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Watching Shireen Abu Akleh Cover a War, I Felt Safer Myself

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova
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A man participates in drawing a mural of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Saturday.
A man participates in drawing a mural of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Saturday. Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS
Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova

I vividly remember the first time I saw Shireen Abu Akleh. In 2003, during the second intifada, I came to Ramallah to cover a press conference by a senior Palestinian Authority official (a routine event back then that has become almost impossible today), and I spotted her immediately. This was partly because I had spent hundreds if not thousands of hours watching Al Jazeera, and partly because she was surrounded by fans excitedly screaming “Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera.”

Al Jazeera, a Qatari-owned pan-Arab station, began broadcasting in November 1996. Abu Akleh joined it in 1997 and immediately became a superstar. She was the ultimate field reporter. She went to the most isolated places; she wasn’t deterred by poverty, filth or danger; she reported from the hottest of hot spots.

Nor was she the first; there were many female journalists reporting from the field in the Arab and Palestinian media. In Israel at that time, almost all the military and Arab affairs correspondents were men.

Al Jazeera’s female reporters became household names in the Arab world, and Abu Akleh got the most attention of all. People said she was married to her work, implying that this is why she never married. They even compared her to Yasser Arafat, who said he was “married to the Palestinian issue.” She was always focused and well-versed in the names, dates and facts.

When soldiers at checkpoints asked me what business I had in Jenin or Nablus, where I went to film reports, and whether as a woman, I wasn’t afraid to go there, I replied that I wasn’t the only woman in the field. There were a lot of others – Palestinians, not Israelis. I saw Abu Akleh covering the war, going safely into male spaces, and I felt a little safer going there myself.

I also recall the brotherhood of reporters in the field. A closeness was created by the fact that we all had the same job, reporting – Israelis there and we here. After work, which sometimes took hours, we would sit down to eat and drink and shake hands. It often seemed as if the Israelis and Palestinians understood each other better than the foreign correspondents in the field.

How objective were our reports? I once posed that question to Walid al-Omari, the head of Al Jazeera’s Israel bureau. He replied that he doesn’t believe in journalistic objectivity, because everyone is the product of his own culture, and there are some things on which we’ll never see eye to eye.

It’s impossible to talk about Abu Akleh without mentioning the media outlet at which she worked for 25 years. After a brief period of global enthusiasm over Al Jazeera that included comparisons to CNN came the sobering up and the accusations. The world was initially impressed that its reporters obtained an interview with Osama bin Laden, but later, the network was accused of giving the arch-terrorist an open microphone.

Al Jazeera was the first Arab channel to put Israelis, including even IDF spokespeople, on the air live. It thereby stunned Arab viewers. Its reports provided important testimony about the daily reality of the conflict.

But when the second intifada broke out, it became a powerful vehicle for incitement against Israel. It had no qualms about distorting the facts, tendentious coverage or accusations that were often fabricated.

Was Al Jazeera the only station guilty of this? Of course not. The Israeli media also makes mistakes, misleads viewers and turns rumors into lead headlines. Moreover, it subjected the Palestinians to terrible dehumanization, to the point that they have almost vanished from the screen.

But in my view, Al Jazeera’s broadcasts during the second intifada, and also during rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip and the Arab Spring, had something else – deliberate incitement and veiled but clear calls for action against Israel and Israelis.

The “Al Jazeera effect” is now studied in colleges’ schools of communications. I also tell my students about how the channel changed the media map of the Middle East.

It offered a steady flow of uncensored news and harsh criticism of Arab governments and their corruption. It showed women without a hijab on screen, and conducted an open debate about women and their rights. It provided a Middle Eastern view of the Middle East (in contrast to the “white” Western viewpoint). But it also supplied a lot of unbridled incitement.

When I saw the announcement of Abu Akleh’s death, I was genuinely sad. There aren’t yet any clear conclusions about what happened during that shooting incident in Jenin or who is responsible for her death, but it’s clear to me that she shouldn’t have died. As a former field reporter, I understand her desire to be at the center of events. And Jenin, which in recent months has once again become the capital of anti-Israel terror, is the center of events. If I were still a field reporter, I would also want to be there to report and see what was happening with my own eyes. Despite all the sophisticated technology we now have, there’s still no substitute for a journalist who walks the beat, crosses the border, talks with eyewitnesses and brings the story to readers and viewers.

The death of any journalist who reports from the field and risks his life to do so is a tragedy. The death of a journalist born in East Jerusalem, at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who devoted her life to covering this bloody conflict and became yet another of its victims, is a double tragedy.

Shireen Abu Akleh was a fearless journalist. She didn’t carry a weapon. She was a woman wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest with the word PRESS written on it who was shot in the neck and died. It’s extremely important that the whole truth of what happened in Jenin be brought to light.

Ksenia Svetlova is the director of the Israel-Middle East Relations Program at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former Arab affairs correspondent for Channel 9 television.

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