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With Gaza Offices Bombed, Journalists Struggle to Keep Reporting


Youmna El Sayed, a journalist with The Associated Press, who reports from Gaza. (Courtesy: Youmna El Sayed)

Youmna El Sayed, a journalist with The Associated Press, lost her office and much of the equipment she uses to report when an Israeli airstrike destroyed the 11-story office building where she worked in Gaza City.

The first thing El Sayed did after the May 15 attack—in which Israeli authorities gave media an hour’s notice to evacuate—was to try to find a safe place to rest and file stories. Initially, she went to al-Shifa Hospital. When she needed a rest, she would go to her car.

"The amount of equipment that we were able to take with us was very little," she told VOA via a messaging app.

"No laptops. No computers whatsoever. We were just doing all the work over our phones on mobile data, which was extremely exhausting for us. It was extremely insufficient. It took actually a lot of time, a lot of effort from us."

For now, El-Sayed said, she is working from a hotel until a more permanent office space is found.

Israel's targeting of the Al-Jalaa building, which housed the AP, Al-Jazeera, as well as offices and other residences, raised questions over the motive for the attack and the safety of journalists covering the conflict.

Israel said Hamas operatives were using the building to plan rocket attacks.

Hamas, which is designated by the U.S. and European Union as a terrorist group, has de facto control over the city along the Mediterranean Sea. Israel has said the group often stores munitions or fighters in civilian locations.

Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire Friday morning, ending the latest round of violence that killed at least 248 Palestinians and 13 Israelis and wounded hundreds more, according to a Reuters report that cited local sources and the Israeli military. Most were civilians, including dozens of children.

The AP and Al-Jazeera both separately condemned the bombing of their building, with Al-Jazeera calling it a "deliberate targeting of journalists and the media institutions."

In interviews, the AP’s chief executive officer Gary Pruitt said the AP didn’t know the motivation for the attack but said it has hindered the news agency’s work.

"It certainly impairs our ability to report. It doesn't silence us, but it certainly hurts," he said in a recent interview with CNN. He noted that AP had used the building as its office for more than 15 years.

Pruitt said the news agency had no knowledge of an alleged Hamas presence in the building and called for an investigation.

‘Smoking gun’

Israel says it has shared "smoking gun" evidence with the U.S. corroborating its allegation that Hamas was active in the building.

“We showed them the smoking gun proving Hamas worked out of that building,” an unnamed diplomatic source was cited as saying in the Jerusalem Post. “I understand they found the explanation satisfactory.”

After initially denying seeing any evidence, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that Israel had shared intelligence.

"It's my understanding that we've received some further information through intelligence channels, and that's not something that I can comment on," he said.

Shortly after the attack, Blinken spoke with Pruitt by phone, according to a statement from the State Department. “The Secretary offered his unwavering support for independent journalists and media organizations around the world and noted the indispensability of their reporting in conflict zones,” the statement said.

The statement fell short of condemning the attack.

In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Joe Biden “raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection,” the White House said.

Rights groups including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have called on Israel to provide evidence that Hamas used the building.

Workers clear the rubble of a building that housed the offices of the The Associated Press and broadcaster Al-Jazeera, in Gaza City May 16, 2021.
Workers clear the rubble of a building that housed the offices of the The Associated Press and broadcaster Al-Jazeera, in Gaza City May 16, 2021.

"Israel's refusal to disclose evidence of the alleged use by Hamas of those buildings for military purposes raises the suspicion that media outlets are being deliberately targeted to prevent coverage of the human suffering that Israeli airstrikes are causing in Gaza," CPJ's Middle East Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado told VOA.

For Khaled Lubbad, a producer for Al-Jazeera TV in Gaza, the bombing means the loss of a prime location for the pan-Arab news channel to cover the longstanding conflict.

"We were covering 24/7 from that rooftop. It was the live position for Al-Jazeera," Lubbad told VOA, adding that his colleagues had yet to find a new office space.

No new precedent

For journalists who have covered conflict, the attack serves as another example of how media can be a target of violence, including by governments.

"To me, it seems to be part of an ongoing trend that we have seen unfold particularly since 9/11, whether it is a U.S. airstrike on the Al Jazeera office in Kabul in 2001 or the Syrian government's bombing of the building that Marie Colvin was reporting out of in the besieged city of Homs," said Peter Greste, a foreign correspondent who worked for Al Jazeera in Egypt and currently serves as UNESCO Chair in Journalism & Communication.

A U.S. court in 2019 found Syria liable for the extrajudicial killing of American war correspondent Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, by targeting their media center directly to “intimidate newsgathering.”

The administration of former president George W. Bush denied it was targeting Al-Jazeera in 2001, saying at the time that the building was a “known al-Qaeda facility.” Its account was contradicted by Ron Suskind, an American journalist who told CNN in 2006 that anonymous government sources said the strike was intentional “precisely to send a message to al-Jazeera.”

"Governments have always been very 'pro-free press' when journalists are reporting things they want to see covered, and suddenly see 'legitimate military targets' when journalists are covering things they'd rather keep hidden," Greste told VOA.

For journalists in Gaza, the bombing adds to the difficulties of reporting in a conflict zone.

"It's very hard to be a journalist, especially in Gaza. The atmosphere is always hot,” Lubbard of Al-Jazeera said.

“We're always covering crises. We're always covering escalations. We're always going to hospitals to film people who have been killed or injured,” the producer said. “[The] life of a journalist in Gaza is a very hard one.”

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