Skip to main content

If we criminalise, dismiss or sideline journalism that tells inconvenient truths, we will destroy our capacity for sensible public debate.

As I write, the grim count of journalists killed in Gaza since last October has reached 97. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) puts the number slightly higher at 108.

In the first 50 days of the conflict, journalists were being killed at a rate of roughly one per day, making Gaza indisputably the most dangerous conflict for journalists since the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began keeping records in 1992. By the time you read this, the toll is likely to have climbed even higher.

The dead include two Israeli journalists killed in Hamas’ initial attack on October 7 last year, and three Lebanese killed by an Israeli artillery strike in south Lebanon. But the vast majority — more than 90 — were Palestinians killed in Gaza itself.

Some of those were the inevitable “collateral damage” of a conflict that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says has already claimed more than 34,000 lives, caught in the crossfire because they were working close to active fighting.

But the CPJ, RSF and a host of other news organisations have accused Israeli troops of targeting many of the journalists because of their work.

According to RSF, “many of them were reporting in the field and were clearly identifiable as journalists. Others were killed by strikes that specifically targeted their homes.”

The news organisations have demanded an investigation into the allegations and, if confirmed, it would constitute a war crime. It also undermines Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East that respects freedom of the press.

Of course, a journalist’s life is worth no more than anybody else’s, but this is not so much about their safety as it is about our right to know.

Currently, Israel only allows Israeli and foreign journalists into the Gaza Strip on carefully controlled “embeds” — escorted trips with their own troops that necessarily give a myopic view of the fighting through Israeli gun sights.

The problem is not a lack of information. Social media is awash with rumour, conjecture, opinion and bloviation, but without information underpinned by the necessary journalistic rigour, it becomes impossible to filter out reliable fact from conjecture, rumour and pure fiction.

In short, without journalists being free to work on the ground, we would be left with only social media posts of civilians caught in the violence, and the highly subjective news releases from Hamas and the Israeli military.

Attacks on the press are not limited to Gaza.

Across the world, journalism is under unprecedented assault.

The CPJ also tracks the number of journalists in prison around the world, with a snapshot taken on December 1 each year. Last year was the second highest on record with 320 behind bars. (It was also the first time Israel made the top six jailers of journalists, by imprisoning Palestinian reporters in the West Bank.) The figures have also steadily increased since 2000 when only 92 were behind bars.

In an analysis of the charges the journalists are facing, the CPJ found that almost two-thirds of them are being held on what the organisation broadly describes as “anti-state charges”.

That’s things like terrorism, sedition, and treason. The troubling conclusion is that governments have taken to treating journalism not as something that supports the state by upholding democratic values such as transparency, accountability and vibrant public debate, but as as a threat.

When he was the US President, Donald Trump routinely dismissed journalists as “fake news” and accused them of being at “war” with democracy.

The editor of The Washington Post famously retorted, “We are not at war. We are at work.” But Trump’s casual dismissal of the media gave his supporters all the excuse they needed to brush off critical reporting, and the opportunity to choose their own “alternative facts”.

Societies can’t work like that. We need a common core of well-researched, verified, balanced and independent information.

Social media remains awash with conspiracy theories about COVID vaccines and climate change, and if that’s what floats your boat, you’ll find something to support whatever lunacy you choose.

If we criminalise, dismiss, sideline or otherwise marginalise journalism that unmasks inconvenient truths, we will destroy our capacity for sensible public debate.

Like anything involving humans, journalism is deeply flawed. Reporters are as vulnerable to human weakness as anyone else. But when it’s done properly, it comes with a set of professional standards and ethics that help keep it broadly focused on what is true and gives a fair airing to the opinions of all those involved.

The results are not always comfortable, but they are not meant to be. The Israeli government may not like reporting that alleges that their soldiers have committed war crimes, just as Hamas condemns claims that they use civilians as human shields.

But killing or locking up the journalists who report those stories does not change the truths they are exposing.

This piece was republished from 360info.