Gaza: Press vests fail to protect Palestinian journalists

Khaled Hamad was killed while reporting on the Gaza conflict.

Khaled Hamad was killed while reporting on the Gaza conflict.

News coverage of the ongoing Gaza conflict would be infinitely poorer without local journalists, but it’s clear that international media needs to show their commitment by providing Palestinian reporters and fixers with extra support.

Images of bloodied press vests have become a dark motif of the latest Gaza war. One of the most striking came from 22-year-old photographer Rami Rayan, killed during the shelling of a market in the Shujayah district on the 30 July. The same attack also killed journalist Sameh al-Aryan, aged 26. Before this came the pictures of Khaled Hamed, pulled from the rubble of Shujayah with his broken video camera at his side on the 20 July. In total, 13 Palestinian journalists have been killed in over a month of fighting, according to the International Federation of Journalists.

An earlier statement by the IFJ also listed the names of seven journalists who had been injured when they were struck by shrapnel, with six of these injuries occurring while the journalists were in the field. The seventh was injured when her house was destroyed by an Israeli bombardment.

A journalist’s bullet-proof vest does more than just physically protect the wearer – the “PRESS” marking it is designed to show that they are never a legitimate target.  This should stand apart from even the high civilian death toll of this war. Marking oneself as a journalist is to appeal to the so-called “rules of engagement”, that attacking journalists or anywhere where there may be journalists, is a breach of a code that has, until now, lasted since journalists first took to the battlefields to report.

In Gaza, this code has sadly long since worn thin. Hamid Shehab was killed when his parked car was struck by a rocket outside his house on the 9 July. According to the IFJ,  his car was “clearly marked as a press vehicle”.

There is no doubt that covering this war has taken its toll on every journalist that has operated in Gaza since fighting began on the 8 July. But sadly, the body count suggests that the dangers for Palestinian media workers covering their homeland in a time of crisis, and those for international journalists who enter to cover the war, are distinctly different. Palestinian media workers include those working for international or local outlets, as well as those working as fixers for international media. The role of a fixer is one that is often overlooked – especially in terms of safety.

In a statement on the 6 August, the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) stated that they had issued accreditation to 705 journalists from over 42 countries. This is not necessarily the number of journalists who entered Gaza to cover the war, but a GPO card is needed to do so. If even half of this number succeeded to enter and leave Gaza without coming to any harm, they still compare favourably to the numbers of Palestinian media workers who have been harmed.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have taken a certain amount of care to protect international journalists operating on the ground in Gaza, at one point relocating them to two hotels in the strip in order to provide a level of protection during a period of particularly heavy shelling. Although fixers or other Palestinian media workers were free to shelter alongside the international press in the lobby of these hotels, the journey alone may have proved lethal. Add to this that Gazan journalists are unlikely to choose to leave their families at home to suffer heavy shelling while they themselves enjoy this nominal protection.

Even with the IDF awareness of media workers the offices of Al Aqsa TV and Radio, Wattan Radio and the National Media agency were destroyed, and workers at Al Jazeera’s office in Gaza city were forced to evacuate following “warning shots” fired at the building. This occurred days after Al Jazeera was threatened by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who stated at a press conference on 21 July that the foreign ministry was taking steps to investigate the network, with “the intent of not allowing it to broadcast anymore from Israel”.

A tentative ceasefire is currently allowing some respite on the ground in Gaza. But many of the journalists who have left the strip have said that this is not the last war they expect to cover there. Sadly, this is also not the first time that attacks on media outlets have been part of wider attacks on Gaza.

The deaths of Palestinian journalists was also a feature of the 2012 war, when three journalists were killed. One of the most hotly-debated points of this latest bout of destruction has been what constitutes a “legitimate target”. There is one lesson that must stand apart from this discussion: no journalist should ever be included in that category.

The following are statements from fixers and journalists who have been involved in covering Gaza.

In the case of Gaza, nobody is safe. As a fixer I am more exposed to dangers because of continuous movement to the “hot zones”. Last Friday, during the ceasefire, I was 100m away from the front line with the Israeli army in Beit Hanoun. I don’t have equipment for protecting myself like a flak jacket or helmet – my movement from my house to the hotels [where journalists stay] adds more risk. We depend on marking our car with words like TV, hoping that the Israelis will avoid us. What normally privileges foreign journalists over local ones is their financial capabilities.”

