Disinformation campaign puts journalists’ lives at risk in Gaza

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a man with so much irrational hatred for the free press that he must have something awful to hide from it, baselessly called for an investigation of major news outlets for supporting terrorism. "Tom Cotton" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Israeli government’s invasion of Gaza is already the deadliest event for journalists in decades, and now a malicious disinformation campaign has put the lives of even more journalists at severe risk, with zero evidence of wrongdoing by any news outlet.

A group calling itself HonestReporting, which claims to “combat ideological prejudice in journalism and the media, as it impacts Israel,” published a report insinuating that freelance photojournalists who took pictures during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel were complicit with Hamas. HonestReporting has since backpedaled, admitting it had no proof.

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Photojournalists risk their lives to document history. It’s absurd to suggest that photographing atrocities makes them complicit, or that they’re morally obligated to put their cameras down to fight terrorists armed with machine guns.

And it’s equally preposterous to suggest, as both Israeli and American officials have, that news outlets are responsible for all hypothetical misconduct by any freelancer from whom they buy a photograph.

The Jerusalem Post — where HonestReporting’s Executive Director Gil Hofman used to work — ran a headline that the journalists had “reportedly joined Hamas massacre.” And Israel’s embattled Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seized on the spurious report to call the photojournalists “accomplices in crimes against humanity” and condemn the media outlets that published their work.

Others went even further. Former Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz said journalists who photographed the attack “are no different than terrorists and should be treated as such.” Danny Danon, a member of Israel’s parliament and its former representative to the United Nations, said on X, formerly Twitter, that Israel's internal security agency would add the photojournalists named in HonestReporting’s report to its kill list. Presumably, there will be others.

But no one, apparently, stopped for a minute to check if the allegations were even remotely true.

In the U.S., Sen. Tom Cotton, a man with so much irrational hatred for the free press that he must have something awful to hide from it, sent a letter to the DOJ calling for an investigation of whether the Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times and Reuters “committed federal crimes by supporting Hamas terrorists.”

News outlets from the Times to the AP were forced to issue statements proclaiming that they didn’t have advance knowledge of the Hamas attacks.

And then HonestReporting essentially said never mind. Oops. After some backlash on social media, the group later told the AP it was simply “raising questions.” Hofman admitted there was no evidence to back up the insinuation that photojournalists had advance notice of the attacks or somehow collaborated with Hamas. Oh, and he also conceded: “We don’t claim to be a news organization.”

But the potentially lethal damage has already been done. It’s a virtual certainty that, despite HonestReporting’s about-face, its nonsense report will be cited to justify past and future attacks against journalists in what’s already by far the deadliest war for the press in modern memory.

If it hasn’t already been crystal clear, the Israeli government absolutely must now do everything in its power to undo the harm HonestReporting has caused and protect journalists covering the war, whether they are embedded with the IDF or not.

And the Biden administration has an obligation to pressure its close partner to protect press freedom in every way it possibly can. The amount of journalists killed in this conflict shocks the conscience, and turning a blind eye to this fact goes against every value and right the U.S. claims to hold dear.

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