The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yet another Palestinian journalist dies on the job

Palestinians take part in a demonstration following the death of veteran Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Gaza City on May 12. (Mohammed Abed / AFP)

Daoud Kuttab is the winner of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Press Freedom Award and the International Press Institute’s Press Freedom Hero Award. He runs the Community Media Network in Amman, Jordan.

When Shireen Abu Akleh set out early on Wednesday to cover the situation in the West Bank city of Jenin, she thought she was well-protected. Not only was she equipped with a helmet and bulletproof vest (marked by letters clearly spelling out the word “press” outlined in bright white) — she also had accreditation from the Israeli authorities, meaning that she was fully entitled to carry out her job as a reporter for the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera.

But as she was going about her job, a bullet struck her beneath her ear (a place uncovered by the helmet, thus suggesting a targeted shot from a sniper). The Israeli army was carrying out what appears to have been a dawn attack on Palestinians in the camp, and the presence of journalists with cameras documenting what they were about to do was evidently not part of their plans. (Israeli officials claim that she was caught in a crossfire; the United Nations has called for an independent investigation into the killing.)

Israel has a long history of harsh treatment of Palestinian journalists. Since 1972, Nidal Mansour, the founding director of the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, has documented 103 deaths of Palestinian journalists and nearly 7,000 injuries, plus many detentions and imprisonments.

A Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem (and a U.S. citizen), Abu Akleh covered stories with professionalism and strict adherence to facts. She joined Al Jazeera in 1997, and since then she has been an almost daily presence in the news from Palestine, including extensive coverage of the second Palestinian intifada.

Her voice was strong and calming and she never showed any reaction on camera to whatever was happening around her. In the past year, she became a regular at the protests in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Tensions there were always running high, yet she was careful to present facts and avoid rumors and unsubstantiated stories.

Much has happened over the years, yet one thing has remained the same: Israel and Israeli soldiers abhor Palestinian journalists, and those with cameras are viewed with even more scorn.

I can attest to this personally, based on my four decades of experience. In 1982, in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, I decided to apply for an Israeli press card. After months of waiting, security checks and jumping over bureaucratic hurdles to prove that I was a bona fide journalist, I was able to obtain accreditation as a journalist by the Israeli government press office.

The Israeli-issued press card allowed me to cross checkpoints, and most of the time it helped. Yet we were never allowed to forget the realities of occupation. We had to surmount countless obstacles and numerous dangers. We faced strict censorship that prevented us from writing or showing anything that expressed Palestinian nationalism. Israeli censors would sometimes arbitrarily change the figures of Palestinians killed or injured or insert the word “terrorist” (which we refused to use) when naming a member of a Palestinian resistance faction.

Once an Israeli soldier confronted me when he saw me standing on the balcony of my house during curfew. When I responded by showing him his own government’s press card, he threw it on the ground and slapped me in the face.

With the exception of those like Abu Akleh, who work for international media outlets, Israel has never been willing to accredit Palestinian journalists working for Palestinian media. The Ramallah-based Palestine TV often uses Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to cover stories in Jerusalem.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) has criticized Israel for this policy, and for the fact that professional journalists working in Ramallah or Gaza or any other city under occupation (except for Jerusalem) are not provided the right to movement that is guaranteed to all Israeli and foreign journalists. A 2013 mission by IPI, in which I participated, called on the Israeli government to “take steps to formally recognize the existence of Palestinian media organizations, and grant journalists working for those organizations appropriate accreditation that can be recognized by the Israeli military.”

The recommendations of the global press freedom association were and are still ignored. The hardest places for Palestinian journalists are those such as Jenin, which are relatively inaccessible and mostly out of view.

Israel’s anti-journalism policy is not limited to traditional media, though.

Israel and its army of paid staff and lobbyists regularly harass and restrict the digital media work of many Palestinian journalists and institutions. Palestinians have accused social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and others of buckling to Israeli pressure by censoring and at times totally blocking and shutting down accounts by Palestinians.

The news of Abu Akleh’s untimely killing sparked anger throughout the region. Millions of Arabs have literally grown up watching and following her reports, and she is revered and respected by many for her professionalism. Her death has left a big gap for many who feel she was one of their daily guests. She will be missed.