Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder and the Western media bias: A textbook case of Israeli disinformation

Palestinian artist paints a mural of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip
7 min read
01 June, 2022
The Western media’s framing of the killing of veteran Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces offers a window into how the West’s most trusted news outlets distort the narrative on Israel-Palestine.

The portrayal in the Western media of the events surrounding the death of Shireen Abu Akleh is a textbook case of how the narrative surrounding Israel-Palestine is systematically obfuscated in the service of Israel.

Mainstream reporting on her killing reflects the time-tested tactics that Western news agencies utilise to conceal Israeli apartheid, suppress Palestinian voices, and distort reality in order to exonerate the former of its atrocities and blame the latter for their own violent dispossession.

In spite of evidence to suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted Shireen Abu Akleh, whose career reporting the perils of life under military occupation with Al Jazeera spanned 25 years, the Western media has treated her case as though it were shrouded in ambiguity.

CNN, BBC, Axios, and the Associated Press, among so many others, reported on Abu Akleh’s death with headlines that refused to explicitly assign blame to the guilty party or include all the relevant details, a tactic akin to deception by omission.

"As has become the standard practice among Western news giants, Israeli authorities, both political and military, are treated with a high degree of deference, while Palestinian voices are dismissed, sidelined, and contested"

Shireen was “killed,” most headlines read, but stopped short of clearly identifying the perpetrator.

The New York Times often considered the gold standard of Western periodicals in spite of its blatant record of anti-Palestinianism, initially published a headline that read “Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51.”

The precise nature of her death, in addition to the fundamental distinction between death and murder, was treated as irrelevant by the Western world’s most prestigious publication.

Without an active voice in which the subject of a sentence performs an action – regarded as a precondition for news writing in journalism – headline readers may even potentially come to conclude that her death came as a result of natural causes and not a military operation conducted by Israeli forces.

Such headlines fundamentally distort reality in a manner that is deliberately designed to preclude any inference of Israeli culpability that can be drawn among those who consume their content.

People from different nationalities gathering in Republic square in Paris, France, on May 11, 2022 to protest the death of veteran Al-Jazeera Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh [Getty Images]
People from different nationalities gathering in Republic square in Paris, France to protest the death of veteran Al-Jazeera Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh [Getty Images]

The mainstream media’s stylistic oscillation between passive and active voices, depending on the perpetrator, is part of an established pattern of obfuscations reserved almost exclusively for Israel-Palestine.

Israelis and Israeli Jews are invariably “killed” by Palestinians, whereas Palestinians merely “die” – framing that inspires the subconscious effect of associating Palestinians with violence while simultaneously absolving Israel of a causal connection to Palestinian mortality.

Palestinian casualties are also generally depicted as occurring due to a situation in which Israel has been reluctantly forced to respond to Palestinian instigation for the sake of its security, whereas Israeli casualties, including military ones, are always unprovoked.

During the 2018 Great March of Return, for example, Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip were gunned down in broad daylight by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), yet the media framed Israel’s actions as defensive.

Sequential analyses of the breakdown of events provided by Western news sources, from Israel’s wars on Gaza to its cycles of repression directed at Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, are almost always skewed, beginning at dates that, through a matter of historical convenience, aim to validate Israeli state lines.

Moreover, references to “violence” and “clashes” are also deliberately utilised to shield Israel from the negative publicity that comes with framing that accurately reports its violations of Palestinian human rights.

After murdering a journalist and deploying security forces to brutally repress her funeral – an event captured unambiguously on-camera – news agencies nevertheless depicted Israel’s unidirectional attack on Shireen Abu Akleh’s pallbearers as a reciprocal eruption of force between two equal parties, not as the asymmetrical quelling of unarmed mourners exercising their right, under international law, to the peaceful freedom of assembly.

In addition, mainstream media sources have parroted Israeli talking points regarding those who bear responsibility for the renowned journalist's death.

This is despite the fact that numerous eye-witness accounts by Palestinian journalists, in addition to the analysis conducted by Israeli rights group B'Tselem, the investigative platform Bellingcat, and the news agency Middle East Eye, have debunked Israel’s initial claims that Palestinian gunmen were responsible for her murder.

