Covering a Journalist’s Murder: Palestinian Shireen Abu Akleh’s Killing Sets Twitter Ablaze
A sniper’s bullet pierced through Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s head on Wednesday as she covered Israeli troops’ assault on a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, said eyewitnesses who accused Israel of deliberately targeting the Al Jazeera network veteran.
A preliminary Palestinian forensic report said Israeli forces shot and killed Abu Akleh with a fragmentation munition aimed at an unprotected part of her skull although she had been wearing protective head gear and a flak jacket with the word “Press” clearly emblazoned across the front.
Here’s what a Palestinian journalist at the scene said:
“My journalist colleagues and I gathered at a location very close to the (Israeli) army, we prepared ourselves wearing all the protective gear, helmet and flak jacket, we waited for Shireen and our colleague Ali. We were at the forefront, my colleague Shatha Hanansha and I arrived and showed ourselves to the army then moved a few meters to reach the Abu Sway block and factory, and when we did, firing began on all of us. I turned around to make sure they were OK, I found Shireen on the ground and shots being fired at Shatha. I took cover behind a wall and then they fired at us. We wanted to help Shireen but couldn’t. Shatha tried to reach her and was only centimeters away but came under fire…The (Israeli) occupation targeted Shireen who was wearing a helmet. The wound was under the ear in this area (pointing to an exposed part of Abu Akleh’s head). The occupation was intent on killing us using snipers. Shireen fell wearing “Press” and whoever tried to rescue her came under fire. It was an obvious targeting of Shireen and us as media teams. Ali Samoudi (Abu Akleh’s Al Jazeera producer) was hit but managed to distance himself from the sniper’s range. We couldn’t help Shireen for a long time, so may God rest her soul.”
The slaying sent furious shockwaves through Palestine, and journalists across the Arab world condemned the wanton killing of a respected iconic reporter noted for her professional coverage.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for a swift and transparent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing.
“We are shocked and strongly condemn the killing of the prominent Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank while doing her job and while clearly identified as a journalist,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour in Washington, D.C. “We call for an immediate and thorough investigation into her killing. Journalists must be able to do their jobs safely and freely without being a target.”
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) in a couple of tweets said: “The killing of journalist Shireen Abu Aqla constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions that mandate the protection of civilians, and of UN Security Council resolution 2222 on the protection of journalists…#JusticeForShireenAbuAqla…RSF is disappointed by Israeli Foreign Minister @yairlapid’s proposal that his country take part in a joint investigation into the circumstances of the journalist’s death: an independent international investigation must be launched.”
A quick survey of U.S. media on Wednesday showed lukewarm, almost hands-off, coverage of this gruesome event.
Why do Western media use watered-down, clinical and passive verbs to describe Israeli targeting of Palestinians — in this case journalists — but switch to gung-ho active verbs in denouncing Russian aggression against Ukranian media and citizens was the question making the rounds following Abu Akleh’s cold-blooded murder?
It’s the fog of war, it’s information at war, and particularly unsettling when what happens affects journalists covering conflict in their back yards and becoming the story.
Adding insult to injury, Israeli police barged into Abu Akleh’s home hours after her killing to disperse crowds who had gathered there.
“Al Jazeera reporter killed during Israeli raid in West Bank” was the Associated Press headline to a story that said another journalist was also hit but remained in stable condition after being hospitalized. But it didn’t say who pulled the trigger.
“There are many ways to describe a military that repeatedly shoots and kills journalists with no investigation,” tweeted award-winning Lebanese journalist and media lecturer Habib Battah, adding that the AP’s pseudo-context in the story of a “strained relationship” between Israeli forces and the media, especially Palestinian journalists, “doesn’t come to mind.”
Ironically, Israel bombed and destroyed a building in the Gaza Strip last May where AP had its office.
Development economist Mohamed El Dahshan took AP to task for its coverage.
“The @AP rules for reporting seemingly do not extend to their work in Palestine, where they jump through hoops to avoid naming the murderers. Just a modicum of integrity would have been nice, @josephkrauss,” he tweeted addressing himself to that news agency’s Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent.
El Dahshan also took a swipe at the New York Times: “Free advice @nytimes in Jerusalem, you’re allowed sometimes to not publish Israeli army talking points verbatim. You’re even allowed to do — gasp — journalism.”
Critics found an early New York Times headline “Al Jazeera journalist is killed during clashes in West Bank” extremely misleading since the reported outbreak of violence was nowhere near where Abu Akleh was gunned down.
“In the wake of a series of attacks by Palestinians in Israel, the Israeli military has been carrying out regular military raids into the Palestinian city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank since early April,” the Times reported.
Former BBC correspondent and author Kim Ghattas, reacting to the New York Times headline “Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51” tweeted: “Can’t get over this @nytimes. #ShireenAbuAkleh was shot. Don’t say by who if you want 100% confirmation by investigation. But there is no doubt she was shot. Euphemisms remove key context, dehumanise. She risked her life to tell story of her people and deserves better than this.”
The Washington Post headlined its first report “American journalist fatally shot by Israeli forces in West Bank, network says.”
