Press Freedom, Palestine and the War in Ukraine
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
17 May 2022
A Palestinian man rides his bicycle in front of a mural in honour of
slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
The recent murder of the Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, once again demonstrated the lack of freedom in general in Palestine and the lack of freedom of the press and expression in particular. Her murder came as no surprise, though it occurred in front of the cameras and at a time when liberals are going all out against the lack of freedom in Russia and say little or nothing about other countries and in some cases appear on platforms with representatives of governments whose record is as equally questionable as Russia’s.
First of all, we should clarify that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not the same thing, though they are related. In modern societies freedom of the press is the freedom of the owner of the media outlet. Discussions on press freedom are often reduced to debates on the right of the media to exist as such, so when a government takes measures against a particular newspaper or TV channel it is usually denounced as a restriction of press freedom and the right of the freedom of the media company is seen as the greatest proof of press freedom and freedom of expression. From that point of view Israel is an exemplary state, as free enterprise exists in that country. But on this basis, we can’t really say that such freedom really exists there.
Some commentators continue to announce that the internet has given us the greatest expression of press freedom. It is a democratic technology, within the means of the majority if not all. They forget that every technological advance in printing and the distribution of texts has been democratic, from Caxton’s printing press in 1496 till the revolution after WWII with the mass printing of paperbacks for the masses up to the internet. As happened with each of these previous technological developments, governments have tried to control access to the means, through licences etc. or through the control of distribution or content. The algorithm is the new version of the functionary that prohibits or obstructs the distribution or sale of a newspaper. The supposed freedom of press and democratic access that some academics preached is illusory.
However, despite the technological advances, capitalism restricts this right in very classical ways. If you do not have access to the information, it doesn’t matter whether you have the right to publish. The murder of Shireen is one clear example. Israel restricts access to where events happen and murders journalists to intimidate others. Of course, Israel is not the only country where journalists are murdered. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in its White Paper published in 2020 calculated that between 1990 and 2020, 2,658 journalists were murdered.(1) In the document they clarify that 75% of the journalists murdered did not die stepping on a landmine or in the midst of crossfire, but rather they were murdered for what they report.(2) Neither did Shireen die in the midst of crossfire but rather she was murdered by an Israeli sniper’s bullet, which is no different from a low level hitman running away on a motorbike after killing his victim. The UN for its part does not acknowledge any journalists murdered in Israel. However, it does accept the murder of 22 journalists in Palestine between 2002 and 2022, including Shireen i.e. the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).(3) None of the cases have been solved and the majority of them were referred to the UN by the PA. This list includes some foreigners, but the list is not complete. The PA in its replies to the UN includes a more complete list. They mention 35 cases between 2006 and 2019, of which 32 were at the hand of the Israeli army, two by unknown actors and one at the hands of a Jihadist group.(4) The group includes three foreign journalists, one Turk and two Italians, one of them murdered by the Israelis and the other by a Jihadist group.(5)
The number of murders is alarming, but when the injured are included just how blood thirsty the Zionist state is, can be seen. Annex III attached by the PA in its replies to the UN lists 86 cases of journalists injured in Gaza whilst they reported on the March of the Great Return. All the cases are just from 2019.(6) All the information provided was gathered by the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate.
So, it comes as no surprise that Israel is ranked 86 in the world index on press freedom of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It scores 59.62 points, with 100 being maximum freedom and 0 the absolute lack of freedom.(7)
Now, as a result of the war in Ukraine, press freedom is fashionable. The whole world knows now that there is little press freedom or freedom of expression in Russia, which is ranked 155 on RSF’s Index with a score of 38.82 compared to 150 in 2021 with a score of 51.29, but they are unaware that Ukraine is ranked 104 in 2022 and 97 in 2021. Its score in 2021 was 67.04. So, under no circumstances are we talking of situation brought about by the war. In fact, a brief review of the pages of groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, IFJ or RSF show cases that were of concern to these groups. But now Zelensky is seen, against all evidence, as a paragon of virtue regarding press freedom and freedom of expression.
In 2020, RSF had the following to say on the country.
