By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Israel’s closure of Al Jazeera sparks widespread condemnation

Al Jazeera logo, with its code of ethics in English and Arabic. Photo (cc) 2009 by Joi Ito.

BBC News reports that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has followed though on longstanding threats to shut down Al Jazeera, accusing the Arab news service of acting as a propaganda arm for the terrorist group Hamas. As the story notes, though Al Jazeera is now off the air in Israel, it is still available through Facebook and other social media outlets. The Committee to Protect Journalists has denounced the action, quoting a statement from CJP Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna:

CPJ condemns the closure of Al-Jazeera’s office in Israel and the blocking of the channel’s websites. This move sets an extremely alarming precedent for restricting international media outlets working in Israel. The Israeli cabinet must allow Al-Jazeera and all international media outlets to operate freely in Israel, especially during wartime.

Al Jazeera has called the action a “criminal act” that “stands in contravention of international and humanitarian law.”

Shutting down Al Jazeera strikes me as an ill-considered move, not least because it will have little more than a symbolic effect. Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, and both it and Hamas receive some funding from the Qatari government. But Al Jazeera also enjoys a reputation for reliable journalism. Certainly it’s sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but that’s not a reason to ban it in Israel or anywhere else.

This commentary by Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz, a liberal Israel newspaper, notes that Arab governments, too, have closed Al Jazeera from time to time, adding that Israel should have held itself apart from that repressive attitude toward freedom of the press. He writes that “closing its offices cannot prevent or frustrate the network’s operations, which are aired in more than 90 countries and reach 350 million potential Arabic-speaking viewers and millions of English speakers worldwide,” and adds:

Al Jazeera may not be able to broadcast from its offices in Israel, but it doesn’t need offices in Tel Aviv or Ramallah in order to continue showing the world the destruction, death, and hunger in Gaza. It broadcasts this reality directly from the Strip, as it did when it reported from the field during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or when it reported on the authoritarian regimes of Egyptian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Saudi kings, and the draconian regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, before and after the Arab Spring revolutions. It did so even after these states shuttered its offices.

In the U.S., the National Press Club came out against the move as well. Here’s part of a statement by Emily Wilkins, the club president, and Gil Klein, president of the club’s Journalism Institute:

The decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to shut down Al Jazeera operations in Israel is the wrong one. It is wrong for the people of Israel, for the people of Gaza, for people in the West Bank, and for the rest of the international news network’s millions of viewers around the region and world who rely on Al Jazeera’s reporting of the nearly seven-month Israel-Hamas war. We fully support Al Jazeera’s decision to fight this in court.

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Friedman’s latest

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who’s been an indispensable voice of reason since Oct. 7, has another must-read column (free link), this one urging Israel to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia rather than proceed with an all-out assault against the Gazan city of Rafah.

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Israel must be held to account for the targeting and killing of journalists

Protest in Tel Aviv against the Netanyahu government last June. Photo (cc) 2023 by RG TLV.

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote an important analysis last week about journalists who have been killed by Israeli forces in the the Gaza war. Citing figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Darcy observes that at least 95 journalists have been killed since Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel last Oct. 7, and that all but five of those journalists are Palestinian — the highest death toll for members of the press since CPJ began tracking such casualties in 1992.

In addition to deaths that might be attributed to the fog of war, there have also been killings that Israel carried out despite what appear to be clear indications that it was targeting media workers. Darcy writes that the United Nations recently finished a report showing that Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah had been killed in southern Lebanon after a tank fired at a group of “clearly identified journalists.” Israeli officials responded to the U.N. that it “does not deliberately shoot at civilians, including journalists.”

In addition, The Washington Post last week found that a Jan. 7 missile attack resulting in the deaths of two Al Jazeera journalists and two freelancers in southern Gaza may have lacked any military justification. The Israeli military claimed it had “identified and struck a terrorist who operated an aircraft that posed a threat to IDF troops” — but the Post found that the “aircraft” was a drone apparently being used for reporting purposes.

Darcy includes accounts of Palestinian journalists who have alleged been abused by Israeli forces as well — a topic that is the subject of a new report from CPJ, which “found multiple kinds of incidents of journalists being targeted while carrying out their work in Israel and the two Palestinian territories, Gaza and the West Bank” as well as the deaths of journalists’ families.

CPJ has posted an open letter signed by 36 leaders of top U.S. and international news organizations calling Israel to end its attacks on journalists. Among the Americans the letter are Julie Pace, the executive editor of The Associated Press; Mark Thompson, the chair and CEO of CNN; A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times; Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of The Washington Post; Kim Godwin, the president of ABC News; and Rebecca Blumenstein, the president of editorial at NBC News. Significantly, the international news leaders signing the letter include Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The letter includes this:

Journalists are civilians and Israeli authorities must protect journalists as noncombatants according to international law. Those responsible for any violations of that longstanding protection should be held accountable. Attacks on journalists are also attacks on truth. We commit to championing the safety of journalists in Gaza, which is fundamental for the protection of press freedom everywhere.

