Nelson Mandela once famously observed, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
This is a stark reminder that every human being has a right to live in freedom, with their fundamental human rights preserved.
Mandela, who was a dedicated supporter of the Palestinian cause, also emphasised that “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
This is relevant to UN World Press Freedom Day, and this year's theme: “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for All Other Human Rights”.
It is crucial to contemplate how these concepts, human rights and media freedom, relate to the Palestinians. Can we genuinely say we are defending human rights when journalists are being murdered while reporting?
This is a profession that is defended by humanitarian law. When journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is killed while covering a refugee camp raid, which freedom of the press and safeguards are provided?
Respected Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed on May 11, 2022, while covering an IDF raid in Jenin, Palestine. Although Israel initially claimed that she was an unfortunate victim of a crossfire, the appearance of numerous video clips online quickly disproved this claim, exposing the reality of her wrongful death. New evidence revealed that she was deliberately targeted, even while wearing her “press” vest.
The untimely death of Shireen Abu Akleh is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a disturbing pattern. 46 Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israel since 2000, according to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. The syndicate has also recorded between 500 and 700 attacks each year on Palestinian journalists.
Israel had also launched an assault against a tower block in Gaza that housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera's offices during the latest major onslaught in 2021. The supposed presence of military intelligence in the structure was used as justification for the attack, however, there was no concrete evidence offered to support this claim.
Given the ongoing repression of opinions and the pervasive violations of human rights of Palestinian journalists, it can be difficult to understand what the UN means when it advocates for "shaping a future of rights."
I spoke with a young Palestinian journalist about her professional experiences as well as the profound effect Shireen's terrible killing had on the ongoing fight for justice. “Shireen Abu Akleh, our martyr, may she rest in peace and liberation, has shown us what true strength and courage in journalism means. Her passing was a wake-up call for Palestinians, reminding us of the stifling of our voices. But her bravery didn't lead us to surrender; instead, it fuelled our determination to shout even louder. Her martyrdom brought us unity, strength, and a renewed hope for being heard. It made us realise the extent of censorship and silencing, but it also revealed the unbreakable spirit of the Palestinian people.”
These are the powerful words of Adan Alhjooj, a Bedouin Palestinian activist and journalist hailing from Al-Naqab, a historically significant region in southern Palestine. This desert region comprises over half of the land mass of Palestine and has since been renamed The Negev.
As a commercial hub, Al-Naqab has had a significant historical impact, and many traders would travel through these regions for economic prosperity.
Frankincense and Myrrh were the key components of trade on what was known as the Incense Route. The notable Roman author, Pliny the Elder, revealed that it would take travellers approximately 62 days to complete the trip.
Many goods were transported from Southern Arabia to the Mediterranean through these passages, which spanned over two thousand kilometres.
Ironically, the once-bustling commerce route of Al-Naqab contrasts sharply with its present condition. Severe restrictions on people’s independence and movement sharply juxtapose what was once a path for the free flow of trade.
“Being a Palestinian Bedouin, I frequently feel excluded from conversations about the occupation and the larger Palestinian struggle. Since I can remember, I've actively sought out opportunities to raise awareness of Palestine and to demonstrate my Bedouin identity,” Adan states proudly. She became passionate about sharing the accounts after having unpleasant reactions to her Bedouin heritage. She has had to tackle the myth that Bedouins have forgotten or neglected their Palestinian heritage, a lie which she is determined to dispel.
The Bedouin Palestinians were originally nomadic people who lived and travelled in the Naqab desert region. Their lives became significantly harder after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and many were displaced to other regions within Palestine, such as Gaza and the West Bank.
She vividly remembers the duality of her childhood, which was split between her mother's village of Lakiya and her father's village of Awajan.
Unfortunately, Awajan was designated as an unrecognised village by Israeli authorities. When a village is granted unrecognised status, it is classified as illegal under Israeli law. This classification renders the citizens helpless in accessing much of the basic state infrastructure required to function properly.
A pivotal point in Adan's life occurred last year when a nearby town faced the destruction of its valuable olive trees by Israel, all of which hold significant cultural, economic, social, and political significance to Palestinians. The fact that olive groves cover more than 45% of Palestinian territory and are both a vital source of food and critical to the local economy highlights the need to preserve their existence.
A video of her speaking during a rally she attended with her family in opposition to the devastation went viral online, serving as the pivotal moment that launched her career in journalism and activism.
