Israel killed reporter Abu Akleh — but US media disguised the facts

Israel killed reporter Abu Akleh
— but US media disguised the facts

Par Robin Andersen

Une publication FAIR

Démocratie Sionisme Colonialisme Répression Propagande Médias
Palestine Israël États-Unis
• Langue originale : anglais

Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known and much-loved Al Jazeera reporter who covered Palestine for two decades, was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper May 11 while documenting an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the Occupied West Bank.

Mondoweiss report (5/11/22) on Shireen Abu Akleh’s killling

Footage of the moments after her death shows Abu Akleh, still wearing her press vest and helmet, lying face down on the ground below a tree, as Shatha Hanaysha, another Palestinian journalist and writer for Mondoweiss, sits by her side and attempts to reach out to her. Writing for Mondoweiss (5/11/22), Yumna Patel described the video:

“A young Palestinian man is then seen jumping over a wall behind Abu Akleh and Hanaysha. When he attempts to retrieve Abu Akleh’s body, another round of sniper fire can be heard, and he quickly takes cover behind the tree.”

Shatha Hanaysha crouches near her slain colleague Shireen Abu Akleh — both wearing jackets that clearly identify them as press.

No armed combatants are there. Journalists are shouting for an ambulance. The young man tries a second time to remove Abu Akleh, but fails. He manages to help a shaken Hanaysha hide behind the tree. The footage is harrowing.

The Qatar-based news network interrupted its broadcast (5/10/22) with breaking news reporting that “an Al Jazeera correspondent has been shot by Israeli forces” and killed in Jenin. The network called it “deliberate,” adding that the killing of Abu Akleh was a “heinous crime which intends to only prevent the media from conducting their duty.”

Reporter Nida Ibrahim, on the phone from Ramallah, recounted the announcement of Abu Akleh’s death by the Palestinian Health Ministry, saying she was shot in the head. Her voice broke up as she talked about Abu Akleh’s dedication, her long experience covering Palestine, and the grief Ibrahim and her fellow journalists were experiencing. She carried on, saying, “This is the reality of Palestinian journalists covering the news”; unfortunately, they find “themselves part of the story.”

Outpourings of grief

News of Abu Akleh’s death spread across the world at the speed of the internet, with outpourings of grief, tributes, and international condemnation for her killing. Journalists who have covered the Israeli occupation of Palestine provided context, hitting Twitter with art, videos, eyewitness testimony and images from Palestinian activists, advocacy groups and press critics, among many others. Clips of Al Jazeera footage were prominent.

Late Wednesday, the Israeli military posted an online video and an implausible scenario to deflect blame for the murder, a denial that, with a few notable exceptions, corporate media would assiduously repeat. Yet the documentation and eyewitness accounts continued to mount.

Mondoweiss’s Hanaysha told Al Jazeera (5/11/22):

“The [Israeli] occupation army did not stop firing even after she collapsed. I couldn’t even extend my arm to pull her, because of the shots. The army was adamant on shooting to kill.”

Electronic Intifada (5/11/22) included the Twitter post of another Palestinian-American journalist — Dena Takruri, host of Al Jazeera’s Direct From — who said, “Shireen was shot near her ear, where the helmet didn’t cover. This was a shot of extreme precision.”

Abu Akleh was taken in a private vehicle to a hospital in Jenin, where she was declared dead. The shot to the head killed her instantly. An Al Jazeera producer, Ali Samoudi, was also shot in the back by an Israeli gunman, but will recover.

At the hospital, Samoudi told reporters, “We were covering the raid of the Israeli occupation forces when they suddenly opened fire at us; the first bullet hit me and the other killed Shireen.” He went on to say, “They killed her in cold blood.”

WSWS (5/11/22) also reported that Samoudi confirmed that “there was no Palestinian military resistance at all at the scene.”

“We pledge to prosecute the perpetrators legally, no matter how hard they try to cover up their crime, and bring them to justice,” the Qatar-based network said in a statement (NBC, 5/11/22).

The Israeli response

The video the Israeli military posted online depicted a lone Palestinian resistance fighter shooting down an alleyway, purportedly evidence that the Al Jazeera team were victims of Palestinian gunfire. In a series of statements on Twitter (Mondoweiss, 5/11/22), the office of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said:

“According to the information we have gathered, it appears likely that armed Palestinians — who were firing indiscriminately at the time — were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist.”