This weekend, as NPR reports, tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netananyu, calling for a deal with Hamas to release the more than 100 hostages the terrorist group is still believed to be holding.

The horrendous situation in the Middle East began with Hamas’ attacks, claiming some 1,200 lives and leading to Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which have killed more than 30,000 people, mostly civilians. Starvation looms. President Biden has been ever-so-slowly been backing away from the Netanyahu government, allowing a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire and the release of the hostages to take effect.

Israel’s targeting of media workers is a small part of a much larger picture — a horrendous problem that would seem to have no good solution. But let’s start with this: Journalists are the world’s eyes and ears. They need to be able to tell us what is taking place on the ground without fear of being killed.

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A New York Times story about Hamas and sexual violence comes under scrutiny

Like many of you have no doubt been doing, I’ve been tracking a story about a possible massive failure on the part of The New York Times. It’s about a story the paper published in December headlined “‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.” It is a harrowing and horrifying report on how Hamas terrorists sexually assaulted women in the most violent ways imaginable during their Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which claimed some 1,200 lives.

Parts of the story came under serious scrutiny on Feb. 28 in an investigative report published by The Intercept. It’s a complicated critique, because no one, including The Intercept, doubts that the terrorists engaged in sexual brutality. But the Times relied in part on a freelancer whose social media activity suggests that she is anti-Palestinian and who has little in the way of journalism experience. The Intercept has also called into question some key details in the Times story. The Times, it should be noted, stands behind its reporting.

The Intercept has also reported that the Times canceled an episode of “The Daily” concerning the sexual violence story after internal and external critics raised questions about its veracity. That, in turn, has led to an investigation inside the Times to determine who may have leaked that news. The NewsGuild of New York has accused the Times of targeting employees whose backgrounds are Middle Eastern or North African, which the Times denies.

This is a developing story. For now, I highly recommend this overview at Semafor by Ben Smith, which not only lays out the details but offers some valuable background and analysis.

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The Friedman update

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose clear-eyed analysis of the widening Middle East war have been so valuable since Oct. 7, sat down with Ezra Klein for an hour-long podcast last week. Highly recommended.

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An odd Suffolk/Globe/USAT poll on Israel and Hamas

I want to call your attention to what strikes me as a very odd poll that’s in today’s Boston Globe. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA Today poll surveyed 1,000 New Hampshire voters and asked them about the war between Israel and Hamas. Support for Israel was high — 48.6%, with 15.8% supporting the Palestinians and 14.7% sympathizing equally with both sides.

But here’s the question that has me flummoxed: “When it comes to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, what do you think the US goal should be right now?” Take a look at the responses:

Respondents only got to pick one answer. Yet if a pollster had asked me this question, I would have answered “yes” to all four, with one caveat: I’d support a cease-fire only if it were accompanied by a demand that the hostages being held by Hamas be released simultaneously. Otherwise, provide military aid to Israel? Push for a cease-fire (and the release of the hostages)? Advocate for a two-state solution? Insist that Netanyahu step down? Yes, yes, yes and yes. I suppose the first two questions, calling for Israel to “eliminate Hamas” versus pushing for a cease-fire, are binary. But I’d have answered “yes” to both anyway because I support military aid to Israel and peace and justice.

I can’t imagine I’m alone in my thinking. Given that, I’m not sure that these polls results have any value. And I guess I’d have been with the 2.1% who refused to answer.

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Union members at New York Times and teachers unions push back at Gaza resolutions

New York Times journalists said to number in the “dozens” have formed an “Independence Caucus” within their union to push back on what they see as efforts by the leadership to take sides in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Alexandra Bruell of The Wall Street Journal reports that “some Times staffers chafed when the NewsGuild held a virtual meeting during which some members debated the merits of issuing a statement calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to U.S. government aid to Israel, a move that they said would compromise their neutrality and put colleagues in war zones at risk.”

Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, comes across in the article as someone who is being whipsawed by various factions, telling the Journal: “We had hundreds of people write to us and call us on all sides. What we had was a listening session to hear from people directly.”

You might think that a union ought to restrict its purview to wages, benefits and protecting workers from capricious managers. But the NewsGuild, whose members include non-journalists, has in fact taken stances on broader issues over the years, including statements in favor of abortion rights.

Closer to home, the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s leadership recently voted to approve a resolution that calls for a cease-fire as well as “an end to our government’s complicity with Israel’s genocidal assault on the people of Gaza and the intent to take over their territory.” David Mancuso, in the newsletter Contrarian Boston, writes that the Anti-Defamation League has called the resolution “a perverse position,” and that the Newton Teachers Association demanded that the state union “retract its statement immediately.”

It strikes me as unnecessary and counterproductive for unions to take positions that have nothing to do with the important work of representing their members — all of their members, many of whom may not be on board with the political views of their leadership.

That’s even more important with the NewsGuild, whose members are called upon to cover the news — to borrow a phrase from the Times’ past — “without fear or favor.”

