2023 Yearender: The media war

Kirellos Abdelmalak, Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

The Israeli war on Gaza has revealed major flaws in Western media ethics and objectivity.

The media war
The funeral of Al-Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa


On 19 October last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described in a highly circulated tweet that “Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, are war crimes.”

She further slammed “cutting off men, women, and children of water, electricity, and heating with winter coming” as “acts of pure terror.”

However, she did not say the same thing when Israel declared a complete siege on Gaza, which also resulted in relentless airstrikes on the heavily populated Strip, cutting off water, food, fuel, and electricity to the enclave.

“This is the first time in modern history that there is such human suffering, and the world is not even calling for a ceasefire,” Queen Rania of Jordan previously told the US network CNN.

“The silence is deafening, and to many in our region, it makes the Western world complicit.”

This Western political stance has been reflected in the coverage by Western media outlets of the war. From the moment of the Hamas Movement’s attack on Israel on 7 October, some Western media outlets turned to unjustified extremism, which became clear in the confusion between the Hamas Movement and unarmed civilians in the Gaza Strip.

More than 15,000 people have been killed as of the time of writing, including thousands of children, without their having any significant responsibility in the armed conflict between Hamas and Israel.

“Most mainstream US and EU news outlets have failed to objectively report on the conflict,” said an opinion piece by Chen Weihua published in chinadaily.com. “CNN has told numerous personal stories of Israeli civilians attacked by Hamas, sometimes with anchors weeping. But they have shown no interest in such stories among Palestinian victims in Gaza, a bid to dehumanise the Palestinians.”

The very language adopted by Western media outlets seems to reflect this lack of objectivity. “In a story last week, a BBC reporter said 1,400 Israelis were ‘massacred’ and 4,000 Palestinians were ‘killed,’ a bias reflected in her choice of words,” China Daily wrote.

A recent report by the Freedom of Speech and Expression Programme in the Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue, an Egyptian NGO, titled “Double Standards in the War in Ukraine and the Palestinian Cause” shows that there has been a “stark difference” in the media coverage of the Gaza war in regard to language, headlines, and narratives.

“The language used in the Western media to discuss both crises has uncovered the duplicity and double standards of the US and European media in their claims of objectivity,” the report said, adding that “their objectivity was simply thrown out of the window in their coverage of the war in Ukraine.”

The report highlighted how Western media outlets “were mostly positive while reporting on the Ukrainian resistance, but when it came to the Palestinian resistance, they are either negative, or rarely objective at best, despite the fact that both resistance efforts are against an illegal occupation.”

The report also showed how the Western media was “fiercely positive” in its condemnation of Russia, condoning the sanctions imposed on it, while being “wary at best” of any sanctions or boycotts of Israel.

In the meantime, “most acts of support for Palestine by celebrities are portrayed as ‘anti-Semitic’,” the report said.

Howaida Al-Der, an assistant professor of Radio and Television at Al-Menoufiya University, noted that the Western media has witnessed a clear contradiction in its coverage of the war on Gaza since the Hamas Al-Aqsa Flood Operation on 7 October.

“This clear contradiction is one of the most prominent manifestations of the violation of the professional and ethical standards of the media, the most important of which are integrity, transparency, and credibility, especially during periods of conflict and international political crises,” Al-Der told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“People aspire to know the truth, but here the media constitutes one of the parties to psychological warfare.”

“Whereas some Arab channels are committed to neutrality and balance, presenting events to both parties within a framework of credibility and broadcasting directly to all parties without deleting, colouring, or blocking, other news channels distort the facts, present false stereotypes, withhold information, and link their coverage to the political identity and economic interests of these countries with Israel,” she said.

Asmaa Abu Zeid, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University, similarly noted that Israel’s war on Gaza represented a test for the Western media, “which has been characterised by a high degree of bias towards the Israeli side, instead of presenting an objective picture that reflects the various dimensions of the crisis.”

