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Journalism Under Siege

“On Gaza” speaker series: forging a space for discussion about the critical conditions of Palestinians and fostering solidarity

Content warning: violence, death 

Certain quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity

March 7, 2024 marks five months of the war in Gaza. At the time of writing, the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 30,000 people, including more than 12,300 children, 1,139 people in Israel, and 411 people in the occupied West Bank. Meanwhile, an estimated 1,200 journalists in Gaza continue to be targeted and face precarious conditions as they relay information about the daily events and conditions on the ground. On February 28, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a preliminary investigation of journalist deaths in the violence since October 7. The account showed that at least 88 journalists and media workers were among the more than 30,000 killed since the war began on October 7, making Gaza the world’s deadliest place for journalists.

On February 20, the Critical Media Lab hosted the hybrid panel “Journalism under siege” in collaboration with McGill, the Research Group on Democracy, Space, and Technology, and Tufts University. The panel is part of the “On Gaza’’ speaker series, and panel members included Sherif Mansour, the CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator; Nidal Rafa, a Palestinian journalist and producer; Ghoussoun Bisharat, the editor-in-chief of +972 magazine; and Palestinian journalist and human rights activist Mahmoud Mustafa, reporting from north Gaza. Previous events included discussions on health care and infrastructural ruination.

Dr. Diana Allan, associate professor in Anthropology at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill and co-founder of the Critical Media Lab, introduced the event as a discussion on the “war on Palestinian journalism.” Professor Amahl Bishara, the moderator of the panel and associate professor at Tufts University, added that “we all, and not just those concerned with Palestinian and Israeli people and places, but all those concerned with the fate and processes of human rights, decolonization and striving for justice, all rely on the work and words of the Palestinian journalists who are on the ground doing this work every day.”

The Daily spoke with Dr. Allan about her work as an anthropologist, archivist, and ethnographic filmmaker with Palestinian refugees living in the camps in Lebanon. She explained that the “On Gaza” series emerged from conversations with two of her graduate students about “the urgent need for a space on campus in which to discuss what is happening in Gaza.”

She further added that “as is often noted, we have been watching a genocide unfold in real-time — literally, the obliteration of a world and a people, which is unprecedented and horrifying in ways that are hard to describe or bear. And yet, outside of the student mobilizations on campus — which have been so amazing and inspiring — there has been almost no public discussion of these world-transforming events at McGill.”

“In convening these talks the aim has been to open a space for critical discussion about the material conditions of life and death in Gaza today, and the broader implications of Israel’s genocidal war on besieged Palestinians. Beyond simply sharing information, my hope is that these talks can also help to build solidarity and community, which is why they have been in- person,” she told the Daily.

Panelist Sherif Mansour expressed his concerns regarding the unprecedented killings of journalists in Gaza and their consequences. He emphasized that the alarming situation stems from a pattern of violence and killings that goes beyond the beginning of the war in October. Referring to the CJP’s 2023 report “Deadly Pattern,” he explained that there is a “precarious, dangerous and deadly environment, specifically for Palestinian journalists covering Israeli army operations.”

Killings of Palestinian journalists are not isolated occurrences. Since 2001, CPJ has documented at least 20 journalist killings by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

“What we see is that this deadly pattern continues unchecked because we haven’t seen accountability,” asserted Mansour. He explained that the Israeli army only committed to doing an investigation if the journalist killed had a foreign passport or worked for an international media outlet. Even then, “it doesn’t lead to anything: no one is charged, no one is held accountable.”

Such was the case with the Palestinian-American television journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed by the IDF on May 11, 2022. The IDF investigation determined there was a “high possibility” that one of their soldiers “accidentally” shot the journalist while engaging Palestinian gunmen. This announcement came five months after her death. To this day, no accountability has been reached.

Mansour warned that since 90 per cent of the journalists killed in this war were Palestinians, this systematic targeting would compromise the ability of Palestinian journalists to cover IDF activities. “The deadly pattern has not just continued, but has turned what was a chilling effect before this war into a news blackout and forced on the media especially Palestinian journalists that were said to bear the brunt of Israeli fire and bear witness of all journalists worldwide about what is happening in Gaza.”

In late October, Israel’s military told Reuters and Agence France Presse that they are unable to guarantee the safety of journalists operating in the Gaza Strip, due to the ongoing Israeli bombardment.

Journalists in Gaza face immense challenges in carrying out their work. The Israeli army has destroyed around 50 local and international media outlets in Gaza since October 7, as reported by the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS), in addition to the devastating loss of life. In addition to the killings, reports have also emerged of different forms of violent “incidents” with the aim of reinforcing the “news blackout.” This comprises 25 arrests, various cases of assaults, threats, cyberattacks, and censorship. According to CPJ’s data as of February 27, 19 journalists were reported to be in Israeli custody.

Bisharat asked Mansour about the “horrific arrests of journalists,” which have been “somewhat neglected in this scheme of things.” He explained that every year, CPJ produces a report on journalists who have been incarcerated.

“For the first time, Israel was one of our top war jailers of journalists,” he said. Throughout the war, they have documented 25 arrests with a majority in the West Bank. All were Palestinian journalists put in military trials under administrative detention. “Under those tribunals [journalists] can be held indefinitely [without a trial] for the suspicion that they could incite violence in the future.” He then added that among them, five had been beaten and tortured during their custody. Mansour then explained that these incarcerations were part of a wider pattern of censoring Palestinian journalists.

The families of journalists in Gaza have also been targeted by the IDF. For instance, according to reports from Reuters and The Guardian, eight members of photojournalist Yasser Qudih’s family were killed on November 13 when their home in southern Gaza was hit by four missiles. On October 25, Wael Al-Dahdouh also lost his family to Israeli bombardments, after having moved to a house in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, where they though they would be safer.

“People didn’t hear the story about Wael Al-Dahdouh when he lost his kids and wife […] If his name was John Smith I’m sure that it would have been a headline in Europe and America,” said Rafa. “It is so sad to see that there is such hypocrisy and such double standards when it comes to this. But this is reality.”

“All of us can only learn journalism from the journalists in Gaza,” declared Bisharat, pointing to the immense challenges and risks taken by the journalists on the ground. She explained that there exist three main challenges in covering what is happening in Gaza. Firstly, “we need to make sure that audiences outside Israel and Palestine understand that history didn’t begin on October 7 […] and that there is a regime of apartheid in full force in Israel/Palestine” she said. The second challenge regards getting the information out of Gaza, highlighting difficulties with the internet, blackouts, and concerns for their safety. “The third challenge is trying to connect the dots,” she explained. +972 continues its efforts to cover simultaneously what is happening in the West Bank in terms of settler violence and the expansion of settlements, but also events in Israel.

She then proceeded to share the story of Ibtisam Mahdi, mother of two children, who “while trying to feed them, does amazing work of journalism.” Her last work was on the destruction of Palestine’s historical sites. She also recalls Mahmood Mustafa, who wakes up every morning to find food and internet while trying to report and take care of his parents.

“They are the heroes of this war,” said Bisharat. “Despite having to take care of their own safety, taking care of their family, they keep doing amazing journalistic work.”

“Mainstream Western media has consistently marginalized and silenced Palestinian perspectives and have served to center and bolster Israeli narratives,” declared Dr. Allan to the Daily.

During her section of the panel, Rafa spoke out about issues in the international media coverage of Gaza. “There is a pattern here, not to put the context,” she explained, adding that “there is no conflict here, by the way, it’s an occupation. But if you don’t use the word occupation, how do you expect our audience to understand what is going on?” Rafa warned that not including the context and explaining the larger unfolding of events is not only “dangerous” but is also done “intentionally.”

“I think terminology is very important […] Instead of saying massacre they will say incident, instead of saying occupation they say conflict […] Things are not done by accident […] the problem is with the narrative, who is telling what, when and who is listening to what when how,” declared Rafa.

In 2002, Dr. Allan co-founded the Nakba Archive with Mahmoud Zeidan, a Palestinian educator and human rights advocate from Ayn Hilweh camp in South Lebanon. This community-run oral history project influenced her formation as a scholar of Palestine. She shared with the Daily the significance of oral history in highlighting the Palestinian experience and challenging dominant narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think Palestinians are often understood as abstractions — as humanitarian victims, as “terrorists,” but rarely as political subjects with legitimate aspirations for national self- determination, liberation, and the right to live dignified lives in peace and security,” she explained.

As part of the Nakba Archives, Allan and Zeidan recorded around 500 interviews about the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians, during the creation of the State of Israel, with first-generation Palestinians in camps across Lebanon over five years. Their aim in creating this archive is to re-centre Palestinian narratives, including those of Palestinian refugees, and expose the violent history of Israel’s state formation in the Middle East.

“A definitive history of the Palestinian Nakba, as told by Palestinians, has yet to be written.” she added. “Oral histories can fill some of these gaps, shed light on subaltern experience, and challenge settler colonial narratives — refugee narratives also have the power to transform our understanding of history itself — its form, substance and purpose, the matter of who tells it, what constitutes an ‘event’ or ‘truth.’”

While he wasn’t able to attend the panel in-person, journalist Mahmoud Mustafa sent a video describing his everyday struggles in getting news out of Gaza. “No words can describe this agony of life,” he says. While testifying to the inhumane consequences of the warfare carried out by the IDF — the constant worry, hunger, lack of sleep, search for shelter, and so on — we could hear sirens and loud noises in the background. “The Israeli army is trying to mute us,” he asserts, adding that “our rights to be journalists are denied.”

Mustafa responded to accusations made against him for not being neutral. “Why are you asking me to be neutral while my friends have been killed? What do you mean by ‘you have to be neutral’? I am facing the killing and the dangers every day.”

“We need the support of other journalists outside Palestine to complete our work, to amplify our voice,” he concluded.

Dr. Allan told the Daily that “in this moment, when the censorship and silencing of Palestinian voices and those in solidarity with Palestinian liberation is stronger than ever, supporting and amplifying the work of journalists like Mahmoud Mushtaha or Nidal Rafa is really vitally important.”

She concluded by empathizing with many students’ reaction to the McGill administration’s communication since the beginning of the war, highlighting the “unseemly power dynamics” at play in the unequal treatment of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel voices on campus. “These forms of censorship and intimidation are very troubling and are something that all members of our community need to actively challenge,” she added.

Nidal Rafa prompted that “the world has to stop with their double standards and to say enough is enough. I think Palestinians are not asking for much. […] I say it’s very simple. There is an occupation here and Palestinians are asking for freedom and self- determination.”

On a more optimistic note, Bisharat added that “we are witnessing cracks in the international media in its coverage of Israel/Palestine,” referring to the work and fights of journalists such as Chris McGreal from The Guardian.

Sherif Mansour brought the event to a close by saying: “The consequences of what happens to Palestinian journalists are going to stay and go beyond this war, beyond this region. Because impunity like violence does not know boundaries.”

“Poetry as Resistance,” the next event on the “On Gaza” speaker series, is scheduled for March 12. The panel will be held in the Critical Media Lab, Peterson 108, from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. Prof. Rula Abi Saab from IIS, herself a poet and novelist, will be moderating.