In March 2022, one month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Syrian refugee wrote in The New Humanitarian’s pages: “I know what it feels like having to leave your home and family behind to escape war, and I want to help Ukrainians going through this now. But I also want to know why us refugees not from Europe had to freeze in the forest.”
He was referring to the special treatment Ukrainian refugees received when entering Europe, welcomed with hugs and chocolate bars rather than electric fences and attack dogs.
“I’m very sympathetic to the Ukrainian people,” he wrote. “Nobody deserves war, destruction, and exile from their homeland. But the difference in treatment just hurts so much. The blood that comes out of all people is the same colour.”
As the world’s leading news organisation specialised in covering crises around the world, The New Humanitarian sees on a daily basis stark differences in whose suffering counts: Lives from Sudan to Myanmar, from Ethiopia to Haiti, are routinely neglected.
The media plays a key role in shaping why our societies care about some crises and some victims more than others. There is no better example of this double standard than the coverage of current developments in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The choices we make – to label one side the aggressor and the other the victim; or to humanise one side and not the other – elevate and perpetuate narratives that treat certain people as more human than others.
The truth is: We are preconditioned not to see Palestinian humanity because colonialism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia are still the dominant lens through which states, institutions, people, and media in the West view the world (although geopolitical interests are, of course, also at play).
This is why, in some media coverage, Palestinians “die” while Israelis are “killed”.
Yes, Hamas, the Palestinian militant and political group that governs the Gaza Strip, is responsible for the killing of hundreds of Israeli civilians and the taking of hundreds of hostages on 7 October. But the Israeli government has also been responsible for killing thousands of Palestinian civilians since. And before 7 October, 3,803 Palestinian civilians had been killed – compared to 177 Israeli civilians – since 2008, according to the UN.
So why are many Palestinians interviewed on US or British TV asked to condemn Hamas as a ticket of entry to the conversation, while Israelis aren’t asked to account for their government’s crimes?
As Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK, responded to the BBC when asked to condemn Hamas: “How many times has Israel committed war crimes live on your own cameras? Do you start by asking them to condemn themselves? You don’t.”
‘Terrorism’ vs. ‘self-defence’
How do we decide when to apply the word “terrorism”?
The BBC does not call Hamas militants terrorists specifically because “terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It's simply not the BBC's job to tell people who to support and who to condemn – who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” wrote veteran foreign correspondent John Simpson. “We don't take sides. We don't use loaded words like ‘evil’ or ‘cowardly’.”
Others would do well to follow that example.
There is no definition of terrorism under international law. As the saying goes, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But the UN General Assembly in 2006 defined it as “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes”.
If we label criminal acts by Hamas that terrorise Israeli civilians for political purposes as terrorism, why do we not do the same for criminal acts by the Israeli government that terrorise Palestinian civilians for political purposes? And why are several UN General Assembly resolutions that affirm the Palestinians’ right to armed struggle as a response to Israeli apartheid and occupation hardly ever mentioned?
As Angela Davis writes in Freedom is a Constant Struggle: “The important issues in the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination are minimised and rendered invisible by those who try to equate Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid with terrorism.”
According to Palestinian professor Nada Elia, this results in a depiction of Palestinians as “the attackers, the invaders, the occupiers”, and not a people engaged in a decolonial struggle.
By the same token, a framing of Israeli violence as “self-defence” takes a very short view of history.
We owe it to the professional standards we committed to as journalists to stick to verified facts, provide the broader historical perspective that helps our audiences put news into context, avoid amplifying hate speech, and call out all abuses of power, regardless of who the aggressor is.
Media reports that focus solely on Hamas’ brutal killings in Israel in one weekend, without putting the incident in the context of Israel’s brutal occupation and oppression of Palestinians for more than half a century, create dangerous false narratives. As the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN in New York, Riyad Mansour, put it: “History for some media and politicians starts when Israelis are killed.”
All of which raises another important question: Which forms of resistance do we consider legitimate? Why are Ukrainians who use violence to resist occupation considered heroes and armed by Western countries, while Palestinians who use violence to resist occupation are considered terrorists and bombed with US support?
Last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as war crimes. “Cutting off men, women, children of water, electricity… are acts of pure terror,” she said. “And we have to call it as such.” So will she now describe Israel cutting off water and electricity from men, women, and children in Gaza as terrorism? Will she now condemn Israel’s 17-year blockade of Gaza the same way she condemned Russia’s blockade of the Ukrainian coast?
The typical response to such questions is that Palestine is different because Hamas is a terrorist organisation that targets civilians.
But another double standard is at play here.
