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OPT/Israel: PEN International condemns the systematic violations of freedom of expression since October 7

November 02, 2023 IN WIP
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Image: Edward Crawford (Shutterstock)

20 October: PEN International strongly condemns the mounting violations of freedom of expression, including the killings and intimidation of journalists and systematic silencing of critical voices, in light of the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas. PEN International stresses that journalists should be able to report on wars and conflicts freely and safely. Critical voices should be free to dissent and express themselves without fear or intimidation.

Attacks on journalists and media infrastructures

The recent escalation in violence, following the abhorrent Hamas’ attacks on Israel on October 7th, has been paralleled by the harassment and targeting of voices critical of Israel’s extensive bombardment and full siege of Gaza. The disproportionate retaliation is having a devastating impact on Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure, amounting to egregious violations of international humanitarian law.

21 journalists, reporting on the crisis, are amongst those who have been killed. PEN International is appalled by a pattern of attack, intimidation, and harassment of journalists at this time. Amongst those killed are 17 Palestinians, three Israeli, and one Lebanese. Additionally, eight are reported to be injured, and three missing or detained.

On October 13th, a Reuters journalist was killed and six other journalists from Al Jazeera, Agence France-Presse and Reuters were injured in southern Lebanon by missiles fired from the direction of Israel, despite wearing marked journalists’  attire.

In one example of attempts at intimidation and harassment of journalists, on October 15th, an Israeli armed police personnel appeared on TV, threatening Alaraby TV reporter Ahmed Darawsha during his live coverage from Ashdod, Israel. BBC journalists Muhannad Tutunji, Haitham Abudiab and their BBC Arabic team covering the conflict were assaulted and held at gunpoint after police stopped and searched them in Tel Aviv.

Ongoing Israeli bombardment continues to devastate Gaza’s infrastructure, including its telecommunications, causing severe limitations to internet access. Palestinians, the majority of whom have been forcibly displaced, struggle to use social media and communication apps to inform their families whether they remain safe. Gaza’s internet services are known to be inadequate and mainly offer 2G network services.

PEN International has previously condemned attacks on journalists and media offices in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory and called on the ICC to investigate potential war crimes related to the hostilities of May 2021.

Systematic silencing of voices

Reports of attempts by mainstream media outlets to suppress journalistic coverage of the Israeli’s extensive bombing of Gaza, including distortion of its own reporting, are of particular concern. The Guardian fired his long-serving cartoonist Steve Bell for his cartoon depicting Benjamin Netanyahu performing self-surgery with the caption, ‘Residents of Gaza, get out now.”

The BBC is reported to have taken six reporters in the Middle East off air and launched an investigation into their social media posts that were allegedly pro-Palestinian. The investigation seemingly followed complaints from a pro-Israeli media monitoring body accusing the journalists of bias against Israel. The journalists’ names and photos have been circulating in the press, accusing them of supporting Hamas on social media, leaving a terrifying impact on them. Early this week, the BBC apologized for its comments on pro-Palestinian demonstrations across Britain, which it accused of supporting Hamas. The network acknowledged that its remarks about the marches in the UK were misleading.

Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, expressing solidarity with Gaza or criticising Israeli actions are facing reprisals. On October 16th, Dalal Abu Amneh, a prominent Palestinian singer and neuroscientist, was arrested from her home in Nazareth for alleged incitement to terrorism because of her social media activity. In her statement issued following her release, she alleges experiences of ill treatment by Israeli police.

A number of literary and cultural performances have been cancelled or postponed because of recent events. The Palestinian Freedom Theatre reported that the mayor of Choisy-le-Roi in France cancelled their performance, “And Here I Am,” which focuses on actor Ahmed Tobasi’s exploration of themes relating to identity during his life in a refugee camp. Similarly, LitPromm, the awards administrator of the Frankfurt Book Fair, postponed the award ceremony for Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, during which Shibli was set to receive the LiBeraturpreis for her novel ‘Minor Detail, citing “the terror against Israel” and stating that the book fair “stands with complete solidarity on the side of Israel”.

In a statement on October 16th, PEN International reiterated the need for all public bodies and media agencies to act responsibly, at this time, when tensions are heightened, and stressed that literary platforms should ensure that dialogue – particularly during heightened tension – remain unfettered and provide equal space to all voices. Rather than enabling debate, concerted attempts to mutate, distort and reduce the actions of individuals, or reporting of criticism of actions taken by Israeli, as de-facto support for the actions of Hamas, only damage social cohesion.

Restriction on rallies

Several countries have imposed restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in response to recent events using a pretext of maintaining public order. Hundreds of Jewish activists were arrested during a sit-in at the United States Congress in Washington, DC, where they demonstrated against “Israel’s continuous oppression of Palestinians.” French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin instructed the police to ban and arrest organizers of pro-Palestinian demonstrations due to concerns about public order. In Germany, 174 protestors were reportedly arrested at an “unauthorized” pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin, following tensions over protest bans. In the UK, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman issued a letter to the police in England and Wales suggesting that “waving of a Palestinian flag may not be legitimate.”

We join the call for restrictions on the legitimate right to peaceful protest to be lifted.

For more information, please contact Mina Thabet, Head of the MENA Region, at PEN International, and Sabrina Tucci, PEN International Communications and Campaigns Manager,

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International