“This video going viral changed things for us as a community,” she said, reflecting on the moment. “Being a woman from a conservative society, at a demonstration, speaking English, and not wearing the hijab, challenged societal norms. At that protest, we became more united than ever, and the rest of Palestine and Palestinians across the world finally had the chance to learn about and hear the voices of us - the Bedouin Palestinians.”
She entered journalism as a result of the lack of representation of Palestine in the media, and the limited coverage that managed to get past mainstream censorship was mostly focused on the West Bank and Gaza.
“I wanted to bring attention to the 1948 territories, especially the Al-Naqab desert and its Bedouin residents, who receive little coverage in the media,” she said. “My aim has been and continues to be to demonstrate how differently each Palestinian deals with the occupation and how they all engage in various forms of resistance. I wanted to contribute to the conversation, bring different representation, and make it more inclusive by being active in media and activism.”
When I asked Adan whether she genuinely believed in the existence of freedom of speech, she pondered briefly before replying.
“Maybe to others, but not to Palestinians,” she said. “Our mere existence speaks volumes, constantly under the threat of erasure. Speaking out is a necessity for us, and it comes with consequences. There is no freedom of speech when people are deprived of their own freedoms.”
Adan's capacity to share her stories with her followers on social media has been impacted by this restriction on speech. She notes that her information is routinely blocked from reaching wider online communities through a practice known as “shadow banning,” which happens without a user’s knowledge. Adan also recounted other instances in which the same platforms forcibly withdrew her online stories, leading to a sharp fall in her viewership.
“I've had to reconsider posting certain things, fearing that my account would be deleted, or finding alternative ways to report that won't be censored, just so people can see them and I can continue doing what I love, which is educating others,” she stated.
When pro-Palestine activists face the obstacle of censorship, it can be frustrating and discouraging for many of them. With social media being the key source of much of our information relating to world issues, these platforms have become critical for those who want to advocate for human rights. Bella Hadid, a well-known Palestinian-American model, has publicly criticised Instagram for restricting her stories, bringing attention to the more general issue of silencing pro-Palestine sentiment.
“Feeling silenced in the media, where others are entitled to speak freely about a range of issues and topics, was a new and infuriating type of silencing. For many movements, media and journalism have been the catalyst for awareness and revolution, and I am happy to say that we have achieved that a few times for the Palestinian cause. However, it is incredibly difficult to keep going when the very place you are supposed to feel free in is suppressing your voice,” Adan expressed.
Another Palestinian journalist, from Ramallah, who tackles media censorship in his day-to-day work is Salem Barahmeh, the founder and creative director of Uncivilized Media. He is also the former Executive Director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy.
“Our editorial line strongly focuses on challenging domination in its multiple forms, including colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Press freedom is essential in allowing us to report, seek justice, and hold accountable those responsible for upholding these oppressive systems. Additionally, free speech is of great importance, recognising its context within the framework of respecting the rights of others,” Salem emphasised.
Motivated by the realisation of interconnected systems of oppression worldwide and the interlinking of said struggles, Salem established Uncivilized Media with the understanding that the liberation of Palestine is inherently tied to other global movements.
“There have been many instances of Palestinian social media accounts being taken down simply for sharing or reporting on the realities of our daily lives under these systems of violence, settler colonialism, and apartheid,” Salem explains.
Although much of Salem’s work resides within the digital realm, he maintains full awareness and solidarity with other Palestinian journalists who have fallen victim to the occupation’s silencing tactics. This brings our discussion full circle, as Salem reflects on Shireen Abu Akleh's outstanding work and contributions throughout the years in journalism.
“Shireen was a Palestinian journalist, in her press gear, and was shot by an Israeli. This was not the first time such an incident occurred. Shireen was not only one of the most prominent journalists in Palestine but also in the world. She was the voice of my generation. I vividly remember growing up and watching Shireen's reporting during the Second Intifada. She became a familiar and trusted figure to all of us,” he recollects, sadly.
It must be understood that while some stories make the headlines, there are dozens of other innocent journalists who have been killed at the hands of either IDF raids, shootings or shelling of buildings. On this UN Day of World Press Freedom, let us be reminded constantly of the injustice served to reporters who are simply conveying the realities of their occupation.
If the freedom of expression is truly a driver for all other human rights, accountability must be served for the killings of journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh, Yasser Murtaja, Yusef Abu Hussein, Ahmad Abu Hussein, Fadel Shana and countless others, who were taken too soon.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_