By Josh Lalonde
On September 22, the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication launched a new award for journalism students: the Shireen Abu Akleh Emerging Reporter Award in Social Justice Journalism. The award is named in honour of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead on May 11, 2022, while reporting on a raid of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Each year, the award will offer $5,000 to a journalism student for a project related to social justice.
The voice of Palestinians
Shireen Abu Akleh was born in Jerusalem in 1971 to a Christian family and studied journalism at Yarmouk University in Jordan. She joined Al Jazeera as a field correspondent in 1997, making her one of the first women to work as a conflict reporter in the Arab world. For Al Jazeera, she covered the Second Intifada in 2000 and several Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.
After her killing, many of her colleagues praised her careful and factual approach to journalism, even when covering the occupation of her own country. Allan Thompson, Director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, noted in an interview with The Leveller that her career was a counterexample to the “outdated notion of objectivity,” according to which only those with no personal involvement in a story could be trusted to tell it accurately.
Abu Akleh also served as a role model to many girls and women in the Arab world who aspired to follow in her footsteps by engaging in forms of journalism traditionally dominated by men.
In a statement provided to The Leveller, the Palestinian Youth Movement’s Ottawa chapter said Abu Akleh’s “death left a grave sorrow among all Palestinians in the homeland and across the diaspora. Her unwavering strength in covering the violence Palestinians experience living under military occupation made her an icon across the Arab world. For many of us growing up, witnessing Shireen risk her life on the front line in the field to report on the truth about the colonial oppression faced by Palestinians inspired us to speak up within our own contexts.”
Palestinian MP Khalida Jarrar described Abu Akleh to Al Jazeera as the voice of Palestinians and pointed out that Abu Akleh was the first person she saw at her court hearings when she was detained by the Israeli state.
Shortly after her death, Al Jazeera Media Network released a statement recalling that “The last message Shireen Abu Akleh sent to Al Jazeera was via email at 6:13am in which she wrote: ‘Occupation forces storm Jenin and besiege a house in the Jabriyat neighbourhood. On the way there, I will bring you news as soon as the picture becomes clear.’ We and the viewers did not know that this news she sent would be the news of her martyrdom.”
“Stories that are off the beaten track”
After Abu Akleh’s killing, Thompson sought to establish an award in Abu Akleh’s honour. The school began a process of privately soliciting donations for an endowment to fund the award and was contacted by Palestinian-Canadian businessman Shawky Fahel, who provided some of the initial funds. Human rights activist Maher Arar and his wife, author Monia Mazigh, were also early donors. Once the endowment had reached approximately half of its funding goal of $125,000, the school announced the establishment of the award and opened donations to the public.
The award is targeted at senior journalism students who are beginning the transition from the academic world to the workplace. While most other awards offered by the School of Journalism and Communication are based on academic achievements, this one will be based on a proposed project in social justice journalism. Applicants will submit a plan for how they will use the funding provided to produce a piece of journalism or a series. The submissions will then be evaluated by an award committee established by the School. The first round of applications is expected to open in early 2024.
When reached by The Leveller, Thompson stated that he was excited to see what topics students would submit projects on. He expressed satisfaction with the “uniformly positive” reception since the announcement of the award, attributing this positivity to Abu Akleh’s reputation as a “world calibre” journalist and to the framing of the award in the broad terms of social justice journalism. The projects produced through this award will “tell stories that are off the beaten track,” of those who “are involved in struggles that need attention,” according to Thompson.
The launch of the award
The ceremony launching the award took place at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre. Thompson introduced the award and paid tribute to the work of Abu Akleh. Ambassador Mona Abuamara, Chief Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation to Canada, also spoke and thanked Thompson for his work in setting up the award. Abu Akleh’s brother Tony, who travelled from Jerusalem for the event, expressed his hope that his sister’s legacy would live on through the work of the students who would receive the award.
The evening concluded with a concert by oud player Abdul-Wahab Kayyali and cellist Sheila Hannigan, including the first performance of a new composition by Kayyali in honour of Abu Akleh. A recording of the event is available on the website of the School of Journalism and Communication.
