Palestinians walk amid the ruins of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza on April 1, following an Israeli air and ground offensive that left a trail of confusion about who was killed, injured or missing. Destruction, death and displacement are among many factors making it harder to document the Israel-Gaza war's impact on journalists. (Photo: AP/Mohammed Hajjar)

Why impact of Israel-Gaza war has become harder to document

Israel’s surprise attack on Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza on March 18, and the two weeks of fighting that followed, resulted in hundreds of deaths and a trail of destruction. It also left a morass of contradictory information about exactly who was killed there, who was arrested, and who went missing.  

As the Israel-Gaza war enters its eighth month, the verification of such information has slowed to a crawl. An unprecedented number of deaths, with more than 90 Palestinian journalists killed by Israeli forces since the start of the war, displacement, and censorship are all making it exponentially harder to confirm information about the conflict’s devastating impact on Gaza’s media community – and, by extension, about the broader impact of the war.

“At the start of the war it would take us a day or two to verify information about a journalist who had been killed or injured,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna. “Collecting and vetting this information is now taking us weeks or months, and in some cases won’t be possible at all.”

More than six weeks after the Al-Shifa hospital attack, CPJ is still working to verify what happened to four people on the site who may have been journalists. Were they killed, did they go missing, or were they detained in the raid, and were they working as journalists at the time? Efforts to glean accurate information about these four have been obstructed by a communications blackout, conflicting accounts, and the near-total destruction of the Al-Shifa site, where evidence may be destroyed or buried under the rubble.

One effect of this uncertainty is that the names of these journalists are not yet included in CPJ’s reports about other journalists held in the Al-Shifa attack – a stark illustration that the true casualty count may be much higher, and may not be known for months or even years.

These constraints have become the norm in Gaza and, as the number of media workers in the region dwindles, pose fresh challenges to CPJ’s real-time documentation of the war’s toll on journalists.

“Every bit of information we cannot access means the world loses more of its ability to understand what is happening in the war, how it has affected journalists and media workers, and who is specifically accountable,” said Mohamed Mandour, a researcher on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program.

Devastating loss of local sources

The decimation and displacement of Gaza’s media community, which was estimated to number at least 1,000 before the war, means that there are fewer and fewer local journalists left to provide details about the fate of their colleagues. As of May 6, at least 97 journalists and media workers had been killed in Gaza, Lebanon, and Israel since October 7, 2023, the vast majority (92) Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes. Others have been injured, fled into exile, and had their offices destroyed

Those who died may have been directly targeted or victims of a broader attack, but with whole families killed in many instances, there are fewer survivors to provide information about the circumstances of a relative’s death. To date, CPJ has determined that at least three journalists were directly targeted by Israeli forces in killings which CPJ classifies as murders, but is still researching the details for confirmation in 10 other cases that indicate possible targeting. 

More Israel-Gaza war coverage

CPJ has been documenting the impact of the war’s impact on journalists since it began October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack against Israel, which responded by declaring war on Hamas and launching airstrikes and a ground assault on Gaza. CPJ has also offered safety guides on war reporting, psychological safety, and advice for journalists arrested or detained. 

* List of journalist casualties
* 2023 report: War brings journalist killings to devastating high
* Palestinian journalists detained by Israel in record numbers
* Methodology
* Full coverage

“Imagine the amount of information we could have had if nearly 100 journalists had not been killed,” Mandour said. “Many journalists have also fled Gaza, some in urgent need of medical care that is not available, especially after the attacks on hospitals. Others fled to avoid being killed or injured, as there is no longer a safe space for journalists in Gaza, not even hospitals.”

The overall scale of loss has made it harder for journalists to get the information they need to convey the full impact of the war. 

Diaa Al-Kahlout, the Gaza bureau chief for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, who recently told CPJ that he was tortured during 33 days in Israeli detention, said that the outside world “sees only 10% of the actual reality” in Gaza. “I used to be able to get all the news, and today, many significant stories haven’t been covered,” he said.

Diaa Al-Kahlout, Gaza bureau chief for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, recently told CPJ that he was tortured during 33 days in Israeli detention. (Photo: Courtesy of Diaa Al-Kahlout)

In addition to journalists and their families, others who could have provided information about the situation for journalists are now dead, displaced, or injured. One of those injured and now in exile is Abdullah Al-Hajj, a photographer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), who provided crucial drone imagery of war damage before he was severely injured in a February Israeli strike in which he lost both legs. Al-Hajj was being treated in Al-Shifa hospital when Israel raided it in March, but survived and was later evacuated to Qatar.

More than 34,000 Palestinians are estimated to have been killed in the war, and an April 28 Wall Street Journal report notes that Gaza health authorities – a primary source of casualty data for institutions like the U.N. – say they can no longer provide an accurate count of the dead. 

Precarious living conditions

Another factor hampering access to information is that overstretched Gaza journalists are drained by the same dire shortages as other residents, struggling to find food, equipment, protective gear, and safe places to stay. “They are busy trying to save their own lives,” said Mandour.

“The day-to-day includes a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability,” Hoda Osman, executive editor of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), told CPJ recently. “They have a home today, they might not have a home tomorrow. They have their family members with them today, they might lose them tomorrow. They themselves are alive today, they might be injured or killed tomorrow.”

Absence of foreign journalists

The near-total ban on international journalists allowed in Gaza further complicates the situation. In most conflicts, a rotating international press corps provides additional coverage and can help assist in documentation of threats to journalists.