“The events are described as a war between Hamas, a ‘terrorist group,’ and Israel, a ‘democratic state,’ and not a war between Israel and the occupied Palestinian people,” she went on. “Some Western media outlets have also claimed that Israel is not responsible for the killing and displacement of civilians in Gaza, and that Hamas is responsible.”

“As for the Palestinian issue or the issue of the Israeli occupation, there are attempts to place it in isolation from other events.”

Abu Zeid pointed out that “social media has clearly revealed this Western media bias, which has created anger towards the United States and the Western countries. Despite important distinctions and shifts in the orientations of Western and American public opinion towards the Palestinian issue, these transformations have not been reflected in the orientations of political leaders and traditional media in these countries.”

The Western media cannot be objective in such situations because most media outlets have specific agendas and biases. Pointing out that the most prominent reason for the Western media’s bias towards Israel is due to the imbalance of power between Palestine and Israel, she said that Israel is viewed as a “Western democracy” and not as an occupying force that deprives Palestinians of their basic human rights.

The “Western media is basing its propaganda on portraying Israel as making every effort to reduce civilian casualties. It aims to eliminate the infrastructure and military of Hamas and the Palestinian factions, while Hamas is portrayed as deliberately exposing Palestinian civilians to danger and storing weapons in civilian areas such as homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals.”


CRISIS: The crisis of the Western media in dealing with the war seems to be centred on generalisation and superficiality, which leads it to confuse the perpetrators with the victims.

This may be due to the media’s interest in speedy publication and simplifying the news in order to maintain the number of its viewers. In addition, the media belongs to different cultural trends, which makes it difficult to present an integrated, fair, and transparent picture of events.

According to the New Humanitarian, established by the UN before it became administratively independent, the “media coverage of Israel and Gaza is rife with deadly double standards.”

This has been clearly demonstrated in the coverage of developments in the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and Occupied Palestine, it said, adding that one side is usually classified as the aggressor and the other side as the victim, humanising one party over another, and considering one group of people to be more human than others.

It said that the Western media is often still locked in white supremacy and colonialism.

 “Why are many Palestinians interviewed on US or British TV asked to condemn Hamas as a ticket of entry to the conversation, while Israelis aren’t asked to account for their government’s crimes,” it asked.

 “If we label criminal acts by Hamas that terrorise Israeli civilians for political purposes as terrorism, why do we not do the same for criminal acts by the Israeli government that terrorises Palestinian civilians for political purposes? And why are several UN General Assembly Resolutions that affirm the Palestinians’ right to armed struggle as a response to Israeli apartheid and occupation hardly ever mentioned?”

Perhaps these questions would not have been published even in the New Humanitarian had it not been for the changes that swept the world after the attacks led by the Israeli government against defenseless Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

According to the American Website Vox and an article called “Israel’s Wartime Assault on the Free Press,” the ongoing war on Gaza is one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent memory for journalists, as at least 63 journalists and media workers had been killed by 8 December, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an industry group.

This is the same number of deaths of journalists that took place during the Vietnam War, which spanned two decades.

The figure shows the decline in the freedom of the press and the media. The American Website indicated that independent investigations had showed that Israel had deliberately targeted journalists on multiple occasions.

The group Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, has also filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing Israel of committing war crimes against journalists covering the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is the third complaint of its kind filed by the organisation since 2018.

A recent report on the US National Public Radio (NPR) Website titled “Gaza War is Deadliest Conflict for Journalists in over 30 Years” quotes the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit, as saying that “the majority of Gaza journalist casualties since the start of the war were killed while doing their jobs.”

The organisation classifies 43 of the 50 journalists killed so far as being on a “dangerous assignment.” It says investigations into the circumstances of the deaths are ongoing and that it is investigating whether some were targeted attacks.