The Israeli prime minister offered video of a Palestinian fighter firing a weapon as evidence that Israel’s military did not kill Abu Akleh.

Israel’s claim was refuted by a number of sources, in addition to other eyewitness testimony. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem’s field researcher in Jenin documented the location of the Palestinian gunman depicted in the Israeli government video. “According to B’Tselem, the location of the video is in a completely separate location than where Abu Akleh was killed,” Mondoweiss (5/11/22) reported, and “cannot be the gunfire that killed the journalist.”

NBC’s Raf Sanchez’s reporting from Jenin corroborated B’Tselem’s. He posted on Twitter (5/11/22) that NBC researcher Matthew Mulligan “has geolocated the Al Jazeera video” and found that the “area doesn’t match the alleyways shown in the video being put out by the Israeli government.”

A thorough debunking by human rights groups, witnesses and journalists aired on Al Jazeera (5/12/22) also exposed the online video as Israeli military fabrication. Using a map of the occupied West Bank, the network illustrated how occupation forces had a direct line of fire to where Abu Akleh was shot, while the Palestinian resistance fighter shown was too far away to have shot her, blocked as he was by alleyways and buildings.

Hagai El Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, told viewers that the Israeli version of events is based “on a false narrative designed to protect the perpetrators.” He explained the “impossible logistics” of the Israeli scenario, adding that he recognized this as a “trick” often used for the “blanket impunity that Israel provides for itself.” He went on to say that

“Israel has a track record of not punishing its soldiers who have committed crimes against Palestinians, and it has never jailed one of its soldiers for the killing of a journalist.”

Though it provides another point of evidence, the geolocation data is hardly necessary, as simply looking at the videotapes and listening to corroborating journalistic and eyewitness testimony renders Abu Akleh’s death at the hands of the occupation forces beyond dispute.

Attacks on journalists

Many independent news outlets provided context by including numbers and details of journalists killed and wounded by Israeli forces. Though well-documented, the numbers may be different due to different criteria and the difficulty of recording.

Cross Currents (5/12/22) reported that since 1972, 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.”

According to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (Mondoweiss, 5/11/22):

“Abu Akleh is the 86th Palestinian journalist to be killed by Israel since the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967. And since 2000, more than 50 Palestinian journalists have been killed, including six in the past two years.”

The Intercept (4/5/22): “The journalist will be told that the reports he posts on Facebook are considered incitement — and although he is only reporting news, the fact that that news is made public is tantamount to incitement.”

In April, the Intercept (4/5/22) revealed the ongoing harassment, jailing, repeated interrogations and threats against Palestinian journalists, so severe that many abandoned the work of journalism. The primary charge against them was “incitement.” Vice reporter Hind Hassan posted a string of horrific videos on Twitter (5/12/22) documenting Israeli attacks on journalists. One dated April 15, 2022, shows an Israeli police officer run across the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in a surprise attack, breaking the arm of journalist Alaa Sous with a baton smash (Mondoweiss, 4/22/22).

“Armed with cameras”

The Middle East Eye (5/11/22) reported Israeli military spokesperson Ran Kochav telling Army Radio that even if soldiers shot at someone, “this happened in battle, during a firefight,” so “this thing can happen.” Kochav went on to say Abu Akleh was “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.”

Numerous press advocates responded to this statement. Reporting on a tribute for Abu Akleh held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Cross Currents (5/12/22) called the accusation “an outrageous and egregious claim by any standard.” Reporters Without Borders has condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force against journalists, saying under no circumstances should they “be treated as parties to the armed conflict.”

Vox (5/11/22) noted that if Abu Akleh’s was killed by the IDF, her death “will fit into a larger pattern of attacks on the press in Palestine and in the systemic violence against Palestinians more broadly.” It called the “armed with cameras” assertion “a not-subtle comparison between the work of journalism and that of violence.”

Viewing cameras as weapons, together with the history of escalating attacks on reporters and charges of “incitement” for bearing witness to Israeli attacks, makes clear that the Israeli government considers journalists to be the enemy, and by extension suitable targets for snipers. Because journalists document the actions of Israeli occupation forces against the Palestinians, they jeopardize the military’s continued ability to act with impunity. Repressing press freedom in the Occupied West Bank seems to now be part of the state’s increasingly militarized strategy.