Before the war, many foreign press outlets had offices in Gaza, but those bureaus have been unable to operate effectively after many were damaged during Israeli attacks. Those hit included the building housing international news agency Agence France-Presse, which had been streaming live images of the war from a camera at the top of the building.

Despite more than 4,000 international journalists coming to Israel to cover the war, the High Court in Israel upheld the IDF’s decision to prevent almost all foreign media from Gaza. The only exceptions are a handful of tightly controlled army-led press tours. 

“With so many Palestinian journalists killed, in exile, or physically and psychologically depleted after months of reporting and living in a conflict zone, and no international media present within Gaza either, the process of finding credible sources to verify the facts on the ground has become increasingly difficult,” CPJ MENA Representative Doja Daoud said.

For CPJ, this dearth of sources means that it is taking longer to investigate whether a victim meets the organization’s criteria for classification as a journalist and to ensure that CPJ researchers have more than one source confirming details of a situation involving members of the media.

“We are trying to preserve the history of what’s happening to the journalists themselves and the increasingly difficult situation they are in,” said Daoud. “And we want to be fair to everyone who is a journalist or media worker by not adding anyone to the list who should not be there or by skipping anyone. Even if we must work more slowly, it is worth the wait.”

Communications breakdowns

Frequent communications blackouts and destruction of media equipment are further disrupting efforts to gather information about the war. CPJ researchers say that calls that do get through are plagued with background noise from constant drone flyovers, and voice messages can get lost in often-unreliable internet connections. Journalists’ vehicles, computers, phones, cameras, and other gear also have been destroyed in attacks. “At the start of the war, it was easy to call anyone in Gaza and hear back from them immediately. Now you are not sure when or if you’ll get a response,” Mandour said. “The drone attack on Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital was less damaging than at Al-Shifa, but many journalists still lost their phones and laptops so their ability to communicate was gone.”

Deteriorating due process

In the case of journalist arrests – most of which have happened in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – “we are finding it difficult to document arrests because even the lawyers for the journalists’ families don’t have access to the details,” said Ignacio Delgado Culebras, a consultant for CPJ’s MENA team. “Due process is failing because authorities can use administrative detention laws to put people behind bars without charging them or publicly disclosing evidence. It’s only over time we find out where they are held or whether there are any charges filed.” 

In one of the cases CPJ is investigating, freelance journalist Hamza al-Safi was arrested in February, but his wife still doesn’t know the reason for his arrest or the charges he is facing. Al-Safi, who contributes to the Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network, the news website Al-Jarmaq News, and other outlets, was arrested at his house in the West Bank on February 9, according to news reports and his wife.

Israel’s use of administrative detention, a practice in place before the onset of the war, has long been condemned by human rights groups and U.N. experts.

Fear of retribution in multiple regions, perceptions of indifference

Many sources are increasingly afraid to speak out. “People don’t want to be killed, attacked, or imprisoned by the authorities for echoing critical voices” whether those authorities are Hamas or Israel, Daoud said. 

Daoud noted that this fear transcends borders as journalists in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt have all faced violence and censorship during the war: 

  • Israel raided and closed the Jerusalem office of Al-Jazeera after the Israeli cabinet voted on May 5 to shut down the broadcasts of the Qatar-based channel in Israel under a law that could also restrict other international outlets working in Israel if they are deemed to be a threat to the country’s security. Israeli journalists have said they fear expressing views critical of their country’s actions in the war. Some have been attacked by Israeli citizens while covering events. Military officials have also voiced concerns about government efforts to stifle reporting. 
  • In Lebanon, at least five journalists, who spoke to CPJ anonymously for fear of retribution, said they had been detained in the country while trying to document the war in the south. Others have faced online threats and investigations for being critical of the war.
  • In Jordan, journalists have been detained for reporting on the protests in front of the Israeli embassy in Amman. Charges of “impersonating a journalist” are being brought against journalists who aren’t members of the government-approved Press Syndicate. (Most practicing journalists are not in the syndicate.) Many journalists also tell CPJ they are facing threats but do not want to report them publicly.
  • Egypt has banned international and Egyptian journalists from entering Gaza through the Rafah border crossing. Additionally, when one of the few independent media outlets in Egypt, Mada Masr, reported on the effect of the Israel-Gaza war in Egypt, the Egyptian authorities banned Mada Masr’s website for six months and referred its editor-in-chief for prosecution.

Perceptions of global indifference are also making people more cautious in providing information. “In the beginning of the war people were interested in exposing actions against journalists,” Mandour said. “Now everyone knows the international community has been ineffective in stopping media arrests and violence. They wonder why they should speak out if they are not getting any protection.”

CPJ’s road to accountability

CPJ believes that the decline in reporting – along with the war’s impact on the media – will continue if Israel is able to continue attacking and imprisoning journalists without consequence. “Deadly Pattern,” a CPJ investigation published in May 2023, found that Israel did not charge any soldiers for 20 journalist killings in over 22 years. 

This pattern of impunity may be repeated in the current war, where it could become a playbook for repressive behavior in the Israel-Gaza region and elsewhere – endangering journalists and suppressing information needed to hold accountable those who kill, attack and imprison them for their work. 

To help curb the threats to journalists and press for more information attacks against them, CPJ continues to conduct methodical research and to press both regional and global authorities to act on journalists’ behalf. Said Daoud: “We are keeping in mind that the road to accountability, to justice, to all of these court hearings and rulings and lawsuits is through our accurate documentation.”