A new assault is under way in the war of words that is as fierce as the air and ground war between Gaza and Israel and I find myself in a quandary.
The new issue, centred on Palestinian journalists, is likely to result in a long legal battle in the International Criminal Court. It also tests my allegiances.
Local South African journalists are planning vigils to amplify the voices of Palestinian journalists in Gaza who say they are being targeted by Israel. The South African National Editors Forum, citing the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, is concerned at the high number of journalists and media workers killed in Gaza and has accused the Israeli military of ‘deliberately targeting journalists who tell the true story of events in Gaza’.
Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, a favourite news source for impressionable journalists in South Africa, recently posted a podcast, The Take: What will remain of journalism in Gaza? | Israel War on Gaza News, in which Anan Quzmar of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate says 96 out of the 109 journalists he counts as having been killed have been deliberately targeted by Israel.
This podcast will, no doubt, have galvanised the local plans for a visible campaign in support of Palestinian journalists. The ICJ ruling that Israel must comply with the Genocide Convention will also have given it impetus.
Here’s why my struggle is real:
Should I, as a long-time campaigner for a free media, an opponent of repression of the media, a former SA Union of Journalists freelance coordinator, a former SANEF council member, and, most relevantly, as the daughter of a journalist killed in a war zone, be picking up a placard along with former colleagues and fall into lockstep with most colleagues on this issue?
Should I take a more cautious approach? Should I do nothing?
The Committee to Protect Journalists, with its board packed with prominent editors and media top dogs, has the death toll at 83 journalists and media workers (24 January 2024).
Verify all the names
The numbers are indeed high. For comparison, using Statista.com figures, the highest number of journalists killed globally in any year between 1995 and 2023 was 147 in 2012. Last year the total journalist deaths across the worlds regions was 45, with the Maghreb and Middle East region the highest, at 18. Statista noted this was largely due to the Israel-Hamas war which began on October 7. The CPJ is still carrying out investigations to verify all the names it has been given and is receiving as dead or injured.
In an article accompanying the CPJ list of recent dead, researcher Mohammed Mansour reports that journalists have also been injured, attacked, arrested and censored, and that some 50 media offices have been destroyed.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) has already laid two complaints at the International Criminal Court requesting the prosecutor to investigate whether Israel has committed war crimes against journalists. Palestine joined the ICC in 2015, Israel is not a member. (Families of nine people killed on 7 October have also asked the ICC to investigate war crimes against Hamas).
At this juncture let me return my father’s death while reporting a war 59 years ago in Katanga, Congo.
George Clay, Africa correspondent for NBC, working with its film and radio documentary unit, had managed to cadge a ride with a Moise Tshombe mercenary convoy, led by a South African, which was heading for the frontline at Stanleyville (now Kisangani).
Shots that killed him
On the way to Stanleyville the convoy was ambushed. George was recording and reporting at the time. The shots that killed him were preserved on his tape recorder.
His obituaries in Newsweek and other publications here and in other countries, were glowing but also got some details such as his age, his education, and who his wife was, wrong. (It was my first journalism lesson. Even the good and great get it wrong.)
My father’s death as far as I’m concerned falls under that awful euphemism ‘collateral damage’. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was there because he was dedicated to his job and an intrepid risk taker. He was a travelling with the enemy.
It may seem strange to people these days but there was no outrage at his killing, only grief and shock, for my family and his colleagues. There was also no blaming of his ‘killers’ or anyone else, even his employers. This was war. Like many others in the NBC unit, he’d fought in the Second World War only 19 years earlier. He knew the risks.
But let’s get back to the allegations that Israel is deliberately targeting Palestinian journalists in all manner of ways.
Journalists are important conduits of information and checks on power in any society and their ability to do their work free from threat, harassment, intimidation, attacks or violence is vital.
Early on in the Gaza-Israel war I saved an extract of a speech by Lord Guglielmo Verdirame KC, professor and barrister in public international law at Kings College, which was circulated on social media by UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer on social media.
In his 25 October speech in the House of Lords on the issue of proportionality in the Gaza-Israeli conflict Verdirame said:
‘When a serious allegation is made, particularly one that could constitute a war crime, the immediate response of the law-abiding belligerent will be to say, “We are investigating”. The non-law-abiding belligerent, by contrast, will forthwith blame the other side and even provide surprisingly precise casualty figures. The duty to investigate is one of the most important ones in armed conflict.’
I do expect the Israelis and international journalists’ organisations to fully investigate the circumstance of all the journalist deaths in this war and any evidence that exists with regard to deliberate killing and harassment as soon as they are able.
But, in the meantime, it worries me that legacy media here and elsewhere, as is increasingly common, seem to have made little or no effort at audi alteram partem, giving a voice to the other side or reflecting any non-establishment take on the issue.
Yes, reports have included the IDF’s one-line, flat response, made on 16 December: ‘The IDF has never and will never deliberately target journalists’. but there is an overwhelming acceptance in these reports of the line that only Israeli malevolence could explain the high number of deaths and harassment.
Author of What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel – The Atlantic and a former Associated Press journalist in Israel, Matti Friedman, interviewed on a recent The Dispatch podcast, believes explanatory journalism has been replaced by editorially sanctioned activist journalism around the world. Journalism, he says, is now seen as a primary ‘tool in the fight for justice’.
Friedman recounted how he was working on copy out of Gaza while with AP in Jerusalem in 2008 when he first had reports from a Palestinian journalist that Hamas fighters were fighting in civilian clothes and were being counted as civilians when dead in clashes with Israel. This detail was quashed after the reporter was pressurised by Hamas.
By 2014 he had already heard many incoming reports that Hamas operated among civilian buildings, launched rockets from civilian areas and intimidated permanent staff from foreign organisations and other journalists.
‘The good guys and the bad guys’
He says Middle East journalists, like many reporters and editors around the world in recent years, operate from a firm idea of who ‘the good guys and the bad guys’ are so it’s not difficult for them to compromise on what, before ‘social justice’, would have been regarded as iron bar journalistic principles.
An self-supporting pro-Israel journalist, David Collier (David-collier.com,) has produced a 50-page report after investigating the lives of many of the people listed as dead journalists by digging through their social accounts, images and messages. He claims this has revealed that many of them are Hamas members or have close relatives who are.
In the CPJ list of dead many are said to have died alongside family members, while travelling or in their homes, in air strikes or rocket bombardments. These deaths could be regarded as unfortunate collateral deaths of civilians in a destructive war which should stop when hostages are released and fighting ends.
The CPJ list also shows many of these and other of the journalists killed were working for Hamas-affiliated or financed media, such as Al Aqsa TV and the jihad-supporting Quds News Network.
In November the IDF said it had demolished the Al Aqsa TV headquarters in response to the terror attack by Hamas and because it was being used by Hamas ‘for military activities including sending messages to terrorist operatives in the West Bank, calls for terror attacks and instructions on how to commit them’.
Having been reminded just yesterday by James Myburgh’s piece on Politicsweb, ‘Hitlerism returns to The Hague’, of the role of Nazi propagandists Julius Streicher and Otto Dietrich in inciting Germans to the extermination of Jews, I don’t think I have it in me to go out to bat for someone who may be party to incitement to wipe out Jews or any other ‘race’ or group of people. Even if they are categorised as journalists.
These last items of information have sufficiently resolved my quandary. I’ll be sitting out this particular journalism fight from here on in. Thanks for hearing me out.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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