— Amjed Tantish is from Beit Lahia, in the north Gaza strip.

Moving around under constant shelling, I wasn’t sure if I would make it back home. I couldn’t get a bulletproof vest, as they are so expensive and I’m a freelancer – I can’t afford it. But also, there is no one who would volunteer to bring one into Gaza from Jerusalem for me. Working without it is risky though. Another danger to Palestinians is that they can be accused of being pro-Israeli. Internationals can come and go, but Palestinians will point fingers at me if I write something they don’t like. I wish that there was an organization that was protecting Palestinian journalists – but as a freelancer, I am responsible for my life. International outlets should take into account that the dangers faced by the local journalists they hire may be quite different – but that should apply to all conflict zones, not just Gaza.”

— Abeer Ayyoub, freelance journalist, Gaza City.

I am usually lucky to find an available flak jacket. Usually I don’t wear protective gear- I would like to buy some, but they are expensive and hard to get during wartime.  Instead, I try and assess whether the situation is safe enough to be in, and if it seems too dangerous, I leave. I call ahead to people in the area to see if it’s safe, to find out what the safest route is and to coordinate with people on the ground. For sure, I could get killed. I feel like I could lose everything sometimes. But it’s my work, it’s what I do to get the message out to the world. Some of the people I work with appreciate the work and the risk, but 80 percent don’t care about the risks we take. Most people don’t know about what we do for them. They don’t think about us dying for a picture they sell for $50.”

— Mohammed Rajab, a fixer based in Gaza City.

Danger in this war is everywhere- nowhere is safe. You could survive the hardest hit places, and die in places you think are the safest. I thought that heading to church to do story on displaced families is safe. The next day, it was bombed. Palestinian journalists face different dangers to international journalists – there is a form of discrimination among Gaza-based news agencies. Local staff don’t dare to speak out on this, but if there is a bulletproof car, then international staff have priority to drive it. International journalists are protected by insurance and an affiliation to international and national journalists unions.  This gives them protection and insurances if something goes wrong. In Gaza, if a journalist is killed, media outlets cannot care less about their families. Some news agencies know Palestinian journalists well enough in crises, but after the war ends, they dump them. It’s hard for journalists to make themselves indispensible. The outlets I have freelanced for do understand the limitations – but I’ve heard of others that seem to think you could get close enough to danger to hold a rocket in your hands, i.e. get exclusive shots. A friend of mine was injured and his outlet dumped him to find someone new, exactly like you do with car spare parts.”

— Mohammed Omer, a freelance journalist based in Rafah

Israeli forces will open fire on Palestinians, but not internationals. Internationals are just less likely to be shot at – I make sure I wear a bulletproof vest and a helmet, and make sure that I’m clearly marked as press. We need this protective gear. The vest and helmet cost me $1000- and there is no compensation for hazards, even when I work for international media outlets. If you are a Palestinian national that means no insurance either. Foreign journalists at least have the chance of getting their media outlets to cover their life insurance or provide compensation.”

— Yousef Al-Helou, a journalist who covered the two previous wars in Gaza, currently in London

This article was published on August 12, 2014 at

Hamas shut down media bureaus over Egypt coverage

Gaza’s de-facto Hamas government closed the office of Al Arabiya, Palestinian network Ma’an news and the local production company Lens on Thursday.

Ma’an reported the incident as having received a closure order from the Attorney General delivered directly to their offices. Al Arabiya published a report from their Gaza correspondent, stating that employees had been prevented from entering their offices by the Hamas authorities, who told them that would be arrested if they entered at any point.

Lens was shut down after Hamas took objection to their providing of professional services to the i24 news, an Israeli network based on the Al Jazeera model that broadcasts in Arabic, English and French. Hamas recently instigated a ban on journalists working with Israeli media, so it would seem this is an effort to keep the ban and its associated scare tactics on-going, even though Lens may be providing the only view inside Gaza that Israel permits its citizens to see.

