It has never been this bad

June 13, 2021

While the destruction of a building that literally houses the top global news outlets that operate in the region is a stark and obvious example of interference with the press’s ability to inform the world, censorship can also take on more insidious and amorphous shapes

The al-Jalaa tower that housed the Gaza bureaus of both the AP and Al Jazeera was levelled by an Israeli airstrike on May 15.

Givara Budeiri, a correspondent of Al Jazeera Arabic was arrested while covering a demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. According to Al Jazeera’s own reporting, she was beaten in the custody of Israeli authorities, and released several hours later. Budeiri is a card holder of the Israeli Government Press Office and has been covering the region for Al Jazeera for over 21 years. Upon her release, as she was being interviewed by another Al Jazeera correspondent about efforts to suppress coverage of occupied East Jerusalem, she said that journalists have always been silenced by Israel but “it has never been this bad.”

In the post-Trump era, the myth of false balance that pervaded the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West seems to be shattering. It seems easier now, to suggest that one side is the oppressor and the other the oppressed. Bibi Netanyahu’s burgeoning unpopularity in America, particularly amongst the Left, is a consequence of him involving himself directly in American partisan politics. His hyperbolic praise of Trump, his approval and support of some of the former president’s more divisive policies (such as the US-Mexico border wall) and his invitation to the reality TV star to come to Israel and campaign against Obama before he formally entered politics all seem like politically un-savvy moves in retrospect.

The idea that criticising the actions of the Israeli government is not the same as anti-Semitism seems to be more prevalent in the cultural conversation. But anti-Semitism in the US is also on the rise. The conspiracy theories of secret Jewish lobbies pulling the strings of the global economy from behind the scenes seem to find footholds in white-supremacist forums online. At pro-Palestine rallies that I’ve been to in Lahore, there seemed to be a commonly held belief that Israeli lobbyists in Washington and even the Netanyahu regime itself are as responsible for atrocities against Palestinians as Mark Zuckerberg or the owners of Pepsi. And it seems more difficult than it should be to convince people that the culturally Jewish owners of apolitical multinationals (such as Johnson & Johnson) are not Zionists whose profits fund the Israeli military. There is a circular logic to conspiracies that makes them hard to argue with, there is no evidence of a secret all-powerful Jewish Illuminati because the top media companies are also owned by Jews and they have the power to keep secrets. This blurring of the narrative reveals a collective bigotry and certainly does not help the Palestinian cause.

Shylock, the character from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is the epitome of the stereotypical Jewish loan shark. He always counts his shekels first and will exact his pound of flesh even if it costs the indebted his life. These are centuries-old, deeply ingrained stereotypes. Anti-Semitism is not the only prejudice that we seem to share with Western, right-wing groups that have white-nationalist tendencies. There is a clear cultural preference for lighter skin tones and a derision of darker skinned peoples, including those of African ancestry.

There are echoes of a colonial past that resonate in these shared prejudices. On social media, pro-Palestine Pakistani posts and accounts sometimes make common cause with neo-Nazi hate groups, which are not too fond of people from our part of the world either. The “conspiracy” to persecute the Palestinian people is reimagined to include all European Jews. Recently, Foreign Affairs Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi came under fire for using “an anti-Semitic slur” on CNN while discussing the conflict. Like the West, we too need to learn that one does not have to be anti-Semitic to criticise the actions of the Netanyahu regime and support the rights of the Palestinians.

Yet, the most effective conspiracy theories take hold of the public imagination because they feel true, even though they are not strictly true. In the case of this particular narrative, the coverage is skewed by an effort to create false balance. Part of the backlash against recent Israeli actions is also due to the Black Lives Matter protests that rippled through the United States after the murder of George Floyd. It’s difficult, during a national reckoning on police brutality, to ignore the parallels between Israeli police attacking civilians praying at the Al Aqsa mosque and the killing of unarmed people of colour by US police. Yet, the Biden administration’s defence of the fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people (and their defence of freedom of the press more generally) seem like little more than lip service as they turn a blind eye to other recent attacks on the press in the region.

Weeks before Budeiri’s arrest, the building that housed the bureaus of several news agencies, including the AP and Al Jazeera, was demolished by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The Biden administration’s silence at the levelling of an American news agency’s Gaza bureau has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream news channels that have been decrying Trump’s incendiary rhetoric against the media as “threatening the fourth estate” for the past four years. Though Trump did get into personal feuds with journalists and public figures (on twitter and in the briefing room), he did not, using the power of the presidency, hamper the freedom of the press in any practical way. He did have a propensity for inciting mob violence against reporters on the campaign trail by declaring them enemies of the people and encouraging his supporters to attack them. This tendency was a foreshadowing of the insurrection at the Capitol, when Trump incited his angry and disappointed supporters, who had been primed for months by a concerted disinformation campaign that the election would be stolen from them, to attack a co-equal branch of government while it was in the midst of certifying an election that he had lost.

The Biden administration has inherited a strange world order from its predecessor. Having to re-join the WHO in the middle of a pandemic, re-committing to the Paris climate agreement and emphasising the value of the NATO and the UN, Biden seems to be adopting a foreign policy similar to the Obama era. But there are some cases in which there seem to be overlapping policy preferences. There has not been a full-throated reversal of Trump’s one-sided policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and VP Harris’s message to Central American asylum-seekers not to come sounds shockingly similar to Trump’s. The AP has also questioned why the US government did not take sufficient note of this incident.

According to the AP’s own reporting on the levelling of their bureau, Jawad Mahdi, the owner of the building, was given an hour to evacuate the premises. He pleaded with the IDF to give the staff 10 minutes to salvage ongoing work and expensive equipment from the offices, but no respite was given. The Israeli authorities later said that Hamas militants had been hiding in the building and using journalists as human shields.

Gary Pruitt, the CEO of the Associated Press, said in an interview to Al Jazeera that the AP bureau has “been in that building for 15 years. We certainly had no sense that Hamas was there. We would like to see the evidence… The impact will be that the world will know less about what’s going on in Gaza, because that building was levelled.”

Fascistic, censorious regimes use various means, both tacit and amorphous, to control the flow of information. While the destruction of a building that literally houses the top global news outlets that operate in is a stark and obvious example of interference with the press’s ability to inform the world, censorship can also take on more insidious and amorphous shapes, as it does in our part of the world. It’s not being able to find a source willing to go on record for fear of retribution. It’s being prevented from reporting just the fact of an objective piece of news and being left to guess why.

There was a time when media outlets would send notices, networks would be threatened with fines or even being taken off the air for not complying with censorship. Now, a leading news network fires its top prime time talk-show host, seemingly of its own free will, because he went off script in a monologue. The host in question has apologised for his fateful tirade, partly because there was a social media backlash against him for being too ‘emotional’, saying that he did not “intend to defame the military”. But that final rant, to someone who can relate, seems like the long-awaited release of pent-up, silent frustration. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And when one is as muzzled as this, one holds many.

It feels verboten to ask who had Asad Toor beaten or who shot Absar Alam. We do not talk about who silences us. We do not talk about the political agenda that this silence bolsters. And under the fog of self-censorship, history is lost.

The writer is a staff member

It has never been this bad