- Sujena Soumyanath
Palestinian Journalist Killed Amidst Global Attack on Press Freedom
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
It is around 6:30 a.m. in Jenin City, Palestine, and the sky is a bright, clear blue. A small group of Palestinian journalists stand near the entrance of a refugee camp located in the city. Jenin, which is a part of the Israeli administered Northern West Bank territory, has long been a hotspot in the Israel-Palestine conflict, prone to increasing amounts of violence in recent years. This particular morning, the journalists gathered there to report on an Israeli raid. They wear helmets and prominently marked press vests and move towards a group of Israeli military vehicles, walking slowly so the Israeli forces can see them.
All of a sudden, a series of shots ring out. Within a few minutes, one of the journalists, prominent Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, lies dead in the street, blood pooling around her head. Shatha Hanayasha, another Palestinian reporter, reaches out to try and help her but the gunshots continue even after Abu Akleh collapses. When she is finally rushed to a local hospital, Abu Akleh is in critical condition, and the hospital declares her dead at 7:15 a.m.
West Bank mourners pay their respects to Abu Akleh. Photo Credits: Frontline
In the immediate aftermath of Abu Akleh’s death on May 11, 2022, Al Jazeera accused Israel of murdering Abu Akleh in “cold blood.” The prominent journalist, a Catholic Palestinian, had been a reporter with the network since 1997. She rose to fame through her coverage of Palestinians experiencing Israeli occupation, and quickly became a household name in the Arab world through frequent television appearances.
Despite Al-Jazeera’s accusation and the international outcry her death sparked, Israeli forces attributed her murder to two potential situations. They asserted it was either “massive gunfire by Palestinian forces” or crossfire between an Israeli soldier and a “terrorist who was firing at his vehicle.” To corroborate their claim, they disseminated a video of Palestinian gunmen opening fire in a Jenin alleyway, arguing that it proved Palestinians could have been responsible for the attack on Abu Akleh.
The next day, however, an Al Jazeera investigation revealed the men in the video were nowhere near Abu Akleh when she was shot. Additionally, Al-Jazeera journalist Ali al-Samoudi who witnessed the murder asserted that “there was no Palestinian military resistance present at the scene.” His testimony is supported by multiple other eywitnesses, and no evidence of armed Palestinian fighters within firing range has been provided yet to refute this claim.
An investigation launched by CNN in the same month provided similar findings: through video recordings, eyewitness accounts, audio analysis and expert testimony, CNN concluded that Akleh was killed in a “targeted attack by Israeli forces.”
Most recently, Al Jazeera announced it would take the case of Abu Akleh’s murder to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This decision follows international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations condemning the event and calling for an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s murder.
The United States has a more complicated stance on the situation. Abu Akleh is a U.S. citizen, but Israel is a prominent ally of the U.S. This means the U.S. is limited in how much it can condemn Israel and its investigation method, but also has a responsibility to follow up on Abu Akleh’s death. As a result, although progressive members of Congress urged the FBI to launch an investigation into the murder, the Biden administration announced on May 27 it would not take independent action; instead opting to continue advising both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as they conduct their separate investigations.
Israel’s investigations will likely be inconclusive, because the Palestinian National Authority (PA) has refused to give up the bullet which shot Abu Akleh for analysis by Israel. Israeli forces need the bullet to see if it matches their weaponry, but the PA has stood firm in its refusal, citing distrust for Israeli investigators and history of inaction on the part of Israel when faced with such crises.
Abu Akleh’s killing marks one of many significant civilian deaths to come out of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2002, the Israeli military shot United Nations official Iain Hook while he was inside the organization’s compound. In 2007, 10 year old Abir Aramin was killed by an Israeli police officer’s rubber bullet as she went out to buy sweets. More recently, in 2018, Israeli troops killed Palestinian photojournalist Yaser Murtaja as he was reporting on the Gaza-Israel border.
For journalists like Murtaja and Abu Akleh, their profession creates an added layer of danger in the midst of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2020, The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate reported that Israel had killed over 50 Palestinian journalists since 2000. In fact, just a month before Abu Akleh’s death, the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the International Federation of Journalists filed a complaint with the ICC for Israel’s “systematic targeting” of Palestinian journalists.
These events provide only a glimpse into the sheer volume of civilian deaths perpetrated by Israel. In most cases, Israel follows a format similar to the one that occurred after Abu Akleh’s death to deflect a public relations disaster. It blames Palestinian fighters, asserts that the killing happened near a zone of conflict where the victim was killed in crossfire or dismisses the facts as unclear but insists on its innocence. The misleading video Israel circulated to accuse Palestinian fighters of the May 11 tragedy was simply one more gear in this well-oiled machine, revealing Israel’s ongoing effort to maintain an innocent face in the midst of a violent and longlasting conflict.
But beyond just the plight of journalists caught in the deadly clash between Israel’s military force and its international image, Abu Akleh’s killing also sheds light on the increasing dangers journalists face worldwide, as freedom of the press is on an international decline. According to an analysis by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, 85% of the world’s population lives in a country where the freedom of the press decreased in the past five years. Additionally, UNESCO reported that from 2016 to 2021, 455 journalists were killed for reasons relating to their profession.
The most topical example of this recent trend is the war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely attributes his war crimes to staged hoaxes and criminalizes objective reporting, and 9 media workers have been killed in connection to their reporting on the conflict. Many others face intimidation, harassment and censorship.
The problem doesn’t just extend to countries in the midst of overt conflict. Mexico has experienced 11 journalist killings just this year alone, many of which were connected to reporting on drug cartels. In India, as the ruling Hindu nationalist party continues to suppress press freedom, media critics such as Rana Ayyub have faced violent intimidation, and journalists such as Gauri Lankesh have been murdered by Hindu nationalists. Further, from the Netherlands to Malta to Greece, Europe has seen an increasing number of investigative journalists in traditionally democratic countries being killed under mysterious circumstances after reporting on topics such as corruption and organized crime.
According to the International Republican Institute, journalism is “essential to healthy democracy” and “a key part to fighting authoritarianism.” In 2021, the UN released a similar statement, calling free press “a cornerstone of democratic societies” and urging countries to put their full effort into upholding it.
In the face of reports that authoritarianism and propaganda is on the rise, the important role the media plays within society has only become more prominent. The loss of Shireen Abu Akleh is the loss of one more pillar upholding democracy worldwide.
As the world grapples with yet another wound in Israel-Palestine relations, it is important to remember that Abu Akleh’s story has been played out time and time again, with various different actors and in various different countries. It is a story that reveals the increasing unsteadiness of democracy and the necessity of those who uphold it. The world may have lost Shireen Abu Akleh, but her legacy and the importance of her work have only become more significant.
Editors Note: The title of this article was changed. The word "murdered" has been replaced with "killed" to reflect conflicting viewpoints on intentionality.
Update: Since the article was posted, The United States State Department published a press statement concluding that " gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel."