Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories: Stop the assault on free speech and protect civilians

Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories: Stop the assault on free speech and protect civilians - Media

Palestinians flee north Gaza as Israeli tanks roll deeper into the enclave amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, 12 November, 2023. Photo: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

ARTICLE 19 is horrified by the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the occupied Gaza Strip. The relentless and disproportionate attacks by Israel, a retaliation for the killing and kidnapping of civilians carried out by Hamas last month, have inflicted a devastating toll. The blatant disregard for human rights and humanitarian law principles we are witnessing is deeply disturbing. We condemn in the strongest terms the all-out assault on freedom of expression, which perpetuates cycles of violence and disinformation, obstructs reporting on the conflict, limits access to lifesaving information and disrupts the vital operations of hospital and humanitarian organisations. This needs to stop now. Respect for freedom of expression is essential to bring an end to the ongoing hostilities and ensure accountability for international crimes. We reiterate our urgent call for an immediate ceasefire by all parties to end this unprecedented humanitarian crisis and prevent further loss of civilian lives.

According to the United Nations, as of 12 November 2023, over 12,200 people have been killed since 7 October 2023. At least 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed, and more than 240 abducted in the horrific attacks carried out in Israel by Hamas. At the time of writing at least 11,078 Palestinians have been killed by the subsequent relentless Israeli bombardment in Gaza, of whom 68% are said to be children and women. The UN estimates that 160 children are killed in Gaza every day. More than 3,250 people, including 1,700 children, have been reported missing and may be trapped or dead beneath rubble. 

In the West Bank, 172 Palestinians have been killed since the 7 October attacks, including 46 children, at the hands of Israeli forces. Eight Palestinians, including one child, have been killed by armed Israeli settlers. Three Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.  

The devastation is continuing at a deeply alarming scale. 

In an environment marked by a blatant disregard for international law, all human rights are under threat. Any party to a conflict, regardless of how said conflict was prompted, is obliged to comply with the laws of war. The attacks by Hamas on 7 October do not exempt Israel from its obligations under international humanitarian law, which is rooted in the acknowledgement that armed conflicts exist but that even during these conflicts the harm that can be caused is not without limits. These rules protect fundamental principles of humanity, such as the prohibition of collective punishment and the obligation to avoid unnecessary suffering, and they apply without regard to the conduct of the adversary.

ARTICLE 19 is also gravely concerned about freedom of expression and information being another casualty of the conflict. We recall that the belligerents in this conflict are also bound by international human rights law, including freedom of expression, which is essential for the protection of civilians during conflicts. Violations of the basic right to free speech and to access information cannot find any justification.

The ongoing conflict has developed into a freedom of expression crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel and beyond. As the situation is fast becoming a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’, ARTICLE 19 is alarmed by the unprecedented killing of journalists carrying out their professional duties, the use of internet shutdowns, suppression of free expression and protest, and increasing online harms and hate speech, all of which will continue to perpetuate the violence, deaths, and humanitarian crisis on the ground. 

Connectivity must be maintained at all times

So far, Israel has imposed three internet shutdowns in Gaza, on 27 October, lasting close to 36 hours, 1 November and 5 November. The blackouts exacerbated the humanitarian catastrophe, with humanitarian organisations losing contact with aid workers, and media houses not being able to reach their reporters – preventing them from reporting from Gaza in real time as Israel’s ground invasion intensified. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for immediate restoration of connectivity in response to the 28 October shutdown. Even beyond the blackouts, phone and internet communications in Gaza have been challenged by fuel shortages and damage to infrastructure caused by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). 

ARTICLE 19 recalls that in times of conflict, internet connectivity becomes a lifeline. It is vital for the distribution of aid, the operations of humanitarian organisations, enabling communication for those trapped under the rubble, or ambulance calls. The internet is also the primary means through which people can document and share information about the situation on the ground, including that of unfolding atrocities. When the internet is shut down, human rights violations are often committed with impunity. 

Even in times of conflict, shutting down entire parts of communications systems can never be justified under international human rights law. Internet shutdowns of the sort we have seen in this conflict are also likely to violate a number of international humanitarian law rules. Attacks against any civilian infrastructure must adhere to targeting rules, including the distinction between military and civilian objects, the principle of proportionality and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. International humanitarian law further forbids collective punishment by imposing penalties on people without a clear lawful basis. 

The ongoing situation makes it increasingly difficult ‘to obtain critical information and evidence (…) and to hear directly from those experiencing the violations’. Where shutdowns are implemented with the intent of covering up violations of international humanitarian law, they also constitute a breach of the obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law under Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions and customary international law. This obligation requires States to put in place measures to prevent violations from happening in the first place and to provide accountability for any violations that do take place.

Journalists are not a target

This conflict has been ‘the deadliest’ period for journalists covering conflicts since the Committee to Protect Journalists began documenting the death of journalists in 1992. As of 12 November 2023, they report that at least 40 journalists and media workers were killed, 8 journalists were reported injured and 3 were reported missing. 

ARTICLE 19 recalls that international humanitarian law is crystal clear: journalists are considered civilians and cannot be military targets. We remain profoundly concerned about reports indicating that media workers may have been deliberately targeted by Israel. 

