Reporting Gaza: Trials and Tribulations of 'Getting the Story Out'

The last decade has been a painful reminder of a qualitative shift in which journalists, in their responsibility of 'getting the story out,' have become 'legitimate' targets in war.
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The last decade has been a painful reminder of a qualitative shift in which journalists, in their responsibility of 'getting the story out,' have become 'legitimate' targets in war. In 2003 we remember the harrowing pictures of Al Jazeera's Baghdad office being targeted in a U.S. bombing campaign. Some would also recall the eerie last moments of the station's reporter Tareq Ayyoub, inauspiciously captured in Jehane Noujaim's hard-hitting documentary, The Control Room. So, it is only expected that Gaza's journalist corps hasn't remained immune to this disturbing trend. During Operation Pillar of Defense the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) targeted two media buildings that, among others, housed Sky News, ARD, Al-Arabiya and Al-Quds TV. In the face of international condemnation, a military spokeswomen claimed: "Hamas took a civilian building and used it for its own needs. So the journalists... were serving as human shields for Hamas." Now, it isn't unthinkable that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would use human shields. Moreover, enough has been said with regards to whether or not international law can remain inviolate in face of such Israeli military tactics. Nevertheless, with the challenges of 'reporting Gaza' being apparent, the question remains, 'why would one choose to be a Palestinian journalist in the Gaza Strip?'

For most it seems that 'journalism' is a calling. "I wanted to be a journalist to be the voice of the voiceless and to convey the message of my people under Israeli occupation and oppression", said Yousef Al-Helou, a producer for The Real News Network and Middle East Monitor.

In a similar vein, for Noor Harazeen, working for Al-Etejah TV was a platform to "inform the outside world about the trials and tribulations of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip." But being the 'voice of the voiceless' has its own hazards.

Al-Helou notes: "The main challenge is to be safe while reporting and not to be intimidated or threatened when you report on human rights violations... I face death and risk my life while reporting on Gaza during war."

It is for this reason that Filesteen's Sayed Ismaili sees journalists embodying much more: "To be a journalist is to be the new prophet. You need to suffer. You need to fight. You need to be a messenger of an idea."

Of course, Gaza's journalists' seemingly prophetic status doesn't go unchallenged by Palestinian political forces either. When asked about problems faced from within Gaza, a freelance journalist nervously replied: "... this is a dangerous question. I am not sure what you want me to say." She then went on to relay the much told and much rehearsed story of Israeli 'oppression'.

Nevertheless, few can deny the oft censorious glances of Hamas officials, faced by critics. Stories of journalists being interrogated and arrested are rampant and ever since the 2007 take-over, an overly anxious liberation struggle has emerged with Hamas at its helm. Palestinian Authority or Fatah-associated media outlets are rarely in continuous operation in the Gaza with publications such as Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Al-Quds and Al-Ayam still banned from circulation. Mostly recently Hamas' proclivity to silencing all critical voices in Gaza was made further apparent through its closure of Ma'an News Agency and Al-Arabiya's offices in Gaza. Prosecutor-General Ismail Jaber justified the decision by accusing both agencies of "fabricating news and disseminating false rumors and baseless reports that threaten civil peace and undermine the Palestinian people's resistance."

Then, caught between the often-treacherous landscape of war and an anxious and increasingly despotic liberation movement, a peculiar brand of journalism has emerged. Of course, driven by a 'call to justice', journalists here aren't ever deterred by the particular hazards of working in the Gaza Strip. But does this commitment to 'getting the story out' necessarily ensure the highest quality of journalism? Few would claim the affirmative. Most Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip have not received professional training and usually hold degrees in English language and Business Administration instead. The training provided by news agencies to new recruits span between 3 and 4 months and rarely educates would-be-journalists on professional ethics or the particular hazards of reporting from war-prone Gaza. In addition, low salaries and an ever-dwindling job market, have rendered the task of reporting all the more treacherous and thankless. The result is often 'mercenary journalism.' Struggling to make ends meet, they say: "You pay, I write. If you want me to present Gaza as Hamasistan, I will do it. If want Gaza to be Paris. I can do that too."

Today, according to Reporters Without Borders, Israel is ranked 112th in the world on the 'Press Freedom Index' because of "the Israeli military's targeting of journalists in the Palestinian Territories." But the vitality of Gaza's journalist corps is threatened by much more. An ever more despotic Hamas and a weak professional infrastructure are just as menacing, if not more, to sanctity of the 'brand' of journalism originating from the Gaza Strip. While recognizing this doesn't disregard the valor required to 'report Gaza,' it nevertheless sheds some light on a 'reality' beyond the often simplistic parameters with which a very complex political landscape is discussed.

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