How far will Canada go to support the free press?

Published in CanadaLand on May 13, 2022

By Steven Zhou

It has been difficult as a fellow journalist to witness the outrage following the senseless death of veteran Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. People like to talk about how important press freedoms are, but the truth is that journalists across the world are routinely killed with impunity. It isn’t the first time a Palestinian reporter has been attacked while doing their job in the region. But it’s past time for the guilty party to be held accountable.

Abu Akleh, who was also an American citizen, attained iconic status in the region for telling the stories of ordinary Palestinians. She was covering raids by the Israeli military in the West Bank city of Jenin when a bullet struck her face. She was wearing a flak jacket with the word “PRESS” on it, as well as a helmet, which suggests that the person who shot her likely had to aim precisely and carefully.

Images of Abu Akleh’s colleagues weeping in the moments and days after her death indicate how shocking it is to see their well-known friend taken out so suddenly. Yet these same journalists could probably recite the names of other colleagues in the press who have come under fire by the military of Israel over the years, like the two reporters killed in 2018 while covering demonstrations along the Gaza border.

The death of Abu Akleh must be referred for a thorough and impartial investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) — something that Canada’s leaders must affirm. The dominant narrative, based on eyewitness testimony, places the blame on Israeli sniper fire, but a real investigation is needed to come to any definite conclusions. This is something that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly must explicitly back. Canada must recognize the jurisdiction of international law and the ICC in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Joly has already, to her credit, called generally for a “thorough investigation” not long after the news broke. But such an investigation must come from an impartial international body like the ICC itself. Leaving it up to Israeli authorities would be to violate commitments to impartiality. It is worth mentioning that both Human Rights Watch as well as B’Tselem, the Israel-based human rights group monitoring the Palestinian territories (occupied by Israel since 1967), have argued that such an option would likely lead to a “whitewash.”

Israeli authorities just about destroyed their own credibility on this matter when, right after Abu Akleh’s death, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a video suggesting that she might have been hit by Palestinian gunmen on the streets. Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, himself then echoed this explanation.

B’Tselem dispatched investigators to where the clip was filmed and concluded that it wasn’t close to where Abu Akleh was killed, and that there was not even a line of sight between the two spots. Israeli authorities have since walked back these initial assertions and suggested a “joint probe” be conducted with Palestinian counterparts. The Palestinian Authority rejected the proposition. Meanwhile, images appeared online of Israeli forces storming the late Abu Akleh’s house not long after she died. These all represent further reasons to trust an independent body over anything else.

The outrage at Abu Akleh’s death follows a sordid history between the military of Israel, their government backers, and the international press. It was just last year when the building housing the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press was destroyed by bombs dropped from Israeli warplanes. The latter then promptly justified its actions by claiming the building was being used by Hamas.

Canada, too, has had a brush with Israeli authorities in the region. In a recent column for the Toronto Star, former Al Jazeera English executive Tony Burman pointed out how CBC/Radio-Canada correspondent Jean-François Lépine was shot with rubber bullets by Israeli forces while in the Gaza Strip in 1989. Until confronted with direct audio evidence, Israeli authorities denied they fired those bullets.

Press freedom is under attack around the world. But real journalism is needed particularly in regions like Israel-Palestine, where violence has become the norm over decades of occupation and clashes. Just recently, according to Amnesty International, dozens of Israelis and Palestinians were killed in strings of attacks and raids across the West Bank.

These are the times and situations where the eyes and voices of those like Shireen Abu Akleh are most needed. Instead, we have soldiers attacking her funeral procession. Canada must speak out at this critical juncture to affirm press freedom and impartial investigations. Anything less would imply that Canada’s commitments to these values are simply not as strong as we say they are.