With at least 79 Palestinian, Israeli, and Lebanese members of the media killed during Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip over the past few months, half a dozen human rights and press freedom groups on Wednesday implored U.S. President Joe Biden to “act immediately and decisively to promote the conditions for safe and unrestricted reporting on the hostilities.”
“The United States has a long record of strong support for Israel, including civilian and military aid, and is clearly one of Israel’s most influential partners,” states the letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Freedom House, Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), Human Rights Watch, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and Reporters Without Borders.
Since the Hamas-led attack on October 7 that sparked Israel’s brtual response, Biden has bypassed Congress to arm Israeli forces while also asking lawmakers for a $14.3 billion package, on top of the $3.8 billion in military aid that the U.S. gives the country annually.
“We believe your administration can and must do more to effectively pursue accountability for journalists killed in the hostilities and to protect and support local and international journalists covering it,” the coalition wrote to Biden, noting other similar calls. “The United States should use its considerable influence with the Israeli government to press them to ensure that journalists are able to safely document military operations and to shed light on their compliance with international humanitarian law.”
Committee to Protect Journalists president Jodie Ginsberg said last month that “the concentration of journalists killed in the Israel-Gaza war is unparalleled in CPJ’s history and underscores how grave the situation is for press on the ground.” The letter highlights that as of Wednesday, CPJ has tracked the deaths of 79 journalists: 72 Palestinian, 4 Israeli, and 3 Lebanese.
Local authorities in the Gaza Strip, which has been governed by Hamas for nearly two decades, said Wednesday that 115 Palestinian journalists are among the at least 23,357 dead, including many thousands of innocent civilian men, women, and children. Whatever the true figure for journalists is, the letter stresses that “almost all of them” have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken — who is visiting the Middle East this week — faced intense backlash twice last month for calling 2023 “an extraordinarily dangerous year” for members of the press, without mentioning those killed in Israel’s U.S.-backed blockade and bombardment of Gaza.
As the letter points out: “The U.S. State Department spokesperson recently said that the United States has not seen any evidence that Israel is intentionally targeting journalists. Yet credible reports by human rights and media organizations indicate that the IDF strikes in southern Lebanon on October 13 that killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and injured six other journalists from Reuters, Al Jazeera, and Agence France-Presse were unlawful and apparently deliberate.”
“The IDF has also acknowledged deliberately targeting a car in which journalists were traveling on January 7, killing two journalists and seriously injuring a third,” the letter continues. “In at least two other cases, journalists reported receiving threats from Israeli officials and IDF officers before their family members were killed in Gaza. Of course, the targeted or indiscriminate killing of journalists, if committed deliberately or recklessly, is a war crime, and the International Criminal Court has said that it will investigate reports of war crimes committed against journalists in Gaza.”
The groups detailed that along with risking their lives, those reporting on the Israeli war on Gaza and escalation along the Israel-Lebanon border face challenges including “the refusal of Israel and Egypt to allow international journalists access to Gaza except under Israeli military escort (and even then, with restrictions on reporting), internet shutdowns that prevent news and testimonies from Gaza from reaching the outside world, arbitrary detention, and harassment and intimidation.”
“In addition, the Israeli government is requiring media outlets in Israel to submit almost any detailed reporting on the war to its ‘censorship‘ office for review, while banning reporting on significant topics of public interest related to the war in Gaza,” they wrote.
The groups want Biden to pressure all parties to “respect the right of journalists to report on the hostilities, ensure journalists’ safety, allow all journalists seeking to evacuate from Gaza to do so, abjure the indiscriminate and deliberate killing of journalists, promptly and thoroughly investigate all attacks on journalists, and hold accountable individuals found to be responsible for them.”
They are also demanding increased access for journalists along with “personal protective equipment and materials used for newsgathering,” as well as “thorough, transparent, and public assessments of the end-use of U.S. weapons and military assistance to Israel.”
The organizations are further calling on Biden to “support swift, transparent, and independent investigations into the killing of all journalists and ending the long-standing pattern of impunity in the killings of journalists by the IDF, including Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh,” who was killed in the occupied West Bank in May 2022.
“The Biden administration has been all talk when it comes to journalists killed by the Israel Defense Forces,” said FPF director of advocacy Seth Stern. “The Biden administration says it cares deeply about journalists’ freedom to cover the war but has failed to demand Israel ensure journalists’ safety or hold it accountable when it doesn’t.”