Shireen Abu Akleh, Palestinians, Al Jazeera and press freedom - opinion

The accusation of a willful murder is made when among the nations of the Middle East it is in Israel alone that a free and critical press thrives

 PALESTINIAN CHILDREN walk past a mural of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Bethlehem. (photo credit: WISAM HASHLAMOUN/FLASH90)
PALESTINIAN CHILDREN walk past a mural of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Bethlehem.
(photo credit: WISAM HASHLAMOUN/FLASH90)

It has been a month since the tragic shooting of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh; the time that has passed allowing for an unavoidable look at the hypocrisy, cynicism and mendacity of both the Palestinian Authority and Al Jazeera in their public discussion of the incident.

The killing of 51-year-old Abu Akleh generated massive media coverage, above and beyond the other all-too-many Israeli and Palestinian casualties of the conflict. She had worked for the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network for a quarter-century, making her a household name among the station’s millions of viewers across the Middle East, with many eulogizing her for being “the voice of Palestinian suffering” and a trailblazing role model for Arab women. 

As an American citizen, Abu Akleh’s death demanded Washington’s attention. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that he was “deeply troubled” by the events surrounding her funeral, later speaking with the Abu Akleh family. 

State Department spokesman Ned Price said her death was an “affront to media freedom everywhere,” and those responsible “must be held accountable.” Some 57 Democratic members of congress signed a letter demanding a joint FBI and State Department investigation, signaling their rejection of Israel’s ability to do so in a satisfactory manner. 

Wearing a blue vest marked “PRESS,” Abu Akleh was fatally shot on May 11 while covering an IDF operation to apprehend terror suspects in Jenin. Over March and April, Israel had suffered a wave of terrorist attacks against its cities - Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and Elad - in which 11 people were murdered, the perpetrators originating from the Jenin area. 

 A PALESTINIAN MAN draws a mural of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip. (credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90) A PALESTINIAN MAN draws a mural of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip. (credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

The IDF said that during the operation its forces came under “widespread and uncontrolled gunfire,” with “hundreds of bullets” fired from multiple locations “continuously and indiscriminately.” The army’s initial examination, released May 13, was unable to determine the source of the bullet that struck Abu Akleh, leaving open the possibility that she was shot by either Palestinian or Israeli fire. 

By May 19, the IDF had identified a soldier’s rifle that may have been used to shoot Abu Akleh but could not be certain unless the Palestinians turned over the bullet for ballistic analysis. Despite Israeli and American requests, the PA has refused to do so or to conduct any joint investigation with Israel, instead releasing its own findings on May 26 “that one of the occupation forces… fired a bullet that hit journalist Shireen Abu Akleh directly in her head.”

Media coverage

CNN’s methodologically flawed report aside, the main Western press, while critical of Israel, tended to be careful not to be overly unequivocal in drawing conclusions as to the shooter; the Associated Press commenting that “any conclusive answer is likely to prove elusive” while The New York Times wrote the “world still knows very little about who is responsible for her death.” 

In contrast, Al Jazeera was vociferously explicit, immediately accusing Israel of “blatant murder” and deliberately targeting its journalist in a “cold-blooded” assassination. From the moment the news broke, the network was declaring Israel’s criminal responsibility, either it instantly had all the facts, or the specifics were unimportant when given an opportunity to point the finger. 

The same narrative was embraced by the Palestinians: PA President Mahmoud Abbas declaring Israel “fully responsible” and PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh claiming that Abu Akleh had been “martyred by the bullets of the Israeli occupation,” adding that the “crime of silencing the word” had been “committed once again, and the truth is murdered by the bullets of the Israeli occupation.”

Al-Quds journalist Ali Samoodi, also injured in the shooting, gave compelling interviews from his hospital bed arguing the Israelis had knowingly targeted Abu Akleh to prevent her reporting the terrible truths about Israel’s crimes. (Samoodi’s Al-Quds newspaper once claimed that the infamous antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion was not a forgery).

The accusation of a willful murder is made when among the nations of the Middle East it is in Israel alone that a free and critical press thrives. Israel’s famously boisterous and pugnacious media is always ready to expose a misbehaving politician, government wrongdoing and the IDF’s mistakes. This while the practice in the PA and Al Jazeera falls into a very different category.

Press freedom in the PA, Qatar

Although a PA basic law theoretically guarantees a free press, in reality such freedom is nonexistent: the media is severely constrained, critical platforms are shut down and journalists arrested when the authorities object to their work. Reporters have been beaten while in custody, blogger Nizar Banat ended up dead. When Abbas was angered by an Al Jazeera story, he ordered the closure of the network’s Ramallah offices.

The Palestinian president might have championed the deceased Abu Akleh as a martyr, but live Palestinian journalists know what may happen if they incur the wrath of the PA.

For its part, Al Jazeera likes to present its reporting as hard-hitting independent journalism, but the Qatari government-funded channel’s hundreds of employees never report about matters that could embarrass their patron.

Consequently, Qatar’s ongoing systematic mistreatment of the country’s migrant worker population of more than two million (similar in size to the entire population of Gaza) does not make it to Al Jazeera’s newsroom. The network has been equally silent on the kingdom’s discriminatory sexist male guardianship laws, on the criminalization of criticism against the emir’s leadership and on the lack of press freedom. 

Even more problematic, following last year’s war in Gaza, the channel was presented with an award from Hamas for its reporting of the conflict. Hamas acclaim for Al Jazeera is not new, the network has a history of glorifying the perpetrators of terror attacks and broadcasting material that incites violence; its recent regurgitation of erroneous claims that the Jews somehow threaten al-Aqsa Mosque just the latest example.

Ultimately, like with its Kremlin-controlled sister channel RT, the Qatari state furnishes a television news station with a highly tendentious agenda.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European democracies banned RT broadcasts deeming them a “direct threat” to the “public order and security” of the EU. Yet, despite Al Jazeera’s record of affinity with a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, Jerusalem takes no analogous action, media freedom being sacrosanct.

While Shireen Abu Akleh’s untimely death warrants thorough examination, allegations that Israel deliberately targets the press deserve no credence. They are cheap propaganda and should be dismissed as such.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the incoming head of the Abba Eban Institute. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.