The piece quoted Palestinian Health Ministry and Al Jazeera sources saying Israeli forces killed the 51-year-old Palestinian-American Abu Akleh, the latest casualty of a months-long escalation of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a later version, it was “American reporter killed by IDF, network says; Israel calls for inquiry,” with a lead noting Israel said she was killed in an exchange of gunfire (strongly refuted by eyewitnesses, colleagues and others who fact-checked that claim and geo-located the site) and called for an investigation.
Economist and global policy wonk Rami Kiwan tweeted: “Death? Investigation? Yeah, because I hear Shireen had a heart attack whilst exercising.”
The rabidly right-wing Fox News TV network was even more aloof in a headline it ran: “Al Jazeera reporter dies following disputed incident in the West Bank.”
To which the Los Angeles Times’ Middle East correspondent Nabih Bulos responded: “Amazing how Palestinian reporters just spontaneously die.”
Forbes took the cake with this tweet: “Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known reporter, died after being hit in the head by a bullet, according to the Palestinian health ministry said on Facebook.”
One would think she was hit by a tennis ball during a match on a clay court.
Who writes such asinine insensitive drivel?
Other tweeps shot back at Forbes with “On September 11, 2001, 2750 American people died after being trapped inside collapsed buildings,” and “In Ukraine, people have died due to some invading tanks.”
None of the media reports had any substantive context on why Palestinians attack Israelis. It’s as if the decades-long conflict between them exists in a vacuum.
New York University journalism professor and former Newsday Middle East bureau chief Mohamad Bazzi said Western news outlets will often privilege eyewitness accounts, notably when the witnesses are journalists, except when it comes to Israel.
“So many outlets will allow Israeli government PR to muddy the waters with bogus claims that are easily refuted by eyewitnesses,” he added.
The late British politician, writer and activist Arthur Ponsonby once said “When war is declared, truth is the first casualty.”
Peter Beinart, author, editor-at-large of “Jewish Currents” and journalism professor at City University of New York, criticized U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi who said Congress was committed to the defense of press freedoms worldwide and the protection of every journalist, particularly those in conflict zones.
“The West Bank is not a ‘conflict zone.’ It’s a territory where Jews enjoy citizenship, free movement, due process and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives while Palestinians are denied all these rights. That’s not ‘conflict.’ It’s oppression,” he tweeted.
Lop-sided framing of the story and regurgitating a one-sided narrative is a humongous disservice to news consumers, particularly those living in insulated bubbles of homogenized soundbites, government-dictated platitudes and clear-cut disinformation.
Hence the angry pushback from the Arab world and beyond.
“Oh Western media, Sherine had also an American passport. Oh now you are interested? Name her killer. Israel killed her,” tweeted Lebanese journalist Sawssan Abou Zahr. She added the hashtags #JusticeForShireenAbuAqla, #JournalismIsNotACrime and #Palestine.
Abu Akleh was a U.S. citizen and a Christian. For those who have any doubts, Christianity emerged from the Holy Land in the Middle East, not the U.S. Midwest, Deep South or Western Europe.
“Fuck Israel and fuck Western media,” tweeted Mohamad Najem, executive director of the Beirut-based tech, policy and advocacy organization Social Media Exchange (SMEX).
Halim Shebaya, executive director of the Arab Association of Constitutional Law, tweeted: “Dear “international community” (including loyal press & organisations, journalist @ShireenNasri (her Twitter handle) was killed by an occupation and apartheid regime you are too scared to expose or stand up to because you are cowards and two-faced hypocrites when it comes to respect for int’l norms.”
In his 2006 book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” former U.S. president Jimmy Carter quoted a prominent Israeli who said: “I am afraid that we are moving toward a government like that of South Africa, with a dual society of Jewish rulers and Arab subjects with few rights of citizenship.”
In April 2021, Human Rights Watch was more hard-hitting and published a scathing report entitled “Israeli Apartheid: A Threshold Crossed” in which it said Israeli authorities were committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
“We reached this determination based on our documentation of an overarching government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians coupled with grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem,” wrote Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director.
To his credit, in a five-minute tribute to Abu Akleh, MSNBC anchor and former Al Jazeera correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin honored her as a friend, colleague and mentor whose death should not be investigated by the Israeli military and government.
Here’s some of what he said: “Time and time again, we have seen the Israeli military operate with impunity in the occupied Palestinian territories and it goes unchecked. No officers are held accountable, no justice is served. We hear, as we did yet again today American officials condemn and call for investigations into Israeli abuses. But as history has shown, there is rarely, if ever, any justice for the killing of Palestinians, whether they’re American or not, quite frankly. And today a spokesman for the Israeli military, Ron Kochav, seemingly trying to explain the tragedy by saying Shireen was, quote, ‘filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.’ Those were his words. They’re not my words. Armed with cameras is exactly how journalists go to war. The only danger they pose is to anyone who would benefit from the horrors and injustices of war remaining hidden from the outside world.”
The Raseef 22 news website posted a picture of Abu Akleh from a 25th anniversary clip of Al Jazeera in which she explained how she carried on covering the news despite the dangers she faced.
“At difficult moments I overcame fear. I chose journalism to be near human beings (people),” she said. “Maybe it’s not easy to change reality, but at least I was able to convey that voice to the world. I’m Shireen Abu Akleh.”
Several tweeps posted a picture of Abu Akleh framed by a map of Palestine against a black background with the caption “1971–2022 Shireen Abu Akleh the word never dies.”