World Press Freedom Day: The devastating reality for journalists caught in the crossfire of conflict in the war in Gaza

Shuruq As’ad, journalist and WAN-IFRA Women in News Country Coordinator for Palestine. Photo: Courtesy

3 May, World Press Freedom Day, shines a light on the importance of independent journalism and the essential role journalists play to inform their citizens and hold power to account. Reporting on the war in Gaza has been the deadliest assignment for journalists in recent history, with the unconscionable loss of life of more than 130 journalists in the past seven months alone. Shuruq As’ad is a TV and radio journalist, a member of the general secretariat of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, and the WAN-IFRA Women in News country coordinator for Palestine. She has been documenting the devastating toll the war has taken on Palestinian and in particular Gazan journalists since 7 October. She shares with WAN-IFRA WIN.

What are the main challenges journalists are facing as a result of the war in Gaza?

The main challenge is staying alive, being safe and protected. While we have many challenges in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem, the risks are greatest in Gaza. 

Second, because they are not protected, there is no safe place – journalists have been the targets of airstrikes. Since the start of the war, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has recorded at least 134 journalists killed in Gaza and in the West bank. In Gaza, 16 women journalists in Gaza were killed among the 134, many journalists are losing their lives alongside family members. Journalists are being bombed in their homes, offices and streets. Many of them have received direct threats and later  their family homes were bombed . They have lost parents, spouses, children and siblings. Israel killed 9% of the journalists in Gaza in nearly 200 days.

Third, journalists need to be able to report freely in keeping with international laws. Seven months into the war, however, there have been cuts in communication and internet access. This is a big challenge for reporters as they are struggling to file stories. If they are in danger, they cannot call for help. There is no fuel, so they have to walk from one place to another to file stories. Sometimes they use primitive carriages drawn by donkeys. They also need to find food and water and tents, blankets and mattresses  to stay alive. 1,500 journalists were displaced, some for the fourth or fifth time. Most of them are living in makeshift tents that don’t protect them from rain, cold or hot weather. 100 journalists remain in Gaza city and North Gaza, living under starvation and military siege. Several others in the middle and south are totally disconnected. Journalists in North Gaza and Gaza city are sometimes forced to eat animal food to avoid starving. 

We have lost colleagues to injuries that could have been treated, but they were denied access to hospitals after Israeli soldiers refused to let them out of Gaza. Others lost their lives because the Israeli army shot at any ambulance that tried to save them, like Samer Abu Daqqa, an Al Jazeera cameraman. If you get the flu, you could die in this situation. It’s really terrible. We have so many journalists who have lost their arms, legs and eyes. 

What are the working conditions like?

Most journalists in Gaza cannot work from offices because these have been bombed. When journalists went to the streets to work, they were targeted.  When they went home, they were targeted. Journalists are being targeted in their tents, in their cars. They are afraid to visit their children because their families may be targeted. Even when they identify themselves as members of the press, they are attacked. They wear their safety vests thinking it will protect them under international law, but this doesn’t happen. 

The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has recorded the bombing of at least 73 offices in Gaza, including those belonging to Reuters, AFP and several Arab news and local channels. There have also been 11 invasions and partial demolitions of media offices in the West Bank. This makes it challenging and catastrophic for journalists to work and deliver the news. 

Israel has arrested at least 100 journalists in Gaza and West Bank since October 7 last year. 45 are still in Israeli jails, and the journalists who were released shared difficult testimonies about getting beaten, humiliated and starved. They were denied visits from their families. Women journalists who were arrested reported being mistreated. Soldiers invaded the homes of journalists in the middle of the night. They weren’t told why they were being arrested. We haven’t been able to get everyone released, even with the help of international organisations. 

There is no freedom of speech. So not only are journalists struggling to deliver a story, stay safe, and access electricity, food or the internet, but they also cannot express their opinion. The journalists who were arrested were mostly detained for what they wrote concerning Gaza and West Bank, and what they posted on social media. They aren’t being presented to court. They are under administrative arrest. Israeli authorities are using an old emergency British law to arrest journalists without having to explain why or take them to court. They’re being held for months under terrible conditions. They are stripped and interrogated brutally. They get very little food and water. 

