As Israeli violence in Gaza resumes, Palestinian journalists on the ground are struggling to get the job done. Not just by dodging the bombs and destruction, the digital blackouts, the lack of basic needs, and the toll on their sanity. Now, even their salaries and the money needed to replace equipment are at risk.
This is at a time when the international community has acknowledged that verification and on-the-ground reporting are key to understanding Gaza.
International Media Support (IMS) – one of the few media development organizations to take a clear stance in support of independent Palestinian journalists – published this week: “What we have feared is beginning to happen: over the weekend, prominent Gaza journalists shared their increasing desperation. They are exhausted and distressed. After two months of covering death and destruction, the risk that burnout will force them to give up their crucial work is very real.”
On Saturday, Gazan photojournalist Motaz Azaiza wrote: “The phase of risking your life to show what’s happening is now over and the phase of trying to survive has started".
On Monday, journalist and TV reporter in Gaza Hind Khoudary tweeted: “I do not feel that staying alive has any meaning anymore.”
At the ARIJ16 Conference in Amman this week, Muamar Orabi, the general director of Wattan Media Network, could be seen jostling in one meeting after the next, wrapped tightly in his keffiyeh, trying to comprehend the ramifications of the decision of several European states, namely Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, as well as the European Commission to suspend or review their funding to Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations due to unfounded allegations of diversion of funding to terrorist organizations.
He spoke to Fatemah Farag from Ahram Online with clarity and a resolve of purpose about the world that is crashing around him.
Fatemah Farag: What is Wattan and why – over 20 years since you founded the organization - do you think it is still important today?
Muamar Orabi: Wattan Media Network is an award-winning independent media organization based in Ramallah and covering the West Bank and Gaza. We have always believed in the importance of the existence of an independent and alternative voice for Palestinians. A voice that is civic-minded, secular, and independent. What I mean by independent is that it is a voice that does not follow any political party. It is a voice that is an alternative to the official Palestinian media. We are not unbiased though and we state our bias clearly: we are biased to the concerns and worries of our people. This is why we have produced solutions journalism and constructive media content over the years.
[A tenant of media development programs is that a well-functioning media sector, quality journalism, and well-informed citizens are essential for sustainable political, social, and economic development]
FF: Can you describe what it has been like to work under occupation and also within a highly polarized Palestinian context?
MO: The situation in Palestine has always been complex. There is Israeli occupation and then under that are the risks posed by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Not to equate the occupation with Hamas or the Authority but we often are confronted by three different forms of authority who are not sympathetic to freedom of the press. Independent Palestinian journalists never know if the next day is the day they get arrested.
Our journalists are constantly suffering the bind: on the one hand, to be neutral and independent and on the other hand, they cannot disassociate themselves from the pain and hurt suffered by their society. We suffer disillusionment often. And then there is the massive cruelty reflected in the number of journalists killed by Israel in the past few weeks – numbers that exceed those killed in the Second World War in six years. [To date, 70+ journalists have been killed in Gaza.] So these big numbers amplify and highlight what we have been suffering all along under occupation.
Independent Palestinian journalists pay a big price for doing their job. Our offices were shut down by the Israelis in 2002, they stormed into our building in 2012 and took all of our equipment, which they never returned. And then there is the harassment and arrests – tens and tens over the years. Journalists can be held in detention for years and then released without explanation or due process. [According to the ME Monitor, 130 Palestinian journalists were detained by Israel in 2022 alone and, according to RSF, 14 journalists were by Israel in November in the West Bank alone.]
The situation since 7 October is being documented – death, injury, arrest, suffering the mental cost of covering thousands dying, loss of families and loved ones not to mention homes. Journalists can hardly sleep for fear of not living to wake up.
FF: Why are you losing funds now – even as your role is probably more critical than it has ever been?
MO: We are not only the victims of occupation but also victims of those donors who have stopped supporting independent media and journalists in Palestine. Maybe they think that by doing this they can relieve themselves of their holocaust guilt even though we – the Palestinian people – have been the victims of this guilt time and time again.
We do not want them [donors/Western government] to give us arms – as they have given in Ukraine – to defend ourselves. We are just asking them to treat us as human beings. We want them to be consistent with the values they have been preaching to us for years. This [withdrawal of support] by some donors is a great scandal and, in my opinion, it uncovers a double standard. They tell us to pressure our governments but they [some media development programmes] will not pressure their governments to do what is right. Instead, they disrespect their contracts, processes, and systems and refrain from paying the salaries of journalists who are working 24 hours a day.
[In a statement released after this interview and signed by over 99 civil society organizations from across the globe stated: “Requiring organizations to adhere to certain political lines that represent the political positions of donor states infringes upon and restricts their freedom of expression. In suspending all funding development funding to Palestine pending a review, Sweden has outlined also that it will not provide future development funding to actors who do not condemn Hamas.
Finally, the credibility of European governments’ approaches to the current crisis in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel has already been damaged by their restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly for people and groups protesting the Israeli authorities’ violations of International Humanitarian law and potential war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza. Many European states are not only failing to call out Israeli Grave Breaches of International Humanitarian Law or to hold all parties who are in violation to account, but are also taking actions that result in curbing freedom of expression and assembly in Europe, and undermining civic space and protections of human rights in Israel and the OPT through suspension of support for local human rights actors.”]
FF: What are the implications for the future of cooperation and the media development sector?
MO: I think the events that have unfolded since 7 October have been a big lesson for us. They have taught us not to stand with donors who just say empty slogans and are only concerned with business as usual. They have abandoned us in a most dire time of need.
But I am really afraid that if the independent media sector is allowed to crash a vacuum will be created that can only be filled with terrible things. We saw militia-supported media filling in the void in Libya, Iraq, and Syria – that would be a terrible mistake to repeat.