Joseph R. Biden
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Biden,
We at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit press freedom advocacy organization, call on your administration to lead a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, whose death the United States has the authority and responsibility to fully investigate. It is imperative that all individuals involved are held accountable and subsequently, that concrete steps are taken to improve press freedom in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
On May 11, Abu Akleh, a journalist for the Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera, was shot in the head and killed while reporting on an Israeli army operation in the West Bank town of Jenin. In a video of the aftermath posted by Al-Jazeera, Abu Akleh is seen wearing a helmet, and a vest marked “PRESS.”
While your administration has called for an investigation, more than one month after Abu Akleh’s killing, only journalists have carried out serious probes of the incident. Multiple journalistic investigations of the shooting suggest Abu Akleh was killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fire. CNN said it uncovered evidence suggesting that it was a targeted attack and The New York Times found the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was fired from the approximate position of an Israeli military vehicle. Most recently, an investigation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found the shot that killed Abu Akleh came from Israeli forces.
Israel’s attacks on journalists and media facilities is a trend that CPJ has documented over decades. At least 19 journalists have been killed in the course of their work in Israel and the Palestinian territories since 1992. In 18 of those cases the suspected source of fire was Israeli military officials, and 16 of those killed were Palestinians. No one has been held to account. This pattern of official indifference by Israeli authorities plants the seeds of impunity that we continue to witness. It also represents a blatant disregard for the rights of the Palestinian people and people around the world to be informed, to follow key developments, and to understand vital facts.
Exactly one year prior to Abu Akleh’s killing – May 11, 2021 – Israeli warplanes began a bombing campaign targeting at least four buildings in Gaza housing the offices of 18 international and local media outlets. In seeking to justify these attacks, Israeli officials claimed Hamas was using the buildings for military purposes. On June 10 of that year, CPJ wrote a letter to the Israeli minister of defense and the IDF chief of staff requesting that they address outstanding questions about their motives for targeting buildings known to house media offices and journalists, and to make public any evidence of Hamas’ alleged use of those buildings for military purposes. CPJ did not receive a response.
Three years prior, in April 2018, Yaser Murtaja, a photojournalist and camera operator for the Gaza-based media production company Ain Media (a USAID grantee), died of injuries sustained while covering protests in the area east of Khan Younis. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet that were clearly marked with the word “PRESS” and was more than 1,000 feet away from the border fence when he was hit in the abdomen with a live round. The then-Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed first that the journalist was operating a drone at the time he was shot, and then that he was a paid Hamas operative. He offered no evidence of either claim. CPJ wrote to the Israeli government urging an investigation and requesting information on its policy regarding protests and journalists. CPJ did not receive a response.
Israeli officials are now taking a similar approach to Abu Akleh’s case. On the day of the killing, Israeli military spokesperson Ran Kochav stated that Abu Akleh and her film crew were “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.” And in a preliminary inquiry, the IDF claimed Abu Akleh was located near Palestinian gunmen and hit either by indiscriminate Palestinian gunfire or by an Israeli soldier in an exchange of fire with Palestinian gunmen. However, multiple media investigations and now a United Nations inquiry into the shooting indicate there was no such gunfire in Abu Akleh’s immediate vicinity in the moments before her death, and that forensic analysis points to the bullet being fired from an IDF military vehicle.
Claiming a connection to Hamas or blaming Palestinians without providing evidence amounts to empty allegations that appear intended to distract public attention from the issue at hand: that a journalist wearing a vest marked “PRESS” may have been killed by IDF fire – again.
The U.S. government must not be distracted by this tactic. Israel has been emboldened in its attacks on the press by the reluctance of allied governments, including the U.S., to seek accountability for these violations. The resounding message is that targeting journalists is acceptable and only makes the dangerous world in which media workers operate even more deadly.
Your administration is not bound by the behavior and norms set by previous administrations. Indeed, you have remarked that, in a sharp turn from the previous administration, “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” On World Press Freedom Day 2021, you stated that the U.S. would “recommit to protecting and promoting free, independent, and diverse media around the world.” Journalists around the world saw these words as a sign of hope. You must now fulfill this promise or risk further erosion of faith in American global leadership on human rights, including press freedom.
We were heartened to see a swift response from administration officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Israel, calling for a thorough investigation and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressing Israeli officials to conclude their ongoing probe.
The IDF, which has reportedly identified the gun that may have killed Abu Akleh, has stated it will not immediately open a criminal investigation into the killing, although an “operational inquiry” will continue. However, given the IDF’s dismal track record on investigating itself, there are good reasons to doubt the army’s efforts will lead to accountability in Abu Akleh’s case.
As an American citizen, Abu Akleh is entitled to every effort toward justice. We therefore urge you to:
(2) Based on the findings, demand that Israel hold the perpetrators accountable according to domestic law, and consider targeted visa and economic sanctions to hold all individual perpetrators responsible for Abu Akleh’s tragic death.
(3) Press Israeli and Palestinian officials to comply and share evidence with independent international investigations. The U.S. should also press Israeli authorities to review and reform IDF rules of engagement to prevent journalists from being targeted in the future.
The impact of bold action in this case cannot be understated. The public depends on journalists to inform our understanding of life and conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and our views on U.S. and global policy toward the Middle East and the policymakers involved in those decisions. Attacks on journalists covering events in the region therefore harm journalists and the general public alike. Your administration’s decisive leadership can help foster a safer environment for reporters in the region for years to come.
We are prepared to meet with officials in your administration to discuss the best way to lead by the power of your example, and champion accountability for attacks on the press. We thank you for your attention and look forward to your response.
Committee to Protect Journalists