Even though AP and CNN later concluded, through their own independent investigations, that the Palestinian-American was killed by Israeli sniper fire, their initial reporting ignored local accounts in an all-too-familiar manner symptomatic of a deep-rooted aversion towards pro-Palestinian narratives.

"While Israeli state rhetoric is regurgitated – often uncritically at times verbatim – framing that humanizes the Palestinians is subject to relentless scrutiny. Palestinians are systematically denied the right to narrate their own experiences"

As has become the standard practice among Western news giants, Israeli authorities, both political and military, are treated with a high degree of deference, while Palestinian voices are dismissed, sidelined, and contested.

Representatives of the state of Israel are largely treated as impartial observers, while Palestinians, by virtue of their identity, are confronted by intrinsically adversarial editorial platforms that intuitively aim to refute their narratives.

Such reporting operates on the embedded assumption that Palestinians are inherently incapable of providing honest, accurate information, thus serving as a justification for their marginalisation.

While Israeli state rhetoric is regurgitated – often uncritically and at times verbatim – framing that humanizes the Palestinians is subject to relentless scrutiny. Palestinians are systematically denied the right to narrate their own experiences.

Relatedly, Western news agencies tend, almost as a matter of policy, to treat all Palestinian casualties at the hands of Israel as hearsay, and all Israeli casualties as facts.

While subtle, the strategic insertion of a disclaimer following a development that negatively implicates Israel serves to undermine the credibility of the assertion.

By incorporating a caveat whenever the victims are Palestinian and the perpetrators Israeli, mainstream news agencies strongly imply that claims of Palestinian suffering are false by casting doubt on the source.

This in part sustains – and is sustained by – an Orientalist tendency to regard Israel as an extension of the West, and Palestinians as boors whose history can only be understood through militancy and terrorism.    

A vigil is held as protestors gathered outside of the New York Times building for Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh [Getty Images]
A vigil is held as protestors gathered outside of the New York Times building for Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh [Getty Images]

Reuters, for example, when reporting on Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, punctuated its headline with the caveat that the developing story was according to Al Jazeera, the “Qatar-based news channel.”

During successive Israeli wars on Gaza, Western media outlets routinely reported massacres committed by the IDF with a disclaimer that such numbers are reported by the ministry of health in Gaza, a “Hamas-run” institution.

A leaked 2021 memo sent by the CNN Jerusalem bureau chief directed its staff to always remind their readers of this.

Yet revealingly, similar qualifications are rarely integrated into headlines narrating events in which the victims are Israeli Jews.

Even when they are used, references to official Israeli channels serve to promote an aura of complaisance that elevate Israeli claims and treats them as intrinsically reliable – legitimizing, as opposed to challenging state rhetoric.

Above all, however, the reporting on Shireen Abu Akleh’s death reflected the media’s tendency to remove the context in which these tumultuous developments occur – an illegal and dehumanizing military occupation.

Very few sources prefixed their headlines on her killing in the West Bank with the word “occupied,” misleading readers by manufacturing a false sense of normalcy detached from the destitute reality of Palestinian life under military rule.

Without an objective depiction highlighting the precarity of a stateless existence under military occupation, those who follow mainstream news outlets in the West are suggestively led to believe that Palestinians have an inherent propensity toward violence.

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An objective investigation into the grievances that drive Palestinian acts of resistance, both violent and nonviolent, rarely seems to be relevant enough to warrant a conversation. 

Though a discernible broadening of the discussion on Israel-Palestine in recent years has seen the growing incorporation of Palestinian voices, it has come at a slow pace.

For the foreseeable future, Palestinians will have the unenviable task of not only resisting a regional superpower devoted to their perpetual subjugation but confronting a media establishment in the West that, by and large, continues to obstinately contest their very humanity.

Nizar Mohamad is an independent Middle East analyst based in Toronto, Canada, who focuses on Syrian and Levantine affairs. His work has appeared in TRT World, Mondoweiss, Atlantic Council, Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, and the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He previously worked on Canada's Syrian refugee project.

Follow him on Twitter: @NizarMohamad1