The targeting of Al Arabiya and Ma’an however is related to their coverage of the situation in Egypt, specifically after both published reports saying that “six Muslim Brotherhood officials had smuggled themselves into Gaza to plan an uprising against the military in Cairo, after their Egyptian president was deposed,” according to Ma’an. In a piece for the New York Times, Fares Akram writes that the “reports attributed the information to Israeli news media reports and unidentified sources, saying that six Brotherhood leaders were directing pro-Morsi activities in Egypt from a hotel room in Gaza City.”

The office of Ismail Jaber, the attorney general in question, stated that they ordered the closure of the bureaus after receiving complains that Al Arabiya and Ma’an had deliberately “spread rumours and fabricated news”, and in so doing had “become complicit with Egyptian media outlets in incitement against the Strip”, thereby threatening “the social peace and…the Palestinian people and their resistance.” Ma’an editor in chief Nasser Lahham has since state they intend to lodge complaints with the Palestinian Journalists Union and the International Federation of Journalists.

Ma’an may have gone out of their way to object to being labelled liars, but it is perhaps beside the point whether the report is true or not. News outlets, especially those with reputations similar to that of Al Arabiya, may have to contend with such accusations from time to time, but it is perhaps more valuable that they be free to respond rather than face closure. Furthermore, the claim by Hamas that the moral health of the Palestinian people is dependent on such censorship will likely jarr with the mostly Palestinian staff of both bureaus. Much like the response by some journalists to the ban on working with Israeli media, there is the possibility that journalists will continue to work for both outlets in secret, without bylines, a danger forced on them by the conditions of both extreme poverty and authoritarianism that have become normality in Gaza.

Furthermore, the choice to close the Al Arabiya offices reflects the shifting politics of the region, especially when compared to their rival Gulf-based news service Al Jazeera. The Saudi Arabian Al Arabiya has often been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Hamas offshoot, a reflection of the foreign policy of the House of Saud which chose to fund Egypt’s ruling military council but not the Muslim Brotherhood. Writing for Al Monitor, Madawi Al-Rasheed explains that “Saudi Arabia had always had a troubled relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood version of Islamism, its organizational capacity and its increasingly accepted message that combined Islam with an eagerness to engage with the democratic process.” Qatari channel Al Jazeera, whose offices remained untouched during the recent shutdowns in Gaza is however facing a lighter version of these issues elsewhere. Qatar’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and their bankrolling of the Hamas government with a recent pledge of 400 million USD has lead to accusations that Al Jazeera provided little more than a mouthpiece for Doha’s policies during recent events in Egypt, leading to the resignation of 22 members of staff in Egypt and occasional raids by Egyptian security forces.

Reacting to the closure of Ma’an’s Gaza bureau, English-language editor George Hale told Index on Censorship that “needless to say, this is a disturbing and outrageous development.” While such crackdowns may have more to do with regional links- both politically and financially- than moral judgements, the problem remains that Gaza is increasingly as in need of reporting as it is starved of free expression.

Jordan blocks over 200 ‘unlicensed’ websites

The Jordanian government began blocking over 200 websites on Sunday for failing to obtain licenses under a strict set of new guidelines, Ruth Michaelson reports.

Four amendments to the country’s press and publications law gave the government the power to censor sites that fail to comply, close outlet offices and hold the site owners responsible for posted comments. The changes to the law, which were introduced in 2012, sparked a backlash that saw 1,000 Jordanian sites stage a blackout on 29 Aug 2012. Undeterred, the government implemented the changes.

According to press reports, 281 sites have so far been targeted. The pro-government Jordan Times quoted Fayez Shawabkeh of the Press and Publications Department (PPD) as saying that his department was responsible for compiling the list of “unlicensed” sites, which was forwarded to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC). In turn, the TRC pressured the country’s service providers to begin implementing the blocks.

It became immediately clear on Sunday that the block included many sites that fall outside the category of what Jordan Times described as “local broadcasters”. The website reports that “some of the more prominent pages that have apparently been blocked by the government include Qatari news portal Al Jazeera, Time Out magazine, erotic publication Penthouse and the site of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.”

Al Jazeera is among the sites being blocked in Jordan for failure to obtain a license.

Al Jazeera is among the sites being blocked in Jordan for failure to obtain a license.

The amended press and publications law requires websites to obtain licenses similar to the rules that require printers to register, without regard to the differences between the mediums.