Journalists operating in conflict zones carry out vital work and the warring parties must take steps to protect them. Despite this, the IDF has informed Reuters, Agence France-Presse and other outlets that it cannot guarantee the safety of their journalists in the Gaza Strip. Israel has continued to attack sites known to be sheltering civilians and journalists.

Many Palestinian journalists have also experienced arrests, assaults, threats, cyberattacks, and killings of family members while carrying out their journalistic duties. Suggestions made in certain Israeli outlets without evidence that some journalists may be linked to Hamas can put them at further risk. 

Allow media access to Gaza

For well over a decade, media access to the Gaza Strip has been severely limited: since the Gaza blockade imposed by Israel in 2007, journalists are not allowed to enter the territory without authorisation from Israel. On 31 October 2023, members of the French media called on the Israeli authorities to expand access granted to international journalists to Gaza, so more impartial, on-the-ground reporting can reach the world from the centre of the conflict. 

Sweeping access restrictions for journalists cannot be justified by either international humanitarian or human rights law. The international humanitarian law for the protection of journalists who are engaged in dangerous professional missions in conflict areas in fact presupposes the general acceptance of news providers in the territory of armed conflict. Furthermore, restrictions to conflict zones for media – even where based on national security criteria – must meet the necessity and proportionality test and factor in the fundamental importance of an objective coverage of armed conflicts by an independent press. Overbroad restrictions that serve to control reporting on the conflict do not meet these criteria. 

In this context we must also express alarm about recent confirmations by CNN about the conditions imposed by Israel for the outlet to be able to  embed’ their reporters with the IDF. CNN has agreed to submit all the materials and footage to the Israeli army for review prior to publication, raising questions of the problematic trade-offs between access and independence of reporting. This comes amidst existing concerns over how this conflict has been covered by the media. Seven hundred and fifty journalists have signed a statement criticising asymmetric coverage of the conflict and expressing immense concern over the killing of their colleagues in Gaza. 

Rising censorship 

On 15 October 2023, Israel’s communications minister confirmed he was seeking to shut down the local bureau of Al-Jazeera, accusing the outlet of ‘pro-Hamas incitement’. A few days later, the Israeli government approved emergency regulations allowing for a temporary shut down of foreign news organisations that are believed to harm national security, paving the way for the outlet’s possible closure.

Reportedly, approval to shut down Al Jazeera’s local office is now being sought from Israel’s defence minister and security cabinet. It is further reported that the IDF last month ordered a closure of Palestinian news agency J-Media.

ARTICLE 19 reminds the authorities that the banning of media outlets – be it domestic or foreign – is a severe restriction of freedom of expression and is rarely justified. While, under international law, free expression can be restricted on national security grounds, this is subject to strict limitations. Media bans need to demonstrate the specific threats that a certain media outlet may pose to national security. Any restrictions must always be transparent, and provide evidence as to the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken and consider the impact that restrictions might have on the right of the public to receive information, particularly in times of conflict. 

Any restrictions on media outlets should be imposed in respect of due process, transparency and by an independent media regulator, not executive branches of the government that are in charge of defence, national security, or the armed forces. 

We are also troubled by the most recent reports that Israel’s parliament passed an amendment on 8 November 2023 to its counterterrorism law that, among others, is aimed to combat ‘radicalisation of individuals through media consumption’. It introduces the ‘consumption of terrorist materials’ as a new criminal offence, which, as human rights groups have warned, could criminalise even passive social media use. We are very concerned that this amendment may be employed to target individuals whose online activities show their opposition to the way this conflict is being conducted, particularly in light of previous designations of Palestinian civil society organisations as terrorist entities.  

Alarming rise in antisemitism and islamophobia 

The conflict has brought with it an exponential rise in instances of hate speech and antisemitic and islamophobic attacks. Tell Mama, which collates data on islamophobic attacks in the UK, recorded 515 incidents of anti-Muslim hate between 7 and 29 October, a sevenfold increase on the same period last year. In a tragic escalation internationally, on 16 October, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was murdered and his mother severely injured by their landlord in an islamophobic and anti-Palestinian attack in Illinois. 

Synagogues and Jewish community centres have been attacked in cities around the world, including Berlin and Montreal, and Jewish people have faced antisemitic threats, harassment and intimidation on the streets and in their neighbourhoods. In the UK, at least 893 antisemitic incidents were recorded between 7 and 31 October. 

The antisemitic and islamophobic attacks are abhorrent. Authorities must ensure that crimes committed against Muslim and Jewish communities are subject to independent, speedy and effective investigations and prosecutions. At the same time, we warn against using such incidents as a pretext to unduly curb freedom of expression as not all forms of hate speech rise to the level of prohibited speech under international law. 

Social media has not learned from past mistakes

In an environment where freedom of expression is attacked and journalists’ ability to report from Gaza is made extremely difficult, if not impossible, the role of social media companies and their ability to allow for information about the hostilities to circulate in and get out of Gaza cannot be overstated. Voices of local reporters and ordinary social media users on the ground are vital in informing the world about the realities of the conflict. 