Thompson noted that the launch was one of the biggest events put on by the School of Journalism and Communication, with over 300 people in attendance, even though entry was not free.
Abu Akleh’s death
When she was killed, Abu Akleh was wearing a flak jacket and helmet clearly marked “Press.” The Israeli state initially denied involvement in Abu Akleh’s death, blaming it instead on Palestinian shooters. After the Palestinian Authority handed over the bullet that killed her to the U.S. for ballistic analysis, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement concluding that “gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh,” while denying that there was any evidence that the shooting was intentional. The Israeli state then admitted that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was likely fired by an IDF sniper, but claimed that the shooting happened when the IDF responded to a “barrage” of gunfire from a Palestinian gunman near Abu Akleh.
“We and the viewers did not know that this news she sent would be the news of her martyrdom.”
The IDF then announced that “the source of the fire that led to the death of Ms. Abu Akleh could not be determined based on the available information” but that the “IDF investigation conclusively determined that no IDF soldier deliberately fired at Ms. Abu Akleh.”
However, investigations by several media outlets, as well as Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, concluded that there was no evidence of any shots fired from Abu Akleh’s vicinity or even of the presence of armed Palestinians near her. According to B’Tselem, “[a] live TikTok broadcast by a young Palestinian captured the seven minutes leading up to the shooting, as well as the shooting itself. The continuous video footage shows that the scene was quiet during the shooting, the journalists were not standing near armed Palestinians, the shooting at them was not preceded by ‘barrages’ of gunfire from their direction, and they openly and slowly walked towards the military vehicles. Palestinian eyewitness accounts gathered shortly after the incident described a similar sequence of events and are consistent with the footage.”
Two days after the shooting, as Abu Akleh’s body was being handed over to mourners at St. Joseph hospital in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, Israeli police used stun grenades on the crowd. Hospital staff in attendance were left with burns from the grenades and were followed into the emergency room by police. Officers with batons attacked mourners carrying her coffin, nearly causing them to drop it. The police confiscated a Palestinian flag draping the coffin and arrested at least four people, before eventually allowing the coffin to be loaded into a hearse.
On October 16, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel published a report on “the use of force by Israel and the de facto authorities in Gaza.” Among other topics, the report examined the killing of Abu Akleh.
After examining the evidence, the commission concluded “that the Israeli security forces used lethal force without justification under international human rights law and intentionally or recklessly violated the right to life of Shireen Abu Akleh.” They also noted that, in a situation of military occupation, “wilful killing of a protected person” such as a member of the press “constitutes a grave breach of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and is a war crime.”
Neither the government of Israel nor that of the United States responded to the commission’s requests for information. As of October 2023, no Israeli soldier has been disciplined or criminally charged for Abu Akleh’s death.
More journalists killed, new censorship regulations
In the Hamas attack on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli bombing campaign against Gaza, several more journalists have been killed. As of October 22, the international organization Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the deaths of 17 Palestinian journalists in Gaza since the start of the fighting, as well as that of three Israeli journalists killed during the Hamas attack.
One Lebanese journalist has also been killed. On October 13, Issam Abdallah, a videographer working for Reuters, was killed at the Lebanon-Israel border by an Israeli missile. Al Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem, who was at the scene, stated that Abdallah and other journalists wounded by the attack were clearly marked as press. Hashem posted on social media that the journalists had been “targeted” by the IDF. Reuters has said that they were “urgently seeking more information,” while Al Jazeera Media Network stated that the IDF had “once again attempted to silence the media by targeting journalists.”
On October 20, the Israeli government “approved regulations that will allow it to temporarily shut down foreign news channels during states of emergency […] if it believes the outlet is damaging national security,” the Times of Israel reported. The regulations were primarily aimed at shutting down Al Jazeera, who Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi accused of “broadcasts that harm the security of the state.” Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, the world’s largest organisation of journalists, described the move as an “attempt to censor media coverage of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict using national security as an excuse to restrict critical media that do not confirm [Israel’s] narrative of the ongoing war.“