A rundown of the law on the website states that: “Jordan’s amendments to the press and publications law mean that owners of electronic publications, irrespective of where their offices are located, must take care when allowing their websites to be viewed in Jordan. While the amendments only contain four changes to the press and publications law, under the new legislative regime electronic publications that contain news, press reports, press releases and comments have an additional obligation to register, obtain a license and actively monitor the content of the publication in order to ensure that they are in compliance with the laws in Jordan.”

Therefore, the amendment is not simply regulating Jordanian sites, but any site available to view in Jordan- essentially requiring the entire Internet to comply with what appears to be a rather opaque and poorly defined category of regulations. In order to stay within the law, any site that wishes to be viewed in Jordan has to obtain a license and police the content of the site, irrespective of where it is in the world. The Jordanian government has “stressed that the law is aimed to organize the sector and provide legal guarantees against slander and unlawful material” according to AmmonNews.  Given the flexible and rather expansive language of law, there also appears to be few guarantees or safeguards that the government won’t block a site arbitrarily or simply amend the law to block sites that it wishes to target.

The stated framework of this law also raises questions as to whether sites like Al Jazeera, Penthouse, Time Out or the Muslim Brotherhood would ever be able to obtain licenses to be viewed in Jordan. Last year, the country’s parliament considered a law that would have banned the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in the then upcoming election, on the basis of banning “religious parties” and Al Jazeera has sometimes been regarded as the fuel of anti-government protests across the Middle East. Penthouse would undoubtedly fall foul of public decency laws. It is unclear precisely what threat Time Out poses.

It is also unclear at present whether the Jordanian authorities will continue to ignore to the intense pressure from press freedom and civil society groups such as the Jordanian Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, who described the law as “storm[ing] the freedom of electronic media”. Yet on the same day that the new law went into affect, King Abdullah launched his “Democratic Empowerment Programme”, dubbed Demoqrati, which according to The Jordan Times “is founded on development-boosting values such as the rule of the law, rejection of violence, acceptance of others, dialogue and accountability. It is also meant to stimulate civil society institutions to play their role as a key supporter of citizens and issues of concern to the public.” It appears that the Kingdom is yet to regulate irony.

X Marks the spot: Jordanian government seeks internet controls through porn

Jordanian internet users have reacted angrily to government encroachment on the freedom of the internet. Flying in the face of the reputation of Jordan as a Middle East haven for technology and relative liberalism, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology has stated its support for a blanket ban on online pornographic material, an easy jumping-off point for wider controls.

The Ministry was responding to a petition set up through the social-networking site Facebook to censor x-rated material in order to “bring an end to sexual crimes such as incest, rape and adultery”. Leaving aside the dangers of writing policy based on Facebook petitions, the majority state-owned Jordan Times  named the petition, which garnered 29,459 “likes”, as the main driver behind government support.

The petition is at the very least convenient for the government: the article, extolling this movement of “people power” glossed over the use of actual sources, hinting at the possibility that the petition could originate from within the government itself. The same article also quotes Alexa, “an Internet metrics company”, as providing the figure that “between 77 per cent and 80 per cent of Internet users in Jordan access pornographic sites”.

The Ministry of ICT will now begin consulting with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as to how to filter and block the sites, although the obliging “anonymous source” at the Jordan Times told the paper that “at this stage, there are no financial allocations for a project to block these sites.”

Jordanian bloggers have responded furiously to the implication that the government will now either use part of its’ taxpayer-funded research and development budget to pay for this move, or that the cost of censoring will be built into ISP costs. Blogger Roba Abassi cited the eventual aim of having “Internet Service Providers…provide a restricted Internet ‘by default’ and for those who want an unrestricted internet to ask for that and pay extra.”

Jordan was recently ranked at 128 out of 179 countries in Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) annual ranking of freedom of expression. A previous attempt to sanction and “regulate” online content was eventually quashed in 2010 after a widespread outcry: potential penalties ranged from fines to forced labour for posting material online that violated vaguely defined rules of “public decency” or “national security”. It seems that with the first attempt to control the internet directly by state having failed, the Jordanian government is now finding more insidious ways to pressure private companies to do their dirty work for them, citing “public interest” as their motivation.