Calling for investigation

The Turkish international news outlet Anadolu Agency (5/11/22) covered Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s moment of silence for the slain journalist on the floor of the House of Representatives, including Tlaib’s opening that quoted President Biden at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

“We honor journalists killed, missing, imprisoned, detained and tortured covering war, exposing corruption and holding leaders accountable. The free press is not the enemy of people, far from it; at your best, you are the guardians of the truth.”

Anadolu Agency (5/11/22) reported on Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s moment of silence for Shireen Abu Akleh.

Though she is a Palestinian American like Abu Akleh, no US corporate news outlet used Rashida Tlaib as a source for covering the slain journalist.

Tlaib also called on the US government to investigate the killing, saying that Washington should not allow “the same people committing those war crimes to do the investigation.” (Al Jazeera, 5/11/22). The International Criminal Court launched an investigation last year into possible Israeli war crimes (AP, 3/3/21).

In an interview between MSNBC news host Ayman Mohyeldin and on-the-ground reporter Raf Sanchez (5/13/22), Sanchez explained why the Palestinians don’t trust the Israelis to investigate Abu Akleh’s death. He said:

“I was in Gaza [2018]; an Israeli sniper killed a young Palestinian journalist called Yaser Murtaja. He, like Shireen Abu Akleh, was wearing a vest that clearly showed he was a member of the press. That was four years ago. The Israeli military said they were investigating then, and I asked them today to give me the report […]. They sent me a very short statement saying that they had looked into the incident, they had determined that there was no criminal activity by any Israeli soldiers, and they had closed the case. That gives you a sense of why Palestinians feel that they are unlikely to get the full story out of the Israeli military.”

Murtaja’s story also appears in the Intercept (4/9/18).

Palestinian rights advocates in the United States have called on the Biden administration to demand an independent probe into the killing of Abu Akleh, saying that Israel should not be allowed to investigate itself. Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said investigations are “empty gestures” if the probe is to be left for Israel (Al Jazeera, 5/11/22).

Addressing reporters at UN headquarters in New York, Palestine’s UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour (Al Jazeera, 5/11/22) said:

“The story of the Israeli side does not hold water, it is fictitious, and it is not in line with reality, and we do not accept to have an investigation on this issue with those who are the criminals in conducting this event itself.”

He said what is needed is an investigation that is “internationally credible.”

House Democrats demanded an independent investigation. Though US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price (Reuters, 5/11/22) called for a “thorough investigation and full accountability,” when asked whether the US would support an international investigation, Price repeated: “Israel has the wherewithal to conduct a thorough investigation.”

Al Jazeera reported the calls by US sources for an independent investigation, while most US corporate news repeated Israel’s demand to control any investigation.

US corporate coverage

The context of escalating Israeli attacks on freedom of the press and on journalists in the Occupied Territories did not enter the frame of most US news coverage. Instead, many used a back-and-forth blame frame for reporting the murder of a veteran war correspondent who knew well how to negotiate crossfire in the field of battle. This was acknowledged by Ali Samoudi, who said from his hospital bed, if there had been crossfire, they wouldn’t have been there.

Amidst the debunking of the Israeli messaging, by late Wednesday some news outlets, including NBC (5/11/22), noted that Israel “appeared to step back from that claim” that Abu Akleh may have been killed by Palestinian gunmen.

Yet most big media would continue to include Israeli messaging in their reporting, while failing to disclose any of the factchecking done on the Israeli video. They “balanced” on-the-ground testimony with Israeli statements, keeping the propaganda story alive.

CBS News (5/11/22) carefully avoided attributing responsibility to Israeli forces.

The second sentence of the CBS report (5/11/22) from Jerusalem said, “The broadcaster and a reporter who was wounded in the incident blamed Israeli forces, while Israel said there was evidence the two were hit by Palestinian gunfire.” The opening set the tone for a long series of opposing claims, in which every fragmented aspect about Israel and Palestine becomes a tedious set of contentions, rendering the truth incomprehensible.

