Olivia Flasch

On issues of journalism: Deaths and responsibility

As of right now, it is still unclear who killed the Al Jazeera reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, or under what circumstances she was killed. Yet, by reading reports about the incident circulating on the web, you would be forgiven for thinking it has been established beyond reasonable doubt that she was murdered, on purpose, by Israeli forces, in an attempt to hide the truth of what was happening in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin.

While that narrative certainly can be true, there are at least three other possible versions of the story, none of which have yet been proven:

  1. She was killed by Israeli forces by mistake;
  2. She was killed by Palestinian fighters on purpose;
  3. She was killed by Palestinian fighters by mistake.

Having read the news today, I have found myself deeply concerned, yet again, by the level and substance of the reporting by reputable sources on this issue.

The very first paragraph in BBC’s report is: “The Qatar-based network said Shireen Abu Aqla was shot “deliberately” and “in cold blood” by Israeli troops in Jenin. Her producer was also wounded.”

There would be no reason to start a report about a death in this way, other than seeking to influence readers about the cause of the person’s death and about who was responsible.

Moreover, very little is actually reported about the circumstances leading up to her death, including the fact that the journalist was present in an area of active fighting between Israeli and Palestinian fighters, which, if reported, might have caused a reader to consider that she might have been hit accidentally. Clearly, the reporters do not wish to offer the reader this opportunity. Instead, the reports focus in large part on the views of Al Jazeera and Palestinian representatives, who have declared her death a crime committed by Israeli forces.

Finally, very few media outlets have emphasized the fact that the Israeli military immediately offered to undertake a joint investigation together with Palestinian officials, into the cause of Abu Akleh’s death. Such a joint investigation would be unbiased in nature, and would likely result in the understanding and confirmation about what truly happened. The lack of highlighting this issue gives rise to the suggestion that this is a simple incident of “she said – he said”, without anybody seeking to take responsibility and determine the truth.

Apart from the journalistic responsibilities that unfortunately have not lived up to standards, there is something else that concerns me. Comments and posts circulating on social media, produced by individuals without first-hand knowledge of this morning’s events are shockingly definitive as to blame and fault, with many people, who presumably have no understanding of the international laws of war, commenting that the death of Abu Akleh constitutes a war crime.

Of course, if either scenario 2 or 4 in my list above is true, then this would not necessarily be a war crime. Only deliberate targeting of a journalist would by definition constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, whereas any accidental killing of a journalist would require a far more extensive and nuanced legal review and balancing of the laws of war, which take into account aspects like collateral damage and accidental deaths arising from military operations.

I have said this before in many of my posts. This conflict does not need more fuel added to the fire. It is not only unnecessary, but deeply irresponsible for those caring about human rights and the lives of others, to be attributing blame at this early stage of a tragic event, before any investigation has even begun.

The events of May 2021 regarding Sheikh Jarrah led to multiple racist and antisemitic assaults on Jews all over the world. It also led to more hatred and animosity between Israelis and Palestinians, and indeed between any people choosing to be on opposite sides of the conflict. This is a horrible incident, which should be investigated, and the truth should be published. But until then, there is no need to voice an opinion about something that is entirely speculative. Please be responsible.

About the Author
Olivia Flasch is an international lawyer who currently lives in London. She studied Public International Law in The Hague, and has a Master's in Law from the University of Oxford. Born into a Jewish family in Sweden, she writes about all things Jewish, as well as about Israel and the world from an international law perspective.
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