Israel and Palestine – the key free speech issues
Freedom of expression looks certain to be a casualty as the Gaza Strip explodes into conflict
13 Oct 23

Gaza strip satellite view showing rocket alerts and fires. 2023

The events of the last week have been horrific. We won’t rehash them here — the videos, photos and details coming out of the Middle East are everywhere you look. For an organisation that campaigns for free speech, we have struggled to find words to respond to the mounting loss of life and the horrendous accounts that emerge every day. But at Index our job is not to report on all of this. Instead our job is to uphold free expression, and to alert the world to the instances where this has been curtailed. So that’s what we’ll do. Here are the free speech issues we are most concerned about:

Killed and missing journalists 
Amid the deaths of civilians, journalists are losing their lives. While there’s nothing to suggest that the journalists are being specifically targeted, their lack of protection is of huge concern, both for them and for the knock-on effect for media freedom more broadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that at least 10 journalists have been killed so far. The first was Yaniv Zohar, an Israeli photographer working for the Israeli Hebrew-language daily newspaper Israel Hayom, who was killed alongside his wife and two daughters during the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on 7 October. Israel Hayom’s editor-in-chief has said that Yaniv was working that day. Nine Palestinian journalists have also been confirmed dead as of yesterday and one Israeli journalist is reported missing.

Protest bans
Across the world, buildings are being lit up with blue and white, while green, white, black and red flags are being held aloft in protest. While these vigils and protests are being enacted, so too are calls to shut them down. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested waving Palestinian flags might be a criminal act (depending on the context) and told police chiefs to be on “alert and ready to respond to any potential offences”. In France, the interior minister yesterday announced a systematic ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Police have also warned against pro-Palestine rallies in Sydney, after some people chanted antisemitic slogans at a previous demonstration. The Sydney event organisers have distanced themselves from those people and said: “This behaviour has no place at these rallies.” Meanwhile, police in Sydney placed restrictions on Jewish people by warning them to stay at home while that first rally went ahead, and even arrested a man who was carrying an Israeli flag for “breach of the peace”.

There are certain areas that fall into “grey free speech” areas. Protest is usually not one of them. Only sometimes it is. The office was divided, for example, on whether there should be restrictions on protest outside abortion clinics. Today we are similarly divided. The Times argues here that some protests are making the leap from a peaceful right to expression to hate crimes. The Daily Beast argues the opposite and that these bans would erode our free speech rights.

Internet interruptions 
This week we’ve heard reports of social media accounts being suspended or blocked. NetBlocks, a former Index award-winner which maps media freedom, has also reported on declining internet connectivity in areas of both Israel and Palestine, after attacks and counter-attacks. In Gaza, a total blackout is anticipated if further internet infrastructure is damaged, making access to social media all but impossible before the apps are even opened. As we reported when Erdogan cut off access to social media following the Turkey earthquakes, access to the internet and these platforms is crucial during times of disaster and war. It can be a lifeline, connecting people to aid as well as to their loved ones.

Misinformation multiplied 
On Wednesday, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins called out a video seemingly from the BBC being circulated by Russian social media users, which claimed Ukraine was smuggling weapons to Hamas. The video was entirely fake. Others have highlighted video after video claiming to be footage of Israel bombing Gaza or Hamas airstrikes on Israel, which are in fact a combination of Assad airstrikes in Syria, fireworks in Algeria and even video game footage. Both faked and reappropriated content are running rampant on X (formerly Twitter), which is not necessarily anything new. But a Wired report suggests that the scale of the problem is new. Boosted posts from premium subscribers take precedence over once-verified news providers and hordes of fired misinformation researchers now spend their time updating their CVs rather than fighting fake news on the platform. And in an added twist fake news to smear both Muslims and Jews is also running rampant behind China’s Great Firewall on Sina Weibo.

Fair journalism
Getting news from on the ground is a huge challenge in this conflict, and it’s in that vacuum that the kind of misinformation we just outlined takes hold. So it’s all the more concerning that Israel’s public broadcaster Kan News reported that the Israeli cabinet is planning emergency legislation to ban Al Jazeera, which does have a presence on the ground in Gaza. This is not the first time Israel has announced a ban on the network. Back in 2017 Israel looked set to join a boycott by Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which all accused the network of sponsoring terrorism. Relationships between Al Jazeera and Israel have also been very strained since the May 2022 killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. But if Al Jazeera is banned, one of the few media outlets reporting from within Gaza will go silent. 

We know that conflicts can deal a blow to free expression. At Index we are here to ensure that doesn’t happen, or at least if it does happen that it doesn’t go unnoticed. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.