The killing of journalists in the Israel-Hamas conflict undermines a free press.

Sixty-three journalists and media workers were among more than 18,000 Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Forces since the war began with an attack by Hamas on October 7 in Israel that killed 1200 and where some 240 hostages were taken. 

As a reader of this newsletter, you have no doubt already heard this grim math on a staggering death toll – for journalists and civilians. But let’s take a moment to really put that killing of 64 journalists, 56 of whom are Palestinian, in context, and absorb what it means for a free press. And let’s reexamine why the murder of American freelance journalist James Foley in Syria and his family’s effort to preserve his legacy 10 years after his death matters now more than ever.

Last month was the deadliest for journalists since The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began gathering data in 1992 and the total since October 7 is three times the number of all journalists killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last two decades.

Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, said, “CPJ emphasizes that journalists are civilians doing important work during times of crisis and must not be targeted by warring parties. Journalists across the region are making great sacrifices to cover this heart-breaking conflict. Those in Gaza, in particular, have paid, and continue to pay, an unprecedented toll and face exponential threats.” 

What may be even worse than the level of killing of journalists in Gaza and on the border in Lebanon, where an IDF tank fired at a group of journalists, is that it is highly unlikely that anyone will be held accountable. Consider a CPJ report published in May, months before this escalation of the long simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that showed a deadly pattern of IDF force that killed 20 journalists over the last 22 years, and it confirmed that no one has ever been charged or held to account for a single death.

Failure to pursue justice for these slain journalists undermines freedom of the press globally. 

The camera of a photographer who was injured by Israeli shelling, is left on the ground at the Alma al-Shaab border village with Israel, south Lebanon, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

This injustice is something we all need to be concerned about and raise awareness around, even amid all of the noise of this war, as we pointed out in our GroundTruth statement on the Israel-Hamas war. While pondering this offensive against journalism, a fitting place to start is the killing in May of 2022 of Shireen Abu Akleh. A Palestinian American journalist and a ground-breaking role model for female journalists in the Mideast, Abu Akleh was a hero. She was killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in Jenin in the West Bank. Israel never prosecuted anyone and her family still seeks accountability.

Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s director of special projects and one of the report’s editors, said, “The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh and the failure of the army’s investigative process to hold anyone responsible is not a one-off event. It is part of a pattern of response that seems designed to evade responsibility. Not one member of the IDF has been held accountable in the deaths of 20 journalists from Israeli military fire over the last 22 years.”
In addition to CPJ’s documentation of impunity for the IDF when killing journalists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse have all examined the deadly October 13 strike on journalists in southern Lebanon, which killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah, 37, and injured six others. All of these organizations call for an immediate, independent, and transparent investigation that holds the perpetrators to account.

According to witness testimony, satellite imagery, and analysis of videos, audio, and munition remnants, these human rights groups and wire services have concluded that the attack in Lebanon was likely “a deliberate assault by the IDF on civilians,” which they say constitutes a war crime. A spokesman for the IDF has said that the journalists were operating in “an active war zone” and had placed themselves in a dangerous area. But the IDF also said it was still investigating the incident.
By all accounts, it is not that the IDF was unaware these civilians were journalists. Indeed, CPJ’s report found that at least 13 of the 20 journalists who died between 2001 and September 2023 were clearly identifying themselves as members of the media or were inside vehicles with press insignia at the time that they were killed.

Raising awareness of these crimes and the heightened risks that journalists are facing in the field is vital to pressuring governments into taking action. That has been the mission of The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation (JWFLF) for the last decade. The organization, created to honor Jim’s legacy as a front-line correspondent covering conflict including in Syria where he was captured and later killed, has worked tirelessly to highlight issues of safety for journalists, specifically freelancers. It also pushed the U.S. government to track down the ISIS members, nicknamed the Beatles because of their British accents, who murdered Jim and bring them to justice. One was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Two others were captured and sentenced to life in prison in 2022.

Posters with names and pictures of Sameeh Nadi, left and Esam Bashar, center and read “the Martyr of the Palestinian media, October er 23 war” are placed in mock coffins of Palestinian journalists who were killed during the current war in Gaza, while are prepared by fellow journalists to take part in a symbolic funeral toward a United Nations office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)

The foundation has also helped to train hundreds of reporters and editors on the best practices for safety in the field.  And the Foley Foundation has perhaps most prominently made its name advocating for hostages and to support the families of those taken hostages during the long painful wait. In this horrific moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are few better placed to offer understanding and compassion to both sides than Jim’s mother, Diane. In her appearances in TV news programs as the head of the foundation, as well in multiple conversations throughout the crisis, her message is always consistently one of passionate empathy for civilian victims, for the hostages and their families and of course for the journalists who have been killed or injured. As she recently shared, “All sides have their hurt.” 

She described the anguish of the Israeli families whose loved ones are still held hostage as “the worst possible thing you can imagine.” She would know after waiting almost two years for word from Jim who was held and tortured by ISIS in Syria before he was publicly slaughtered in a video that was streamed around the world. And she has always understood that the civilians caught in the middle of these wars deserve our compassion, or as she recently put it, “There are innocents in Palestine too who are not the terrorists. There are innocents on both sides as there always are in war.” 

It is a simple, but powerful message from an American mother who can uniquely understand the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians.