“Give us 10 minutes” was the quote circulating round news agencies and social media platforms the week of May 16, 2021. A building, Al-Jalaa Tower, was being targeted by Israeli forces in Gaza. The owner, Jawad Mahdi, was asking for 10 minutes for people to get their equipment out of the building.
You see, it wasn’t just any building; it housed media headquarters, including Al Jazeera and Associated Press News. And the people Mahdi wanted 10 minutes for were journalists wanting to save their equipment — and their life’s work.
Israeli forces denied the request; they claimed the building held ties to Hamas, and that journalists were being used as “human shields”. The Associated Press has vehemently denied the presence of Hamas in the building, and the Israeli forces have yet to provide any evidence.
Deomolition is one way the Palestinian media is being suppressed. It’s important to note that the destruction of Al-Jalaa tower was covered by all major media outlets — but this is no isolated incident. While ongoing media suppression issues have been brought to light, they're not getting much coverage.
Al-Henday, Al-Jawhara and Al-Shorouk towers were all levelled days before the Al-Jalaa tower. They too housed more than a dozen local and international news outlets. Sultan Barakat, Director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute, wrote in Al-Jazeera that “Israel is waging a war on truth”
MADA, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, published an article reporting 122 assaults and offences against Palestinian, Arab, and international journalists—all committed by Israeli forces and authorities. The report includes the killing of journalist Yousef Mohammad Abu Hussein, media graduates Mohammad Shaheen and Abdul Hamid Kolk, as well as the targeting and injuring of dozens of journalists in the West Bank and Gaza.
The detention of the Al-Kurd twins
You may have heard of the young journalists and twins Muna and Mohammad Al-Kurd, whose home in Sheikh Jarrah was among those in danger of being taken over by Israeli settlers. During the weeks in May, Muna was filming in Sheikh-Jarrah, posting first-hand accounts of the situation to social media.
Soon after, an Israeli patrol asked her and other journalists to film in specific areas— away from settlers. On June 6, Muna was detained by Israeli Police for allegedly taking part in protests in Sheikh-Jarrah, and her brother later turned himself in after receiving a summons. Both were released hours later.
Muna shared to her social media page that “these are policies to silence people, policies to pressure and scare people.”
From riot police violence against Arab, Palestinian, and international journalists on the ground, to the bombing of significant media buildings, to the banning of filming and recording in certain neighbourhoods—it’s clear that Palestinian news agencies are being censored. This is where platforms like Instagram and Twitter have emerged as a critical tool for spreading awareness.
Live footage, pictures, and first-hand accounts have been shared widely on social media. Hashtags like #SaveSheikhJarrah and #FreePalestine trended during the month of May, despite the attacks against media on the ground.
The Al-Kurd twins are prominent activists on social media, alongside other Palestinian singers, journalists, and lawyers— both within Palestine and the diaspora abroad. They've shared almost hourly updates about the situation in East Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa mosque shooting, as well as the happenings around the West Bank and Gaza.
Mass deletion of social media posts
Activestills, an independent collective of photographers who focus on “decolonial photographic practice,” highlight the importance of photography in sharing their truths with the world. Social media has made their work possible. That is, until they noticed their posts and stories were being limited; or threatened with deletion under the guise of “hate speech”.
Soon, a wave of posts flagged as being deleted or hidden took over social media, shifting the collective focus to censorship online. Major social media platforms were suppressing Palestinian voices.
“Your account may be deleted. Post removed for hate speech or symbols” Activestills shared the notification on their page. The post being deleted was condemning a picture of the march for Jerusalem Day, where people marching with the Israeli flag chanted “Death to Arabs.”
Other accounts frequently shown on the main page were suddenly hidden. Mine included— friends and family told me they could no longer find my account to send me direct messages, or see my stories without searching for my account. Lawyer and professor Khaled Beydoun also shared a similar experience.
In fact, this became such an issue that people started sharing posts explaining how to get around the algorithm, which was allegedly censoring the Palestinian narrative — and favouring the Israeli one. Hacks like adding COVID-19 stickers or tools like a countdown seemed to do the trick.
MADA added the suppression from social media to their monthly report, where they confirm that Instagram deleted a large number of posts supporting the Sheikh Jarrah campaign. Instagram later apologised, claiming they were unintended mistakes — although journalists and activists continued to experience invisibility to a large number of their followers.
In addition, Twitter suspended several accounts sharing first-hand experiences of the situation during the month of May, including reporter Shatha Hammad, journalist Maysoon Kahil, and cameraman Hisham Abu Shakra.
Why should you care?
The question then becomes: why does this even matter? It’s simple: Journalism is a building block of democracy. Controlling the media has historically been a political tool to control the masses, and shift the narrative to whatever those in power choose it to be.
This does not in any way put journalists or the media above the law — it’s our job to be held accountable and report responsibly. At the same time, it’s our right to report and bring information to the public in the first place. Even more importantly, it’s the public’s right to have access to all this information. That’s the basis on which the UN’s Freedom of Information and the Press act is built.
“A free press is not a luxury that can wait for better times; rather, it is part of the very process which can bring about better times,” says the UN statement for World Press Freedom Day 2016.
Free Press Unlimited, an NGO that aims to enable and support independent news and accessibility for the public, wrote in their 2021 annual plan that “Media and journalists, as independent players in civil society, constitute a diverse and professional information landscape and function as catalysts for change.”
The takeaway here is that access to fair and viable information can lead to the changes needed for the betterment of society. It’s not possible to have access to truth when half the story is kept out of the public eye. Holding those in power accountable, searching for the truth, informing voters, and paving the way for the public to access other basic rights: these are the things that make media freedom so critical.
Written by Fatima Dia
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