Following the brutal attacks on Israel by Hamas on 7 October, violations of free speech have occurred at such pace and scale that it has made keeping track a challenge. The situation was already difficult before that date: Israel was in the grip of a huge crisis, the country stalled by endless protests in response to the government’s attempts to neuter the Supreme Court, while Amnesty International identified “a general climate of repression” in Gaza Strip under Hamas. Since the war started, the right to freedom of expression has gone from bad to worse in both Israel and Palestine, and indeed around the world. Whilst a degree of deterioration was predictable – conflict is never the arena in which rights improve – the current state could hardly be foreseen.
Starting with media freedom, on 7 October itself, of the 1,400 people who were murdered by Hamas several were Israeli reporters on duty. Following the massacre, Israel’s response has resulted in the death of at least 5,000 (according to the latest UN figures from 23 October), again including a number of journalists. Although none of the journalists from either side of the divide were killed for what they had written, they lost their lives though their line of work, making the media landscape all the poorer.
Others have, however, been punished for their work. Journalists from outlets including the BBC, Al-Jazeera, RT Arabic and Al-Araby TV have all reported obstructions to their reporting by the Israeli military, police and others since the conflict began. On 12 October, a team of BBC Arabic reporters were dragged from their vehicle, searched and held at gunpoint by police in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, despite their vehicle being marked “TV” and the presentation of press cards, the BBC reported. On 26 October, Lama Khater, a freelance writer with Middle East Monitor and a political activist, was arrested by the IDF in the city of Hebron, West Bank, her husband Hazem Fakhoury told CPJ. Confrontational attacks have been coupled with subtle ones: On 9 October, for example, The Jerusalem Post reported that its website was down following a series of cyberattacks. The group Anonymous Sudan claimed responsibility for the attacks, reported Axios and Time magazine.
Media freedom could deteriorate further. On 16 October, Israel proposed new emergency regulations that would allow it to block broadcasts that harm “national morale”. Officials threatened to close Al-Jazeera’s local offices under the proposed rule and to stop the global news organisation from freely reporting on the war.
With the situation on the ground increasingly difficult and with limited media from Gaza itself, the internet more broadly, and social media specifically, is a lifeline. And yet getting information within and out of Gaza has become increasingly difficult. Internet services have been disrupted by the attacks, while Palestinians and their supporters allege that social media platforms, in particular Instagram, are “shadow-banning” their content. Instagram’s owner, Meta, has denied this, but they have admitted that they inserted the word “terrorist” automatically into translated bios of Palestinian users, something they apologised for on 19 October.
Social media giant X, which has had a tumultuous ride under owner Elon Musk over the last year to say the least, has also been flooded with misinformation, as we reported on 18 October. Images have been adopted from other conflicts, fake accounts created in a smorgasbord of lies intended to sow confusion, division and hate. At a time when it could be providing an essential role in the spread of crucial information, trust is low.
As those within Israel and Palestine struggle to access reliable news, international media outlets find themselves in the middle of claims of irresponsible reporting, such as jumping too fast to conclusions over who was behind the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital, and accusations of bias. The latter can sometimes be unhelpful noise. To instantly shout “censorship” can be erroneous. There are a host of reasons why newspapers and broadcasters might run a story or interview a person (some being mundane, merely down to the availability of one person over another). Impartiality is not a prerequisite for outlets that are not funded by taxpayers. Nor does objectivity equate to equal weight for views. Still, with a conflict as complicated as that between Israel and Palestine, as longstanding, as heated and as volatile, a plurality of views and careful attention to how information is both interrogated and reported is crucial. It’s not clear that every outlet has adhered to these fundamental principles.
As for the actual red pen, one example of direct censorship came from Yale University’s campus newspaper, the Yale Daily News, which censored a pro-Israel opinion piece by removing references to Hamas atrocities. We suspect there are others. Alas the nature of censorship and self-censorship means we don’t always know about them.
Has criticising Israel become a punishable offence for the average person? A “McCarthyite backlash” against criticism of the country’s bombardment of Gaza has been claimed by civil rights groups in the USA, as people are fired, threatened with dismissal or blacklisted from future jobs, according to the Guardian. Take one example: Michael Eisen, editor of the scientific journal eLife, was forced out of his job after reposting an article from satirical magazine the Onion with the headline: “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas”. In Germany, the journalist Michael Scott Moore noted that “the tendency in Berlin right now is to squelch as much criticism of Israel as possible”, citing the arrest of a Jewish Israeli protesting the war amongst others. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested that waving Palestinian flags and using popular pro-Palestine slogans could be illegal and a ministerial aide was sacked from his government role following his letter to the prime minister calling for a ceasefire. In Switzerland, all demonstrations related to the conflict were banned in Zurich. In Australia, New South Wales authorities vowed to stop marches from proceeding. And in Israel, in one of the more unpleasant twists, the parents of hostages, who were protesting in Tel Aviv, were spat at and abused by supporters of current leader Benjamin Netanyahu. This in addition to police saying they’ve investigated and detained more than 100 people for their social media activity and, as we reported last week, activists being arrested in Jerusalem for putting up posters with the message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”
Staying with Israel, human rights activists worry the detentions are due to the police adopting a wider interpretation than normal of what constitutes incitement to violence. A well-known singer and influencer, Dalal Abu Amneh, was held in police custody for two days. According to Abeer Baker, her lawyer, she was accused of “disruptive behaviour” by police officers, who said her posts could incite violence, in particular one featuring an image of the Palestinian flag with the Arabic motto: “There is no victor but God.” Baker said Abu Amneh was expressing a religious sentiment, while Israeli authorities interpreted the singer’s post as a call to arms for Palestinians. This example highlights a tension right now, the question of what defines hate speech and how we balance the rights for people to protest (be it online, in the streets or through petitions) versus the rights for people to live free from fear and persecution. Some of the banners and comments made at protests have been vile. They are clearly, irrefutably hate speech and given recent events – an Orthodox Jewish man assaulted in London, a mob storming Dagestan’s airport looking for people arriving from Israel, cemeteries and synagogues set alight in Tunisia and Austria, to name just a few – one could argue incitement. Still, it is clear that there has been huge overreach. Many who have been punished for what they’ve said have been peaceful, with views that – even if you disagree with them or find them uncomfortable – should be protected.
The above is far from an exhaustive list. It could go on and on. Consider Adania Shabli, the Palestinian writer whose event at Frankfurt Book Fair was called off. Consider the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose appearance at 92NY, one of New York City’s leading cultural organisations, was pulled on the back of his criticism of Israel. Yet even this incomplete tally paints a grim picture. Free speech can be difficult and no more so than with Israel-Palestine, a conflict which is and always has been so deeply emotive and tribal. The knee-jerk response at present seems to be to silence. This is no solution. As George Orwell famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This applies as much to those in Israel as it does to those in Gaza and to all of us outside. There have already been enough victims and casualties – let’s ensure free speech is not another.