Last week, the International Press Institute reported that 2012 has been the deadliest year for journalists since it started keeping track in 1997: 119 journalists have been killed, 36 in Syria and 16 in Somalia. During the brief but fierce conflict between Israel and Hamas this month, Israeli weapons killed three journalists in Gaza. Though the members of the media who die in conflicts are typically not nationals of the United States or Europe, it is imperative that we, as Americans, recognize all of these journalists both because their deaths impact the global atmosphere for press freedom and because their deaths speak to the risks of good reporting on conflicts.
We were reminded of these risks on Sunday, Nov. 18 when during a televised report from Gaza, a massive explosion occurred nearby where CNN’s Anderson Cooper was doing a live shot. [Video below] At the moment of impact, Cooper did what any of us would do — he ducked for cover. Seconds later, having quickly recovered, standing straight up, he commented, “That was probably the largest explosion that we have heard just in the past — really in the past hour.”
This was, in the moment, an alarming blast, but it’s not at all unusual in the flow of events.
Certainly I am relieved that Cooper was not hurt — but perhaps some on-screen flinching is appropriate, given the circumstances. After all, Israel’s assault on Gaza was hardly “surgical.” Early estimates of the percentage of Palestinian civilian deaths ranged from 70 percent to 90 percent. Out of the 166 Palestinians who were killed, at least 40 were children.
Journalists in Gaza are at risk because everyone in Gaza is at risk. Perhaps one way to communicate what it means for Israel to carry out intense airstrikes on one of the most densely populated places in the world is precisely through the act of flinching, the act of acknowledging, wordlessly, that one is in danger just by being there.
We often think of journalism as a practice of language and images, but during wartime especially, the things television journalists learn and express through their bodies can be at least as important as those they learn and express in language. When Cooper instinctively ducked for cover, audiences understood more dramatically that he was in no way insulated from the event he was covering. By no means does being on the scene guarantee good reporting, but physical perspective does make a difference.
What came just before the explosion was also revealing: Cooper had been about to report on Israeli airstrikes that targeted two buildings known for housing international and local news organizations.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least seven journalists were injured in these attacks, including Khader al-Zahhar, who lost his right leg. Two days later, Israeli airstrikes killed three journalists in Gaza: Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, who were both cameramen for Al-Aqsa TV, also had in common that they were 30-year-old fathers of four; the third was Mohamed Abu Aisha, director of Al-Quds Educational Radio.
Commenting on the first attacks, those that caused the journalists’ injuries, Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev insisted to Al-Jazeera English that journalists had not been targeted, and underscored, “as far as I know, no foreign journalists were hurt whatsoever.” The key word, of course, is “foreign.”
Regarding the deaths of the three journalists, Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich commented that initial investigations indicated that these journalists were Hamas operatives. In a letter to the New York Times dated Nov. 28, she put it more plainly:
Such terrorists, who hold cameras and notebooks in their hands, are no different from their colleagues who fire rockets aimed at Israeli cities and cannot enjoy the rights and protection afforded to legitimate journalists.
According to international groups advocating for press freedoms, these three were clearly journalists. Reporters Without Borders, for example, “strongly condemns these deliberate attacks on those working for media organizations affiliated to, or with links to, Hamas.”
Palestinian journalists seem to be, at best, invisible to Israeli authorities, and at worst regarded as threats. But they should not be invisible to us, because the worlds of Palestinian journalism and U.S. journalism are intricately connected. When they are covering the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most U.S. foreign correspondents depend on Palestinian journalists to do translation, set up interviews, and give them a sense of the nuances of a situation. Foreign correspondents also rely on Palestinians to help keep them safe. We can be reasonably sure that Anderson’s team had the support of Palestinian journalists and media workers while in Gaza.
Journalists who work for state or party media organizations are part of this professional community — and in the field, with cars marked as “PRESS,” they are indistinguishable from foreign reporters. Journalists may compete to break a story, but there is no doubt that everyone benefits from the presence of more journalists covering a story.
When Israel shows a disregard for the lives of Palestinian journalists, we should care about this not only because Palestinian journalists are people who, like other Gazans, do not deserve to die from missiles falling from the sky — but also because their endangerment infringes upon our own access to information.
American press freedom is not only “Made in America,” but rather, in Palestinian territories and around the world, it depends on the expertise of local journalists who help U.S. foreign correspondents do their jobs. We need to concern ourselves with their safety, too.
- Alan Dershowitz: The Media Bear Some Responsibility For Civilian Deaths In Gaza (Cognoscenti)
- Gaza Media Building Hit, Rockets Aim For Tel Aviv (NPR)
- LISTEN: Journalist Deaths Hit High In 2012, Report Says (NPR)
- Public Editor: Problems With a Reporter’s Facebook Posts, and a Possible Solution (New York Times)