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How one-sided historical narratives distort coverage of the Israel-Hamas war

My Northeastern colleague Laurel Leff has written a smart analysis for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz showing how two competing origin stories — one frequently told, one largely ignored — have helped tilt public sentiment toward the Palestinian side in the war between Israel and Hamas. You should be able to read her piece with free registration.

Leff looked at “more than 500 news articles and opinion pieces appearing in the U.S.’s top 50 newspapers in the six weeks after the [Oct. 7] attack that contained various combinations of terms related to the 1948 conflict.” What she found was that though the press frequently cited the Nakba — the “catastrophe” — that sent some 700,000 Palestinians into exile in 1948, references to the Holocaust are lacking, even though Israel was created for the express purpose of providing a Jewish homeland following the devastating genocide that took place at the hands of Nazi Germany.

The purpose of Leff’s analysis is not to argue that the Palestinians don’t have legitimate grievances; rather, she writes that too many people are making moral judgments as to who’s right and who’s wrong without considering the full context. Among the news organizations she cites as falling short are The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press. She writes:

Several reasons account for the Nakba’s eclipsing the Holocaust in post-October 7 American media coverage. The press likely assumes the Holocaust’s role is so baked into public understanding that it doesn’t need to be spelled out. In addition, the 1948 displacement explains events in Gaza in a way Holocaust survivors settling in Israel proper does not. Palestinian activists also seem more determined to propel their 1948 narrative into public consciousness.

Whatever the reasons, the result is a void. A powerful state controlled by Jews emerges out of nowhere and immediately persecutes and displaces Arabs living in its midst. Who the Jews are, why they are there, what they hope to create is never explicated. Into the void flows more noxious accounts, of colonial settlers who migrated to the region only to pillage and exploit, of white supremacists whose sole interest is in subjugating an indigenous population.

I hope you’ll read Laurel’s entire piece. This is a moment that calls for radical understanding. Just as we can’t overlook the reality of the Nakba and the ongoing repression of Palestinians, so, too, we must take into account the reality that 6 million Jews had just been murdered in the Holocaust, and that the world came together to create a Jewish homeland in a place to which they had ancient ties — and where hundreds of thousands of Jews were already living.

These days, the competing claims between Israelis and Palestinians appear to be beyond resolution, and perhaps they are. But we can begin by taking into account the full history, not just part of it.

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In New Haven, a pro-Palestinian protester targets a symbol of Judaism

The New Haven Independent reports that during a large demonstration on Saturday, a pro-Palestinian protester climbed a giant menorah on New Haven Green and inserted a Palestinian flag between the candle-holders — an act of pure, unadulterated antisemitism. Fortunately, reporter Jake Dressler writes, other protesters “pleaded with him to take down the flag” and that “the flag was taken down immediately by other protesters.”

Paul Bass, executive director of the Online Journalism Project (which makes him essentially the publisher of the nonprofit Independent), wrote on Threads: “If this incident blows up, I think one question will be how this relates to the discussion of when/ whether/ how to separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.” Indeed, the protester took the notion that criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitism and turned it on its head.

The Independent is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I write about in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.”

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Report: A journalist was killed and six were injured by Israeli forces in Lebanon

Map via the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that 81 journalists and media workers have been killed so far in 2023, with most of those deaths concentrated in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon.

The news agency Reuters, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are blaming an Israeli tank crew for an attack in southern Lebanon on Oct. 13 that killed a Reuters videographer and wounded six others. The videographer was 37-year-old Issam Abdallah. According to an in-depth investigation by Reuters journalists Maya Gebeily, Anthony Deutsch and David Clarke, Israeli officials denied that they target journalists but did not produce any specifics in response to the findings.

The Reuters report is detailed, including numerous images to back up what Gebeily, Deutsch and Clarke found. They wrote:

Reuters spoke to more than 30 government and security officials, military experts, forensic investigators, lawyers, medics and witnesses to piece together a detailed account of the incident. The news agency reviewed hours of video footage from eight media outlets in the area at the time and hundreds of photos from before and after the attack, including high-resolution satellite images.

Especially disturbing is this: “The group of seven reporters from AFP, Al Jazeera and Reuters were all wearing blue flak jackets and helmets, most with ‘PRESS’ written on them in white letters.”

The war between Israel and Hamas — which has included forays into Lebanon, where Hamas ally Hezbollah is based — has proved to be unusually deadly for the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. As of today, CPJ investigations show that “at least 63 journalists and media workers were among the more than 18,000 killed” since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists killed more than 1,200 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostages. Of those 63 media workers who lost their lives, 56 were Palestinian, four Israeli and three Lebanese.

CPJ notes that the Israeli Defense Forces have said they can’t guarantee the safety of journalists in the Gaza Strip. That’s unacceptable, and I hope the Biden administration pressures the Israeli government to protect media workers — as well as innocent civilians, thousands of whom have been killed as a result of Israel’s overwhelming response to Hamas’ terrorism.

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