The story included the “camera as weapon” comment, followed with the unrelated, “CBS News correspondent Imtiaz Tyab knew Abu Akleh personally,” adding more laudable details about the slain journalist. It continued, “Israelis have long been critical of Al Jazeera’s coverage, but authorities generally allow its journalists to operate freely” — presented not as a requirement for democracy, but as a generous act of tolerance.

CBS said that the relationship between Israeli forces and Palestinian journalists “is strained,” and ended with a series of toned-down examples of Israeli attacks on journalists, without one unifying critical comment. It even included the killing of three Palestinian journalists, including AP (12/21/18) reporter Rashed Rashid in 2018, followed by: “The military has never acknowledged the shooting.” It failed to connect that history to Palestinian demands for an independent, international investigation into Abu Akleh’s murder.

The most disingenuous comments, which revolved around the investigation, were included early on. CBS offered fragments of truth — saying, for example, that US Ambassador Tom Nides called for “a thorough investigation into the circumstances of her death,” without saying by whom. It stated uncritically, “Israel said it had proposed a joint investigation and autopsy with the Palestinian Authority, which refused the offer,” with no explanation as to why.

The reporting illustrated how “balance” and fragments of disjointed “facts” have become a stylistic method to confuse and obliterate meaningful connections that drain compassion, outrage and demands for justice for the victims of state violence.

The New York Times (5/11/21) ran a home-page headline that could have run if Abu Akleh had died of natural causes.

In a similar manner, the New York Times (5/11/22) attributed Abu Akleh’s death to “gunfire” in the second paragraph. A second article posted later that day was more definitively structured by false balance: “The network and Palestinian authorities blamed Israeli troops for the killing. Israel said the blame could lie with Palestinian gunmen.”

ABC News (5/12/22) presented the same style of decontextualized back-and-forth, referring to a proposed Israeli investigation in the lead paragraph: “The head of the Palestinian Authority blamed Israel for her death and rejected Israeli calls for a joint investigation.” It evoked the “angry Arab” lexicon, saying, “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas angrily rejected that proposal,” while Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused the Palestinians of denying Israel “access to the basic findings required to get to the truth.” No mention was made of past Israeli failures to investigate the killing of journalists.

ABC dismissed the investigation into Israeli war crimes with one phrase: “Israel has rejected that probe as being biased against it.”

An end in sight?

When the Al Jazeera news anchor (5/10/22) asked Nida Ibrahim what could be done now, the reporter answered that a “powerful military occupation has been targeting journalists for years,” and if no one is brought to justice, “there will be no end to this.” She explained that Palestinian journalists are targeted by the IDF because “part of what we do is uncover the crimes,” or what the Israeli army doesn’t want to be shown. “Palestinian journalists will show you injuries where they’ve been shot by the Army or settlers,” she noted.

Responding to Representative Tlaib’s statement on the House floor, the New York Post (5/12/22) called it an “anti-Israel tirade,” charging that Tlaib was only interested in “slamming the Middle East’s only true democracy as it defends itself against terrorists.”

Chris Hedges (Consortium News, 5/17/22): “The execution of Abu Akleh was not an accident. She was singled out for elimination.”

Writing for Consortium News (5/17/22), former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges called Abu Akleh’s death an execution. “Assassination” may be a better word for her killing, but she did not simply “die,” as the New York Times reported. As the Chicago Sun Times (5/14/22) pointed out, “Palestinian Journalist Dies” is an “especially egregious” New York Times headline, “blatantly ignoring” that Abu Akleh “was struck by a bullet.”

That the state of Israel can continue to be labeled a “true democracy” after years of human rights violations, the repression of press freedoms and the extreme of killing journalists outright — not to mention that approximately 30% of the population under its control not allowed to participate in national elections — attests to the strength of the dominant narratives that have long guided US news coverage of Israel, recently identified by writer Greg Shupak in The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel & the Media. The misleading and distorted frames of “both sides,” and “Israel’s right to defend itself” even as they are aggressors, are presented in a manner that benefits Israel.

Yet with the targeted killing of the globally prominent Al Jazeera reporter, as global calls for accountability mount (The Nation, 5/18/22), a crack seems to have appeared in the media armor of the Israeli military. Some US corporate media, most notably NBC, have shown a willingness to follow on-the-ground truth instead of Israeli fabrications. Other outlets, however, seem resigned to repeat increasingly implausible, transparently incoherent reporting that fails the basic test of decent journalism practices.


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