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Martin Fletcher
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CPJ’s misleading tally of journalist deaths is clickbait for Israel haters

It matters that a large number of listed fatalities were tragic casualties of the war, not necessarily reporters at work
Palestinian journalists carry mock coffins of Palestinian journalists who were killed during the current war in Gaza during a symbolic funeral toward a United Nations office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Palestinian journalists carry mock coffins of Palestinian journalists who were killed during the current war in Gaza during a symbolic funeral toward a United Nations office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Journalists in trouble anywhere in the world know that at least one organization has their back: the New York-based Committee to protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit that has been promoting press freedom and defending the rights of journalists since 1981. People trust the CPJ.

But today reports from CPJ on the numbers of dead journalists are being weaponized against Israel.  

Although its reports are phrased with care, a casual takeaway from CPJ’s regular updates of journalists killed in Gaza is that Israel is a mass killer of the press. Like this headline from Democracy Now, a weekly YouTube news hour:

“A Grim Milestone: Journalist Death Toll Tops 53 as Israel Kills More Reporters in Gaza and Lebanon.” The number has since gone up to 57.

Stories implying and sometimes directly accusing Israel of deliberately targeting the press, a war crime, repeated the world over, get credence from regular CPJ reports updating the number of journalists and media workers killed in the Gaza-Israel war. Fifty-seven journalists killed in seven weeks would make this the most dangerous war for reporters in history.

However, the CPJ report only confirms that 10 journalists were killed while reporting, of whom three were Lebanese and one was Israeli. The rest are only under investigation, as the CPJ report states:

“The list … includes all journalists involved in news-gathering activity. It is unclear whether all of these journalists were covering the conflict at the time of their deaths, but CPJ has included them in our count as we investigate their circumstances.”

This means that 47 are on the list of journalists killed while CPJ investigates whether they should be on the list. 

Yet in most cases, the CPJ’s report includes the circumstances of their deaths. Many were killed at home with their families in the bombing, with no indication they were gathering news at the time. 

In other words, their deaths were tragic consequences of the war, not of reporting on the war, which is the CPJ’s standard. In its report on journalists killed in Ukraine, CPJ qualifies the number of journalist deaths by saying it is investigating whether the deaths were “related to their journalism.”

The lack of clarity in its Gaza reports demeans the true sacrifices journalists make. Implying that 57 journalists may have been killed at work when many were apparently not, detracts from the tragic deaths of journalists in other wars. In Vietnam, 63 journalists were killed in twenty years. In all the years of the Second World War, 69 journalists died. While in the Israel-Gaza war, CPJ says 57 have been killed in six weeks. This suggests that those other wars were not so bloody for journalists after all.

Moreover, the shocking CPJ number is inflated by including some on the list who were backroom administrators and management and only at a stretch could be considered journalists. The list of journalists killed includes a deputy director of finance and administration and an organizational development consultant.

CPJ’s job is to protect journalists, and its mission and heart are in the right place. I am a long-time supporter and beneficiary. But the misleading language of its reports on journalists killed in Gaza gives ammunition to critics of Israel at an emotive time when accuracy and precision are critical.

CPJ should have two lists, one of journalists and media workers killed while working as journalists, and a second of journalists and media workers whose deaths are under investigation.

Otherwise, it is just fodder for a clickbait headline that demonizes Israel.

About the Author
Martin Fletcher served as NBC News Mideast correspondent and bureau chief in Tel Aviv for 28 years, winning almost every award in television journalism, including five Emmy’s. He has written seven books. Walking Israel won the National Jewish book Award in America for non fiction and Promised Land was a finalist in the fiction category. He is the only author to be honored in both categories.