The killing of civilians in Israel rightly sparked outrage, but why is it an acceptable price to pay when the United States drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II; when the British and the Americans bomb Dresden after that war has been won; when the US army and its allies disproportionately kill civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan; or when Israel bombs Gaza en masse and pledges to wipe out its entire population, or kills Palestinian protesters in the West Bank?
Whether intentional or when viewed militarily as (not our phrase) collateral damage, the killing of civilians in the name of fighting evil should never be acceptable – not in Hiroshima, not in Iraq, not in Israel, and not in Gaza.
The information war
We see double standards at play in the media’s treatment of unverified information too.
When referencing the blast at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City that killed hundreds of sheltering Palestinian civilians, most media outlets are very careful to note that the source of the explosion is unclear. But many of the very same media ran front page stories featuring unverified reports of Hamas decapitating babies (claims that even US President Joe Biden circulated – referring to “terrorists beheading children” – before walking them back; and that El País later described as, “The decapitated babies that no one saw, but someone used”).
In the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, false claims that Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction – notably amplified by Western leaders and Western media – made the killing of innocent Iraqis more acceptable. Widely circulated misinformation about decapitated babies in Israel has exactly the same effect: It makes the killing of Palestinians more acceptable.
And finally, why is it almost impossible to challenge dominant narratives about Israel without being subjected to vicious, visceral attacks and being labelled – as this Editorial probably will be – antisemitic?
In the wake of the violence in Israel and Gaza, three prominent Muslim hosts at MSNBC – Ayman Mohyeldin, Ali Velshi, and Mehdi Hasan – were taken off anchoring duties, according to Semafor. Parent company NBCUniversal said the moves were “coincidental”.
Meanwhile, The Guardian said it wouldn’t renew the contract of veteran cartoonist Steve Bell, after pulling his cartoon featuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It is getting pretty nigh impossible to draw this subject for the Guardian now without being accused of deploying ‘antisemitic tropes’,” Bell wrote on the social media platform X.
BBC Arabic is investigating six of its journalists for tweets they wrote about the conflict. Even Instagram and Meta are being accused of censoring pro-Palestinian content (Meta says it was due to a “bug”).
Many journalists describe feeling “silenced” on this topic: “If you’re trying to tell the story from a perspective which recognises Palestinian humanity and recognises that Israel has failed [to uphold] its obligations under international law, you are held to a high standard,” Ash Sarkar, contributing editor at Novara Media, told Al Jazeera’s The Take.
“Everyone is waiting for you to trip up. And even when you jump through all the hoops, and dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, you can still find yourself being silenced, without any form of due process whatsoever… Whereas when it comes to telling the Israeli narrative, those standards no longer exist.”
The deeper problem
So why is media coverage of Israel and Palestinians so asymmetrical?
The truth is: Palestinians are depicted as less deserving of our sympathy because they are seen as less than human.
When Politico (and others) quote Israeli ministers saying they are fighting “human animals” – mirroring the Nazis’ description of Jews as “rats” ahead of the Holocaust or the Hutus’ description of Tutsis as “cockroaches” ahead of the genocide in Rwanda – it contributes to a dehumanisation of people that makes them easier to kill (dehumanisation is a stage of genocide).
As professor Judith Butler puts it in the London Review of Books, “If the dominant frame considers some lives to be more grievable than others, then it follows that one set of losses is more horrifying than another set of losses. The question of whose lives are worth grieving is an integral part of the question of whose lives are worth valuing.”
We must face up to a difficult truth. Many Western media see Palestinian and Syrian lives as less important than Israeli and Ukrainian lives because they are subject to the legacies of colonial, white supremacist thinking.
The racist coverage of the war in Ukraine proves this point.
Western journalists presented European people “with blonde hair and blue eyes” being killed in Ukraine as worse than elsewhere. Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades,” one senior CBS foreign correspondent said live on air. “This is a relatively civilised, relatively European… city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
We in the media can do better than that. We owe it to the professional standards we committed to as journalists to stick to verified facts, provide the broader historical perspective that helps our audiences put news into context, avoid amplifying hate speech, and call out all abuses of power, regardless of who the aggressor is.
We have a responsibility to examine the assumptions – conscious or unconscious – that underpin our framing; to recognise how perpetuating dominant narratives upholds inequitable power dynamics; and to realise that the way we frame things has a real impact on people’s lives.
When we dehumanise people in a way that makes them less worthy of public sympathy and thus makes violence against them more acceptable, we have blood on our hands.
For more on how The New Humanitarian is trying to model forms of decolonised international journalism, see our strategy and this conversation between our CEO Heba Aly and Patrick Gathara, now our Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling. And stay tuned as we work towards a new global media ethics.