Despite their crucial role in this conflict, and despite repeated criticism over their handling of previous conflict situations, social media companies continue to fail, in many ways, to respect international human rights and international humanitarian law norms and to uphold freedom of expression during conflicts. 

In particular, Palestinian voices are once again being silenced on social media platforms. Palestinian activists have for a long time complained about their accounts being unfairly suspended, shadowbanned or their content demoted. Last year, a review of Meta’s content moderation practices in relation to Israel and Palestine found evidence of bias that negatively impacted Palestinian users and their right to freedom of expression. During the current conflict, Palestinian users are now again facing similar issues, with TikTok and Instagram taking down or suspending accounts of Palestinians sharing on-the-ground news from Gaza. 

From the very beginning, the conflict has also been mired with disinformation, illegal content and incitement to violence proliferating on social media. The biggest platforms, including Meta and X, have in recent months made deep cuts into their trust and safety teams, making the task of dealing with the content moderation issues at this time all the more challenging. On X, the decision to algorithmically amplify posts by paid subscribers supercharged the reach of accounts spreading unverified and misleading information and glorifying terrorist messages. It has also been reported that Telegram’s lack of robust content moderation allowed heavy use by Hamas to broadcast violent videos and images of its attacks on southern Israeli communities in real time.

At the same time Israel’s widespread paid digital presence raises concerns about the monetisation of conflict-related content.  The 2022 report on disinformation in armed conflicts by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression has warned of the role of monetisation of conflict-related content during armed conflicts, noting that ‘monetisation has taken place in spite of company policies that purport to limit the types of content deemed suitable for advertising’. 

Since Hamas’s attack, Israel has been heavily investing in the use of social media advertising, pushing out ads targeting specific countries and demographics to garner support for its ongoing offensive actions. The online ads are reported to include graphic videos. There is yet to be a review of the content of these ads to ascertain validity of claims and statistics used, partly due to a lack of transparency and accessibility of ad repositories. Google reportedly removed about 30 ads containing violent images, which means there is no public record that such ads ran for several days on YouTube. Given the potential for wide amplification of content contained in ads, platforms must meet the highest level of diligence in ensuring that those ads meet their community standards. 

Antisemitism and islamophobia have risen exponentially on social media. For instance, reports show an over 4963% increase in the number of antisemitic comments on YouTube videos about the Israel/Palestine conflict and a 422% increase in language associated with anti-Muslim hate on X. 

This is exacerbated by the AI systems of major social media companies. Meta’s use of AI tools has had an additional negative impact on user’s rights, exposing the bias inherent in those technologies. Instagram’s automated translation model replaced ‘Palestinianالحمد الله”’meaning ‘Palestinian’ followed by the Arabic phrase ‘Praise be to Allah’ with ‘Palestinian Terrorist’. On WhatsApp, an AI image generator created emojis of children holding guns when prompted with the word ‘Palestinian’. Palestinian rights organisations and Meta staff themselves have called on Meta to take immediate action to address this deep-rooted bias, which perpetuates harmful stereotypes. 

The right to protest and expression of solidarity must be respected 

Since 7 October, around the world, expressions of solidarity and protests have been met with clampdowns and rising restrictions. 

In Israel, Arab citizens have been arrested by the police for expressing solidarity with Gaza on social media. Since 7 October 2,200 Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank alone. On 6 November, for example, the Israeli army confirmed the arrest of prominent Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi during a raid in the occupied West Bank territories. Her father, who was arrested in an earlier raid, is held under administrative detention. ARTICLE 19 remains extremely concerned about the continuing and widespread use of administrative detention by Israel against activists and protesters.   

In Western Europe, France and Germany have banned a number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. In the UK, politicians stirred up divisive rhetoric with the Home Secretary referring to protests as ‘hate marches’ and the Prime Minister putting pressure on the police officials to ban a rally scheduled on the same weekend as the Armistice Day celebrations. The blanket categorisation of protests against the war as ‘pro-Hamas’ or suggestions that they are inherently disruptive raises serious concerns for the right to protest across the continent and beyond.

In various professional settings around the world, from newsrooms to academia and workplaces, individuals have been harassed, intimidated and their positions threatened because of their views of the conflict. In response to increasing risks to students on US campuses from doxxing campaigns and physical intimidation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has written to US college administrators reminding them that addressing antisemitism and islamophobia are vitally important , but that it cannot come at a cost to justified and peaceful expression. It urged them to ‘reject baseless calls to investigate or punish student groups for exercising their free speech rights’. In another concerning development, US congress has censured its only Palestinian member over comments critical of Israel and in support of Palestinians. 

Ceasefire now 

With the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza, increasing death tolls, and rising tensions reaching far beyond the conflict’s geographical borders, ARTICLE 19 joins the UN, aid agencies and experts in calling for an immediate and maintained ceasefire. International standards, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, must be adhered to by the belligerent parties. Any violations of international law committed during the conflict must be independently investigated, including by the International Criminal Court and the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel.

We also urgently call for an end to the freedom of expression crisis that has accompanied this conflict, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, and beyond. The safeguarding of free expression and access to information must be at the centre of the response to this conflict.