Israel must review IDF policy on protests, journalists after Gaza killing

April 19, 2018 11:39 AM

April 19, 2018

Hon. Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
3 Kaplan St.
P.O.B. 187
Kiryat Ben-Gurion
Jerusalem 91919
Israel

Via email: pm_eng@pmo.gov.il

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organization, urges you to review the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) policy on mass protests and the press and to ensure that the shooting of journalists covering demonstrations in the Gaza Strip is quickly and thoroughly investigated.

Yaser Murtaja, a photojournalist and camera operator for the Gaza-based media production company Ain Media, died on April 7 of injuries sustained the previous day 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 hundreds of feet away from the border fence when he was hit.

Amid the international outcry, your government appointed a brigadier general to investigate the IDF's reaction to the protests in general, and the shooting of Murtaja in particular. We urge you to ensure that the conclusion of this investigation is made public, as the possibility of more deaths and injuries among journalists--not to mention protesters--is real.

At least 12 other journalists have been injured by IDF live fire since March 30, CPJ research shows. Most of them wore vests marked with "PRESS."

The shootings suggest that Israeli authorities could be trying to suppress media coverage of the protests. While evidence--including accounts from two journalists who were shot, video evidence reviewed by CPJ, and the tactical capabilities of IDF snipers--is inconclusive, this alarming possibility must be investigated. Even if the IDF is not deliberately targeting journalists, its use of live ammunition as a first resort instead of nonlethal means puts journalists--particularly photographers and camera operatives who must be at the frontlines to get pictures--at terrible risk, making their work almost impossible.

Furthermore, after Murtaja was killed, your 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, according to news reports. He offered no evidence of either claim (Murtaja's colleagues have denied he was using a drone, while The Associated Press reported that Murtaja's production company recently won a grant from USAID after strict vetting by the U.S. government).

The killing of Murtaja is part of a pattern: of 17 journalists killed in Israel and the Occupied Territories since 1992 when CPJ began keeping records, 15 were killed by Israeli fire, and no one has been held accountable, CPJ research shows.

Israel's state comptroller, an independent watchdog of the executive branch, has emphasized in reports following violence in 2003 and 2017 that the government's failure to develop and implement nonlethal means to deal with demonstrations. And in a report published last month on Israel's conflict with Hamas in 2014, the comptroller said delays in the IDF's investigation of its own conduct undermine the effectiveness and credibility of the military's accountability mechanisms.

It is essential as the latest investigation proceeds that Israel affirm its international commitments to protect civilians, including journalists, in conflict zones. According to Israeli media and Human Rights Watch, senior officials have authorized the use of live ammunition against Palestinian protesters who pose no imminent threat to life.

We ask that you consider this a matter of urgency. We request your government provide an immediate and detailed review of its policy on journalists covering protests or conflict, and for the IDF to carry out a swift and thorough investigation into Murtaja's killing and to make its findings public. If the probe determines civil or criminal liability, then authorities must take credible action.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director