Basically our colleagues in Gaza are not safe. At any moment, we could receive word that someone has died. There are bombings all around them. Many of our colleagues are now in Rafah, Khan Yunis and Deir al Balah. Rafah is a very small area that used to have not more than 20,000 people but now has 1.8 million.

In the West Bank, there are nearly 500 Israeli military checkpoints and settlements and cement walls preventing journalists from moving to safety. Some of our colleagues are directly threatened that they will be killed if they are seen covering news in Jerusalem or on the border near Gaza. We have about 60 journalists who have reported attacks from armed Israeli settlers, while tens have reported being mistreated at checkpoints, being injured and their equipment demolished.

In Palestine, and even before 7 October, journalists were under Israeli attack. We have lost 55 journalists since the year 2000 to 6 October 2023. Journalists reported 9,000 attacks over this period. They leave home to cover the news but don’t know if they will make it back to their families. 

When reporters go to cover stories anywhere in the world, they can leave. In Gaza, they can’t. They are trapped. They are targets. Every single journalist has lost a loved one. My husband, for instance, worked with Sky News Arabia. He has lost 70 family members, most being children, women and the elderly. Every time my colleagues and I cover the demonstrations in West Bank, we are attacked with bullets and teargas. We cannot reach Gaza to really report on what’s happening – and this is not only for Palestinian and Arab journalists, but also the foreign press. The Foreign Press Association went to court for the right to go to Gaza to report on what is happening there. The Israeli court refused to recognise this right. 

It’s important to remember that this is not a new situation for us as journalists. Since day one of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, journalists have been targets. I’ve been reporting for 30 years. Every journalist has personal stories of attacks, shootings and arrests. It’s just become more brutal since 7 October. Israeli soldiers and snipers are shooting live bullets and using heavy and forbidden bombs. They are erasing entire neighbourhoods, entire families.

What’s the international response you would like to see to this harrowing situation?

At the beginning of the war in Gaza in October, the international community and foreign media adopted the Israeli narrative without any investigation, without getting both sides or counter-checking information and videos. They dehumanised Palestinians, journalists, children and doctors. We saw the cycle of self-defence and hesitancy. Most foreign media coverage lacked historical background on the occupation of Palestine for 75 years. Donors froze funding for media organisations and journalists despite years of talking about human rights, freedom of speech, justice and international law. They disappeared. It was very disappointing. What’s happening now in US colleges and the police reaction is a continuation of the same mentality of suppressing freedom of speech. 

However, I like to have hope that we are a community of journalists and human beings. This situation shouldn’t be seen as just an attack on Palestinian journalism. It should be about journalism across the world because it’s really attacking media principles, ethics, rights and laws.

The International Federation of Journalists has been very supportive. Many foreign journalists have reached out to us to tell our stories, which gives up hope. International organisations like WAN-IFRA WIN, the Committee to Protect Journalists and others platforms have delivered emergency support for journalists.

We want the international community to practice what it has preached for years about human rights. We want them to deliver the story and give Palestinians the same space they would give anyone else. We want them to investigate and be accurate. We want them to pressure decision-makers in their countries to stop the killing of journalists. 

When we talk to our colleagues, they say they feel abandoned. They are being bombed alone, dying alone, starving alone. They are not seen. So it is important to back up our colleagues and be loud about saying “stop the targeting and killing of journalists in Gaza”. Give them the protection they deserve according to international law, and give them the right to seek accountability.

As the Palestinian Press Syndicate, we are preparing files for the International Criminal Court. Israel should be held accountable for the war and killings, and should be punished. We will knock on all the doors in courts or through media engagement platforms. On this day, we mourn our 135 colleagues, and we name what’s happening in Gaza as genocide. We will remember our colleagues, name by name, and remember the precious life they had, and the beautiful and effective stories they delivered.

 As’ad will be interviewed at the WAN-IFRA World News Media Congress taking place in Copenhagen from 27-29 May. See here for the WAN-IFRA/Committee to Protect Journalism call for international support for colleagues reporting on one of the deadliest conflicts for journalists ever documented. 

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