The six-place rise by Ukraine (96th), the region’s biggest, is due more to other countries falling than to any real progress. The hopes raised by Volodymyr Zelensky’s election as president are taking time to realize. The media are as polarized as the rest of Ukrainian society and the prevailing impunity has fuelled an increase in violence against journalists. Nationalist groups in particular target independent media outlets such Bellingcat, which has received death threats.(8)In fact, the Zelensky regime has been criticized for the murder of journalists. According to the UN statistics, between February 2014 and June 2019, eleven journalists were murdered in Ukraine, four Ukrainians, one Italian and six Russians. The first to be murdered was Vyacheslav Veremyi, a journalist for a Russian language Ukrainian daily. He was murdered on February 19th 2014 returning from reporting on the Maidan protests that led to the coup. The crime remained in impunity for a few years, but finally in 2018 one of the murderers was sentenced to just five years, according to the Ukrainian government’s reports to the UN.(9) It is the only murder of a journalist that resulted in a conviction. But he was not the only journalist nor the only Ukrainian who worked for Russian language media. On February 28th 2015, the journalist Sergii Nikolaiev was murdered near Donetsk airport. He worked for the Russian language Ukranian daily Segodnya.(10) Two months later in the city of Kiev, the journalist Oles Buzina, who also worked for Segodnya, was murdered coming out of his house.(11) And in 2019 the Ukrainian journalist Vadym Komarow who investigated cases of corruption was also murdered.(12)
The press organisations and even the journalist unions have organized campaigns in solidarity with their colleagues in Ukraine, including the wiring of money, something they never did when the main danger was from Zelensky and not Putin. In Dublin, the NUJ, which organizes journalists from Great Britain and Ireland took part in a protest in front of the Russian Embassy. There, the Assistant General Secretary Seamus Dooley chaired the event and the union reported on its page, without the least amount of blushing the participation of the ambassadors from Georgia, Lithuania and Poland.(13) Of the three countries, in 2022 only Lithuania had a good record on the press, ranking No.9 on the RSF index. Georgia was in 89th place, compared to 60th in 2021, indicating a worsening of the situation in the country. Its score fell from 71.36 to 59.30. In 2021, 50 journalists were injured in an attack on a Gay Pride protest. On July 5th Alexander Lashkarava died from his injuries.(14)
In the case of Poland RSF had the following to say about the country for 2020.
In Poland (down three at 62nd), which lost three places this year, the government’s control over the judiciary has adversely affected press freedom. Some courts use article 212 of the penal code which allows sentences on journalists of to up to a year in prison on defamation charges. Up to now judges have only imposed fines but the damage has been done and an underlying climate of self-censorship has now come to the surface.(15)And whilst the journalists held their protest in front of the Russian Embassy in the company of the Polish Ambassador, the Basque journalist Pablo González languished in a Polish prison on charges of espionage.(16) Poland is ranked 66th with a score of 65.64 and RSF reported this year that “some EU and neighbouring governments have intensified draconian laws against journalists, especially in Slovenia (54th), Poland (66th), Hungary (85th), Albania (103rd), and Greece.”(17) But the trade unionists from the NUJ were proud to take part in an event with the representative of this government.
In all the debate on press freedom, no one mentions Julian Assange whose only crime was to expose the crimes of the powerful, amongst them the murders of Reuters journalists in Iraq at the hands of the US forces of occupation. If Assange had any information to hand on the murder of Shireen, they would also call him a criminal for putting it in the public domain.
The murder of Shireen is a crime not only against freedom of expression and the press but also against the Palestinian people, against any opposition to the regimes whether they are from the west or not. When Europe or the US complains about restrictions on freedom of the press and expression in some countries, it is only concerned when it is convenient. Likewise, Putin is not concerned about press freedom and awarded asylum to Snowden because it was convenient. So, the White House spokesperson was able to brazenly state that the murder of Shireen broke his heart. She was a US citizen. Had she been murdered by any other army, their military would be considering reprisals, Biden would announce sanctions and they would have expelled the ambassador etc. But as it was Israel, freedom of expression on Zionist apartheid is of no interest to them, the US government took no action. It is not convenient for them, but the murder of Shireen is convenient, as it sends a message that Israel can do what it wants with journalists. Access to information on Palestine is curtailed through press campaigns alleging a false antisemitism, campaigns in the universities sacking lecturers who defend the rights of Palestinians as is the case of David Miller in the University of Bristol(18) and through the control of Facebook and Google’s algorithms and also with the murder of those who dare to break the wall of silence they wish to impose on us.
We should expect nothing from the governments or the UN in relation to the case, all the other cases on Palestine remain in impunity and this case will be no different. Neither can we expect much from journalists who have surrendered to the large-scale western media, who are in practice another NATO weapon of propaganda and do not defend the interests of the workers of Russia or Ukraine and less still of Palestine.
(1) IFJ (2020) White Paper on Global Journalism p.3 https://www.ifj.org/fileadmin/user_upload/IFJ_white_book__part_1.pdf
(2) Ibíd., p.5
(3) See https://en.unesco.org/themes/safety-journalists/observatory/country/223793
(4) See https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/safety_palestine_2020_ms.pdf
(6) Ibíd., Annex III
(7) See https://rsf.org/es/clasificacion
(10) See https://fr.unesco.org/node/245801
(13) NUJ (22/03/2022) NUJ stands in solidarity with Ukraine at Dublin Rally https://www.nuj.org.uk/resource/ukraine-nuj-chairs-solidarity-event-in-dublin.html
(16) El País
(23/03/2022) Polonia decreta prisión provisional hasta el 29 de
mayo para el periodista español acusado de espionaje https://elpais.com/espana/2022-03-23/polonia-decreta-prision-provisional-hasta-el-29-de-mayo-para-el-periodista-espanol-acusado-de-espionaje.html