A Deadly Month For the Press at War

From a story on cjr.org by Jon Allsop headlined “A deadly month for the press at war”:

Late last week, Mohammad Abu Hatab—a correspondent for Palestine TV, a network affiliated with the Palestinian Authority—reported live from the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, a city in the southern part of Gaza. After delivering a dispatch on the death toll in the territory, which has been under heavy Israeli bombardment ever since Hamas (which controls Gaza, and is a political rival of the PA) attacked Israel on October 7, Abu Hatab headed to his home nearby. An hour or so later, he was killed in an air strike.

His employer said that Israel was responsible; the next day, the Israeli military said that it was “not aware of any military activity conducted by our forces in the vicinity of the location in question.” Colleagues told the Associated Press that Abu Hatab had worked tirelessly since the current conflict began, and recalled how he would bring homemade hummus to the other journalists camped outside the Nasser Hospital. At his funeral, mourners rested a microphone and flak jacket marked “PRESS” on the sheet covering his body.

Ten days into the conflict, I noted that it was already the deadliest period for media workers covering Israel and Palestine that the Committee to Protect Journalists had ever recorded. CPJ had already confirmed the killings of at least fifteen media workers: three in the Hamas attack on Israel, eleven in retaliatory Israeli strikes inside Gaza, and one—the Reuters video journalist Issam Abdallah—in apparent Israeli shelling in southern Lebanon.

I also wrote that this count was likely just the beginning. In the three weeks since, it has already more than doubled—to at least thirty-six, at CPJ’s latest estimate. At least one of those deaths was backdated: I noted in my previous newsletter that Roee Idan, a photojournalist for the news site Ynet, went missing and was feared abducted after Hamas attacked the kibbutz where he lived on October 7. A few days after I wrote, Idan’s body was identified; Hamas reportedly took him prisoner but also shot him, and at some point, he died.

According to CPJ’s tally, Israeli strikes on Gaza killed all of the other journalists whom the group has confirmed as having died in the past three weeks. Between them, they worked as freelancers, fixers, and for a variety of news organizations and agencies. Per CPJ, seven of them worked for TV and radio stations affiliated with Hamas. Three of them, apparently, were Abu Hatab’s colleagues at Palestine TV.

After almost exactly a month of fighting, the conflict is not only the deadliest on record for media workers in Israel and Palestine but the deadliest (to the equivalent point) for media workers covering any war in recent memory. CPJ said that it has not recorded an equivalently deadly period since it began keeping such records in 1992; Reporters Without Borders (or RSF) reached a similar conclusion, calling the early weeks of the conflict the deadliest opening to any war since at least 2000.

Such metrics rarely lie within clean lines. They depend, among other factors, on whose deaths a given organization decides to include and what they are able to learn about them: RSF, for instance, based its comparison with other recent wars on the number of journalists in the current conflict—twelve—who it has so far determined were killed in connection with their work. (RSF’s total tally of journalist deaths currently stands at thirty-four.) But it’s clear that, whichever way you slice them, the numbers conceal a historically dire human cost.

According to RSF’s data, the second-deadliest opening to a twenty-first-century war for members of the press—with eleven deaths—came in the weeks that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Their causes were various. Gaby Rado, a correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4, fell from a hotel roof; another British TV reporter, Terry Lloyd, was apparently caught in cross fire between US and Iraqi troops; Michael Kelly, a writer for The Atlantic and the Washington Post, was killed when a US military vehicle in which he was traveling came under fire and veered into a canal.

On the same day in April 2003, US troops struck the Baghdad bureau of Al Jazeera, killing Tareq Ayyoub, a correspondent for the network, and also a hotel housing most of the foreign journalists in the city, killing Taras Protsyuk, a camera operator for Reuters, and José Couso, of the Spanish network Telecinco. The US military said it was returning fire from the building, but journalists in the area disputed this. (The building was called the Palestine Hotel.)

Per RSF, eight journalists were killed in the weeks after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the same number as were killed following the start of the war in Syria a decade later. Its figures also list seven journalists as having been killed in the first month of the war in Ukraine last year. Reviewing my own reporting from the time, I’d peg that figure higher, at thirteen, though this includes at least four journalists whose bodies were discovered only later and at least one who was killed in a Russian strike on the building where they lived, rather than in the field. It also includes two journalists who were killed after signing up to fight for the Ukrainian military.

As Ann Cooper wrote for CPJ at the time, press-freedom groups, understandably, tend not to include such fatalities in their death counts. Taking up arms “seemingly contradicts the journalistic norm of impartiality, even in wartime,” Cooper wrote. But Stanyslav Aseyev, one journalist who enlisted, seemed to see things differently, arguing to Cooper that “had Ukraine disappeared, journalism would have been meaningless.” Again, there are few clean lines here.

In the early days of the Ukraine war, Jakub Parusinski, a media consultant, told my then–Columbia colleague Gabby Miller that the attacks on reporters he’d seen so far seemed not to have been explicitly targeted as much as they were part of Russia’s “absolute disregard for civilian life.” (“I don’t think that makes it better,” Parusinski said, “just different.”) The question of targeting has again been at issue in the early days of the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Last week, fifty regional and international press groups accused Israel of the “systematic targeting” of Palestinian media professionals; RSF, meanwhile, concluded, based on a video reconstruction, that Abdallah, the Reuters journalist killed on the border of Lebanon and Israel, appeared to have been targeted, though the group said that its investigation is ongoing. RSF also filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court, making the case that the killings of eight Palestinian journalists in Israeli strikes on Gaza and an Israeli journalist in the Hamas attack on Israel constituted war crimes—even if, in the case of the Palestinian journalists, the strikes aimed to hit legitimate military targets. (The strikes “nevertheless caused manifestly excessive and disproportionate harm to civilians,” RSF said.)

Israel, for its part, has denied targeting journalists (it has said that it is investigating Abdallah’s killing) but recently told Reuters and Agence France-Presse that it cannot guarantee the safety of their staff in Gaza, stating, among other things, that Hamas conducts military operations “in the vicinity of journalists and civilians.” The building housing AFP’s Gaza bureau has since been hit in an air strike. Israel initially denied all involvement, but later said the building may have been collateral damage in one of its strikes.

In any war, the question of whether journalists have been targeted is, clearly, of immense importance: morally, legally, and in terms of ensuring reporters’ safety going forward. But in some ways, as I wrote repeatedly during the early months of the war in Ukraine, this distinction can be a fine one, and can, if we aren’t careful, obscure the fact that journalists are—usually, if not always—civilians, whose deaths cannot be considered wholly apart from those of other civilians.

According to CPJ’s tally, many of the Palestinian media workers killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza have died alongside members of their families, in some cases children. When Idan, the Ynet photojournalist, was initially reported missing from his kibbutz, he was thought to be with his three-year-old daughter. While Idan’s killing has since been confirmed, his child is still thought to be in Gaza, a hostage of Hamas.

Last week, Abu Hatab, the Palestine TV correspondent, was also killed alongside his family; according to reports, the air strike killed eleven of his relatives, including his wife, son, and brother. Salman Al-Bashir, a colleague of Abu Hatab, learned of his death while reporting live from the Nasser Hospital—where Abu Hatab had himself been reporting hours earlier. Al-Bashir teared up on air, then took off his helmet and a flak jacket marked “PRESS” that he had been wearing, similar to the one that would be laid at Abu Hatab’s funeral. “These shields and these helmets will not protect us,” Al-Bashir said, according to the BBC. “They are just slogans that we wear.”

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.

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