Honoring Shireen Abu Akleh’s Legacy by Protecting Press Freedom

May 3, 2023

Shireen Abu Akleh graffiti on the West Bank barrier in Bethlehem, Dan Palraz

By Ali Dakroub ’25

Journalists who report on human rights violations face considerable risk. When they are targeted, press freedom itself is threatened.

On May 11, 2022, Shireen Abu Akleh, one of the most prominent reporters in the Middle East, was shot and killed by Israeli Defense Forces while reporting on a raid by the IDF on the Jenin refugee camp located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. At the time of her killing, Shireen was wearing a vest and cap clearly marked with the word “PRESS” on them. Several independent investigations (including those by the United States and the United Nations) concluded that the shots that killed her came from a member of the Israeli military. Harming journalists is forbidden whether during war or peace. They are protected by both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Both the IDF’s Military Advocate General’s Office said the Israeli military have stated that they will not pursue criminal charges or prosecutions of any of the soldiers involved, leaving the Shireen and her followers without justice.

Honoring Shireen Abu Akleh

Shireen Abu Akleh was a household name in the Arab world and a powerful voice for the people of Palestine. Shireen was a Palestinian-American who worked for various media outlets during her 25-year career, most notability as a reporter for Al-Jazeera, A Qatari Based International news media outlet. Shireen covered various topics including human rights, politics, and social issues. She was recognized nationally and internationally for her coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often covering West Bank raids, legal restrictions, and the deaths of Palestinians. She is known for her coverage of the second intifada, the Israeli siege of Jenin in 2002, and the 2006 Lebanon War. When she joined Al-Jazeera in 1997, there were very few women reporters in the field, especially reporting in areas of conflict. Shireen taught at Bir Zeit University’s Media Development Center, instructing several undergraduate students in the media department and serving as a role model for young Palestinians. Shireen was an inspiration for many.

Reporters at Risk

Despite international humanitarian law protecting the freedom of journalists, Shireen and many others reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have expressed concerns that they are targets. Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières – RSF) has recorded more than 140 Israeli violations  against Palestinian journalists since 2018. Sadly, this is part of a larger global pattern.

In 2022, 67 journalists and members of the media were killed; double the number of journalists murdered the year before. Most of these killings were a direct result of the journalist’s work. Many of these killings occurred in places of crisis including, Ukraine, Haiti, Colombia, Palestine and Israel, Myanmar, and Brazil among others. Journalist suppression is on the rise, and so are humanitarian crises. The killing of journalists is prevalent – local governments seldom hold those responsible accountable. Yet in times of conflict or crisis, freedom of the press is more important than ever. A free press conveys accurate and timely information to both the local and international communities. This permits the communication of dangers and hazards as well as the status of hospitals and the availability of resources domestically and internationally.

A free press also holds states and other parties to violence accountable – accountable for humanitarian concerns, legal concerns, and ethical ones. When a government chooses to oppress its people, it is the press that highlights these abuses to the international community often resulting in condemnation and pressure for abuses to end. However, when the Press is targeted, the exposure of atrocities is severely limited. When people themselves are voiceless the press acts as a window of exposure to the outside world. In the absence of press freedom, injustice and atrocity can thrive. Perpetrators are permitted to behave in any manner without international repercussions.

Take Action

While Al- Jazeera Media Network has submitted the case of Shireen’s killing to the International Criminal Court for investigation, the Court’s power is limited (especially when the state is uncooperative) and the process can take years. However, there are things we can do right now to support press freedom with the help of Reporters without Borders (RSF)

  • You can sign petitions organized by RSF calling for the release of journalists who are unjustly imprisoned.
  • RSF has created a proposal for the UN the strengthen its ability to defend journalists. You can support them by donating to the cause or sharing the hashtag  #Protectjournalists on your social media.
  • Don’t be silent. Spread awareness. The more people who are aware of the threat to journalistic freedom, the more people who become organized and have an incentive to fix it.

Ali Dakroub is a rising junior with a double-major in Political Science and Philosophy. Born and raised in Dearborn, Michigan, Ali is a member of the swim and dive team and passionate about human rights as well as reading philosophy. He plans to attend law school.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Albion College.