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Palestinian Journalists Are Exposing How “Objectivity” Is Used to Silence Them

Arab journalists are frequently viewed in the West as unreliable storytellers of our own struggles.

Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Gaza Wael Al-Dahdouh who received the news of an Israeli air raid killing his wife, son, daughter and grandson while on air is seen outside a hospital in Gaza City, Gaza on October 25, 2023.

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This is Bisan — and I’m still alive.

For over two months, more than 2.7 million Instagram followers have been rushing to check their phones for these words from Palestinian hakawatieh (storyteller) Bisan Owda. The 25-year-old filmmaker’s dispatches from Gaza under Israeli bombardment have captured the hearts of a global audience, etching into them the distinct way her eyes crinkle when she smiles and the shine of her braces.

Since October 7, the Gaza Strip has suffered relentless bombing and an escalation of the vicious blockade enforced by the Israeli occupation and the Egyptian military dictatorship. Per the reports from the Gaza Health Ministry, the death toll has reached a figure unprecedented in 75 years of occupation: surpassing 20,000 Palestinians — and counting.

Amid this violence, Bisan started posting daily video updates when she could catch internet connectivity, capturing life under fire as a Gazan. Her videos present stark realities, from her first sip of clean water after days of thirst, to heart-wrenching scenes of rubble and torn limbs of her people. In time, Bisan donned a PRESS vest and transitioned into a reporter for various non-mainstream news outlets. Watching Bisan’s evolution from a digital storyteller to a globally recognized on-the-ground conflict reporter — a conflict of which she is both the victim and the documenter — has urged me to revisit the question of journalistic objectivity.

I belong to a generation of Egyptians whose journalists were born from the womb of a revolution, our work fueled by a vision for social justice ignited in 2011 during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square. As Arabs, we come from contexts where journalists are tortured, incarcerated and murdered for their work. Today in Gaza, 97 journalists and media workers have been killed since the bombardment began. This reality makes it impossible to disentangle ourselves from the struggles that have given rise to our voices. I, and most Arab journalists in exile, find our encounters with Western disdain of activist journalism quite puzzling.

Since October 7, several major U.S. news outlets have reportedly restricted Arab and Muslim reporters and anchors from covering the ongoing massacres in Palestine. Some took Arab journalists off the air for posting or merely liking pro-Palestinian posts on social media. Other outlets introduced revised guidelines cautioning staff against signing public petitions or open letters on issues that might influence, or appear to influence, their commitment to fair and fact-based reporting.

This apparent quest for objectivity in Western journalism suggests the necessity of a detached stance devoid of personal biases, which purports to present events factually, enabling the audience to form their own conclusions.

The mainstream Western media’s dehumanization of Palestinians — in life and in death — affects everything from their selective platforming to the misleading framing of stories.

Yet, neutrality as a sacred rule of journalism has repeatedly been contested in the U.S., particularly during the rise of social movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter. These discussions have returned to the forefront with the reporting on the U.S.-funded massacre in Gaza. Not only did mainstream media outlets sideline pro-Palestinian media workers under the guise of objectivity, but they also violated that very principle through consistent complicity in manufacturing consent for the unfolding genocide of Palestinians.

On our screens, we’ve been following degrading rhetoric in Western media coverage of the genocidal campaign in Gaza, emanating from a stance of cultural and political superiority. The mainstream Western media’s dehumanization of Palestinians — in life and in death — affects everything from their selective platforming to the misleading framing of stories, the choice of interviewees, the conduct of their interviews, and the confinement of Arab representation in news stories to graphic sensationalism.

Witnessing the work of Palestinian journalists like Bisan Owda disrobes the Western definition of credibility, one introduced and maintained by people whose position allows them distance from the stories they report — a detachment we Arabs cannot afford. And Bisan is not the only example.

Many around the world were moved to tears on October 24 as Wael Al-Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Gaza, broke down on camera. While on air, he received the news of an Israeli air raid killing his wife, son, daughter and grandson while they were sheltering in a safe house. At Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, Wael’s voice trembled as he spoke about his murdered loved ones.

One moment, he was reporting the news; the next, he became the news. But, despite his gutting loss, Wael stood before the microphone the following day. In a grave voice, he said, “It is my duty, despite the pain and the open wound, to get back in front of the camera.”

Can Wael Al-Dahdouh ever detach himself from his grief, having buried most of his family? Who holds the right to deem his body of work a lesser form of journalism for it?

Almost two months later, on December 15, Wael was reporting from a UN school in Khan Yunis, a shelter for displaced people amid the aftermath of Israel’s nightly bombardment. Suddenly, an Israeli missile struck, gravely injuring him and his cameraman, Samer Abu Daqqa. Wael, narrowly escaping, called for help for his immobilized colleague while being transported to the hospital. As Wael received treatment, he witnessed the world’s inaction as Samer bled out for hours, until his final breath.

For years, 53-year-old Wael Al-Dahdouh has been revered in Gaza for bringing the poignant stories of his people to the world, highlighting their ongoing refusal to be erased.

Standing before the camera again, can Wael ever detach himself from his grief, having buried most of his family, lost his colleague, and nursed his wounds, all because of the very events he was covering? Who holds the right to deem his body of work a lesser form of journalism for it?

When our narratives are intertwined with our repression, storytelling within our communities naturally takes on an activist role. Yet, we are only ever viewed in the West as subjects of others’ reporting, not reliable storytellers of our own struggles. This friction raises important questions: Are we, Arabs, unfit to narrate our own lived experiences? If the violence enacted against us is not a shortcoming of the global system, but one of the main goals it serves, are we inherently unqualified to practice journalism? Can our stories, paradoxically, only be told by the same groups whose worldview established the conditions of our oppression in the first place?

Palestinian journalists like Wael Al-Dahdouh and Bisan Owda, among others, with their direct experience of catastrophe, challenge traditional Western notions that often employ an imperialist, white-centered reference point as a baseline for measuring objectivity. They show us how their intimate involvement and perilous sacrifice not only don’t compromise their factual accuracy, but contribute invaluable depth and context typically missed in so-called objective reporting.

The current shifts in global narratives, especially about Arabs, emphasize the need to move beyond the sacrosanct journalism principles forged in spaces where we were absent, at tables where no chairs bore our names, and where our voices remained confined to statistics.

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