Why are we failing our bravest storytellers?

In the month since the fighting began, more than 30 journalists have paid the ultimate price

By Michael Jabri-Pickett

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Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian journalist Mohammed Abu Hattab, who was killed in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza Strip, November 3, 2023. Reuters
Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian journalist Mohammed Abu Hattab, who was killed in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza Strip, November 3, 2023. Reuters

Published: Mon 6 Nov 2023, 5:17 PM

Storytelling is at the heart of what humans do. It is what we yearned to do when we ran into our home after school to tell our parents what happened in class, what took place during recess, and what went down on the school bus. But even before we started school, our parents or grandparents, older siblings or babysitter would read to us, sharing with us stories that educated and entertained. Often the last thing we did before falling asleep was listen to a story.

Entire cultures survive because of the work of its storytellers. About 3,400 years ago, the Sumerians and Egyptians with their hieroglyphics came along and storytelling took on an entirely new form and made sure that the written word would out live us all.

From the first recorded war in history in 2,700 B.C. right up to today’s fighting in Gaza, storytellers talk about the oppressors and the oppressed, the victors and the vanquished, the living and the dead.

Firsthand reporting from the front lines dates back 170 years to the Crimean War. In the mid-1850s, Sir William Howard Russell, who wrote for The Times and is considered his profession’s first war correspondent, filed stories based on what he saw and the people he interviewed who participated in the fighting. His legacy is carried today by the men and women who are reporting from Gaza.

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About two weeks into the fighting, Gaza-based photojournalist Motaz Azaiza, who works for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said in a social media post: “I don’t feel like I’m going to make it to the end, so please forgive me”.

More than two weeks later, he is still doing all he can to tell the story of the Palestinians who live — and die — in Gaza. But for how much longer? As a journalist, he knows he could be targeted, yet he continues to tell his stories of the Palestinians.

AFP reported on October 27 that Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit organisation defending press freedom, accused Israel of “suffocating journalism in Gaza”.

This approach is a trend that is on the rise globally. In 2022, 11 journalists were killed in Mexico; seven in Haiti; five in Pakistan; four in Colombia; and four in the Philippines.

On the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine in February this year, the partner organisations to the Safety of Journalists Platform issued a statement that 12 journalists had been killed in the first twelve months of fighting and 23 had been injured. Since October 7, when Hamas attacked the concert in Israel, at least 36 journalists have been killed, said the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ). An additional eight journalists have been injured, three are reported missing, and eight have been arrested, the organisation said.

In mid-October, Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, said “journalists are civilians doing important work during times of crisis and must not be targeted by warring parties”.

On October 27, Tim Dawson, Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, said: “It is widely believed among journalists in Gaza that they, and their families are being deliberately targeted.”

In a May report, CPJ found that the Israeli military had killed at least 20 journalists over the past two decades, in what it called a “pattern”.

Targeting journalists is a war crime, according to the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

In mid-October, the IDF sent a letter to AFP and Reuters writing: “We cannot guarantee your employees’ safety, and strongly urge you to take all necessary measures for their safety.”

The journalist’s job is to tell stories, but during war, the first priority is for them to stay safe. When done well, telling a story is a thing of beauty. Sometimes, it can even rise to the level of art. So why is every effort not being made to keep safe the men and women who step forward to cover a war?

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