Al-Jazeera Cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa died last Friday after being badly injured during an Israeli attack in southern Gaza. Abu Daqqa was on duty with Al-Jazeera’s Gaza Bureau Chief Wael Al-Dahdouh when both were struck with an Israeli missile. The two journalists were reporting on attack by Israeli forces at an UN-run school in Khan Younis. Whereas Al-Dahdouh could reach a nearby ambulance where he received treatment, Abu Daqqa was left to bleed for five or six hours before paramedics could reach him due to heavy shelling in the city.

The ICC had earlier found evidence showing that the Israeli army had already targeted journalists in the past, in reference to the killing of Palestinian journalist Shereen Abu Akleh, killed last year while covering events in the West Bank.

After investigations, media outlets and human rights organisations concluded that she was killed by Israeli army gunfire, and the Israeli Occupattion Forces (IOF) admitted that there was a high probability that this would happen.

 “Gaza’s journalists have shouldered the responsibility of telling the world what is happening while also suffering personal losses and tragedies during the war,” wrote the NPR.

“Their task of newsgathering has been made more difficult by communication blackouts in Gaza, where phone and Internet links have gone down periodically throughout the war.” Palestinian officials blame Israel for severing lines and limiting fuel deliveries to power telecom towers and generators.

A video of Salman Al-Bashir, a journalist for the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) TV channel, circulated showing him tearing off his protective press jacket the moment he was told that his colleague, Mohamed Abu Hatab, had been killed in an Israeli airstrike.

“We are victims, live on air,” he cried. “It is only a matter of time until we are all killed. We wait our turn, one after the other.”

Al-Dahdouh was broadcasting earlier when he received the news that his family had been killed by an Israeli airstrike. His wife, son and daughter, grandson and at least eight other relatives were all killed in an Israeli attack on the home they had been sheltering in.

“This might be the last video I post,” Ayat Khaddoura, a Palestinian journalist and podcaster, said in a post on Instagram on 13 November before she was killed by an Israeli airstrike.

Her last message to the world was recorded on 6 November. “We used to have big dreams, but now our dream is only to be killed in one piece, so people know who we are,” she sobbed.

Motaz Azaiza, a Palestinian photographer and journalist based in Gaza, was equally desperate. “It’s about life or death now,” he wrote in a social media message. “I did what I could. We are surrounded by the Israeli tanks.”


SOCIAL MEDIA: Social media has played a significant role in disseminating messages directly from the battlefield.

Al-Der explained that there has been a difference between the coverage of Western media outlets and social media.

“The social-networking sites are not controlled by state policy in directing its media towards specific goals and policies. Instead, they are a form of citizen media, which is sometimes characterised by boldness and awareness, and other times by haste, lack of awareness, and emotion, or adopting weak, ineffective patterns,” she said.

“The power of social media to spread its messages due to modern technology and interactive links has enabled it to quickly disseminate information,” and this has also included scenes of the killing of children and women, brutality, violence, and the remains of war victims on channels such as Instagram.

 However, sometimes social media has censored the content put up by users, including on Facebook. Instagram has blocked images of violence, while Twitter (X) has been objective and not blocked subscribers’ accounts, deleted their posts, or restricted their interactions.

Al-Der added that despite the important role that social media plays in influencing global public opinion, this influence is short-term and does not have a long-term cumulative effect. Pointing to the importance of seeking to raise awareness through traditional media such as talk shows and documentaries, she said this was important to identify misleading strategies used by other media and to educate the public about them through newspapers, radio, and television.

There was also a need to hold seminars and discussions, to host national figures, and to focus on preparing translations, while also publishing pictures and stories in which celebrities may participate.

All this may be a way of using social networking to support the Palestinian people. Slogans or pictures of the Palestinian flag or the Al-Aqsa Mosque are not enough, she said.

 Instead, the media must broadcast honest, documented, and supportive information, combat rumours, and ask social influencers and bloggers to spread awareness through their accounts.

“Let us fight the enemy with the same media weapons they use through an industry that is committed to professionalism, honesty, integrity, and transparency,” she said.

*The writer is a researcher in political science and member of the European Centre for Middle East Studies based in Germany.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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