Baba to be its eyes and ears within Gaza. This past week was no exception.

The Palestinian producer interviewed civilians seeking shelter from Israeli airstrikes at Gaza City’s main hospital, where hallways were crowded with the wounded and dying. Later, he called in an eyewitness account of young children traveling on foot for dozens of miles in an attempt to evacuate the city. The reporting took “a lot of effort and a lot of luck,” said Aya Batrawy, an NPR correspondent coordinating with Baba from Jerusalem on a story that aired Friday about horrific conditions inside the besieged enclave.

But meanwhile, Baba was contending with challenges that some journalists within Gaza are describing as the worst in memory.

“I was forced to leave my job … to go to my family in order to evacuate them,” he told NPR over a scratchy phone line last week, only to find that other neighborhoods were just as dangerous. “… Where am I going to hide them? Is there any safe place in Gaza?”

The flow of information in war zones is often halting and unpredictable, but given the scale of Israel’s assault — which U.N. experts have warned amounts to “collective punishment” in violation of international law — journalists are facing unprecedented challenges in obtaining and sharing information.

While major U.S. networks scrambled to ship star TV anchors to the relative safety of Israel, journalists within the 140-square-mile Gaza Strip are contending with a massive bombing campaign, electrical and internet outages, food and water shortages, and the psychological burden of reporting on the unfolding humanitarian crisis while living it themselves.

Reporting at Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, BBC Arabic reporter Adnan Elbursh and his team discovered their own neighbors, relatives and friends among those injured and killed.

“This is my local hospital. Inside are my friends, my neighbors. This is my community,” Elbursh said on-air. “Today has been one of the most difficult days in my career. I have seen things I can never unsee.”

In the days since an Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel killed more than 1,400 people, Israel’s retaliatory assault has killed more than 2,700 people in Gaza. Eleven Palestinian journalists and three Israeli journalists have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On Friday, Israeli shelling near the Lebanon border killed Issam Abdallah, a Beirut-based journalist for Reuters, and wounded six other journalists, an incident international press freedom monitors condemned.

“Journalists are civilians doing important work during times of crisis,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, in a statement, “and must not be targeted by warring parties.”

Mansour said Israel’s recent history of targeting media exacerbated the current reporting crisis in Gaza. In May 2021, Israel bombed a building in Gaza that housed the offices for the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. In May 2022, Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the head while reporting in the West Bank. The Israeli military initially claimed that Abu Akleh had been killed in crossfire with Palestinian fighters, but numerous independent investigations, including by The Washington Post, concluded that Israeli forces were probably responsible.

Mansour said these cases have changed the risk calculations for international journalists — leaving local photo and freelance journalists to do the job of covering conflict in Gaza and the West Bank.

“They are the most needed, and they are also the ones who live there on the ground,” Mansour said. “The nature of their work requires them to be on the front lines, often without good equipment, without any safety resources or a dedicated newsroom behind them.”

A number of these journalists have been sharing their reporting about the ongoing Israeli assault on social media in both English and Arabic, with the aim of reaching the Western world and one another. Journalist Plestia Alaqad is one of them.

With more than half a million followers on Instagram, Alaqad had been sharing multiple updates a day last week about evacuations, power outages and children separated from their families in the chaos. On Friday, she posted a photo of her light-blue helmet, labeled “Press,” and wrote that she was unable to evacuate Gaza City, because she didn’t have transportation or the energy to walk. She said she had no cell service and was relying on a hospital’s internet.

“I’ve always loved Journalism and Palestine, and I’m glad I was able to share part of the truth or part of what’s happening with the world,” she wrote, adding: “There is still time before the night comes, I’ll see if I’ll have any options and I’ll keep u updated if I could.”

Then her busy account went dark for three days.

When she posted again Monday morning, she explained in a video that she had had no access to internet — just part of the increasingly dire conditions, she said.

“The situation is only getting more difficult … in regard to the electricity, the water situation, the food situation, the medical situation,” she said. In the caption, she wrote: “I’m trying my best to stay on the ground and to cover what’s happening.”

Palestinian journalists also face another obstacle: challenges to their credibility.

“There is a systematic effort to discredit the very idea that there is such a thing as an independent Palestinian journalist,” said Thanassis Cambanis, a former journalist in the Middle East and the director of foreign policy think tank Century International, which he called “a pernicious and dangerous piece of the information war.”

The effect is that Palestinian journalists come up against critics who are quick to dismiss their accounts of death and destruction as biased, partisan or even fabricated.

Even within Gaza, many people are struggling to access news about what is happening around them.

She has been desperate for relief, to hear news about peace. Her 9-year-old son, who had a bone-marrow transplant last year, needs follow-up care, “so you can feel how frightened I am for him.”

Al-Alami said she had a small battery-powered radio for following the news, as well as a network of friends and relatives living abroad who update her with important news when she can charge her phone and access the internet. But she doesn’t know how long that will last. “We took [fuel] from our car to operate the generator in order to pump water into the tank,” she told The Post in a WhatsApp message Sunday.

NPR’s Batrawy also uses WhatsApp to connect with people in Gaza, though that line of communication is becoming less reliable.

“Connectivity is usually pretty good and you can reach people in Gaza,” she told The Post. “Now suddenly you just have no idea if your messages are going through or if they’re trying to message you.” She said that NPR was able to reach Baba, the producer in Gaza, on a phone line, but contact is intermittent.

Since the beginning of the war, Batrawy said, she has been exchanging voice notes with people in Gaza, including a medical student in Gaza City named Tasnim Ahad, whose voice is heard in some of Batrawy’s radio reports.

Ahad’s home was bombed. Her family is displaced. She had been trying to evacuate, but there’s no way out of Gaza. She’s running out of water. This is the fifth war she has seen in Gaza.

“She’s been through a lot,” Batrawy said. “She told me that sending voice notes is therapeutic almost, like someone cares. Someone is listening.”

Laura Wagner is a reporter at The Washington Post covering the changing digital media industry.

Speak Your Mind