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How the Murders of Journalists in the Middle East Are Brushed Aside

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

It’s encouraging to hear that Agnes Callamard, the UN’s execution expert, is at last in Istanbul to lead the “independent international inquiry” into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Better late than never, perhaps, but the old UN donkey clip-clops upon the world stage according to the politics and courage of the panjandrums beside the East River in New York.

Thus Callamard arrived all of four months after Khashoggi was butchered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. And she is now politely asking the Saudis themselves – “respectfully”, she tells us – to give her access to the murder scene “at some stage”.

As we all know, Khashoggi wrote the truth about Saudi Arabia, was lured to his country’s consulate in Istanbul, got strangled, chopped up and secretly buried. And if we’re going to come down hard on those who kill members of our journalistic profession – alas, we’ll have to put aside for the moment all those Turkish journos banged up in their own country – Callamard has made a start. As opposed to all those like the boss of the Morgan Stanley investment bank, James Gorman, and the president of Switzerland, Ueli Maurer, who are keen to get back to business with Saudi Arabia. 

“We have long since dealt with the Khashoggi case”, Maurer has announced. Common sense, I suppose. But then there’s very little chance that Gorman or Maurer will be lured to a Saudi embassy, strangled, sawed into bits and dumped in an unknown grave.

But that’s not quite my point. What I’m really asking is why the killing of one Arab journalist is more equal than the killing of other Arab journalists? Why, for example, is the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a friend and colleague of many of us, of infinitely more pressing importance than the fate of Yaser Murtaja?

The first clue is that Yaser Murtaja was killed in Gaza. The second is that he is one of 15 reporters or camera crew, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, killed by Israeli fire since 1992, two of them last year. Shooting at reporters in Gaza has become so routine – four more were wounded by Israeli bullets between May and September 2018 – that western newspapers and television scarcely bother to record their suffering. 

Just as the Saudis talked of Khashoggi’s links with “terrorism” – they meant the Muslim Brotherhood – so Israel talked of the dead Gaza journalist’s imaginary links with “terrorism”. In Yaser Murtaja’s case, this was supposed to be Hamas – which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood for whom Khashoggi worked in the never-never land of Saudi imagination. 

Forget for a moment that there is no more proof that Murtaja was ever a Hamas agent than there is that Khashoggi was in the Brotherhood; the former’s production company, according to the Associated Press, had recently won a grant from USAID after vetting by the US government. Murtaja was wearing a flak jacket marked “Press” when he was shot on 6 April 2018, 300 feet from the Gaza/Israel border during the weekly Palestinian “Great March of Return”. Nine other Palestinians were killed the same day and 491 wounded by live rounds, steel-coated rubber bullets and tear gas grenades.

Murtaja was filming among many Palestinians, with black smoke swirling in the air. But a sniper hit him below the arm – where there is a fatal gap in all flak jackets – and he fell as he shouted to a colleague: “I’m wounded. I’m wounded. My stomach.” Flak jackets are regularly worn by many western correspondents in the Middle East – far too often, critics say, when they are far from the scene of battle. But Murtaja was no poseur. 

Khashoggi was writing a regular column for The Washington Post. Murtaja, who uniquely used a drone during his reporting for the Ain Media Production Company, contributed reports to the BBC and Al Jazeera. The Hamas leader turned up for Murtaja’s funeral, but Murtaja was one of Gaza’s best-known journalists – and Ismail Haniyeh should have been there. And at least Murtaja got a funeral – which is more than we can say for Khashoggi. 

Four years earlier, Murtaja was beaten by Hamas thugs for refusing to surrender news film to them, and there was no evidence he ever worked for or with Hamas. Even if these lies were true, it’s well known that for many years before he sought exile in the US, Khashoggi had been a supporter of the head-chopping Saudi regime – a fact we didn’t worry much about when we condemned his killing.

But a UN enquiry in Turkey to enquire about the nefarious deeds of its current antagonist, Saudi Arabia, is a far cry from a full UN investigation in Gaza into the killing of Palestinian journalists already slandered by Israel and its propaganda folk as “terrorist” supporters. 

After the report and recantation of UN envoy Richard Goldstone into the 2008-2009 Gaza war – for which read, slaughter – and his trashing by Israel and its friends as an antisemitic, “evil” and “quisling” enemy of truth (even though he was Jewish), I doubt if Agnes Callamard would fancy a trip to enquire into Yaser Murtaja’s demise. And nor, after the Goldstone fiasco, would the UN folk beside the East River have much appetite for taking on Israel yet again.

In fairness, the UN did note Murtaja’s death, and its human rights staff keep a sharp tally of the deaths of civilians, medical workers and journalists in the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. But there’s a habit of all governments to promise investigations after each outrage committed by its servants – and it’s a question of whether these pledges count for anything more than a time-and-forget drug. 

According to Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, Israel deploys a very aggressive “silencing campaign” against any criticism of the occupation of Palestinian land. First, it announces that enquiries will take place. “But 97 per cent of the time, no investigation will be opened – or an investigation will be opened but no one will be charged.” International opinion is then mollified by news of the “investigation”. 

The Palestinian Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza – which is “respected”, as journalists like to say of NGOs they can trust – has gone to the Israeli High Court over the deaths of civilians, aid workers and journalists. “Killing journalists is a violation of human rights and international law,” Al-Mezan’s communications director Mahmoud Abu Rahma repeated again and again when I spoke to him. “Yaser Murtaja was a person whom everyone knew. He didn’t have a Hamas connection. There was an outcry, if not as much as for Khashoggi. And there was a strong reaction by international bodies.”

But – and here’s the rub – Abu Rahma, like many others, regards these investigations as “rubbish”, albeit promoted in a sophisticated way. “Israeli investigations are no better than Saudi investigations,” he says. “Action is necessary for Khashoggi – but also for Murtaja and others who were clearly marked as journalists, who could be clearly seen by [Israeli] snipers. And the Israelis announced that they would ‘investigate’.”

Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent MindsAnd after Murtaja was shot, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote to Benjamin Netanyahu to demand that the Israeli prime minister “ensure that the shooting of journalists covering demonstrations in the Gaza Strip is quickly and thoroughly investigated”. The Israelis, the CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon wrote, appointed a brigadier general to investigate the army’s reaction to Palestinian protestors – and in particular the killing of Yaser Murtaja – so the “investigation” must be made public.

The world awaits Netanyahu’s reply. We all wait for the results of that “investigation” – once the Israeli brigadier general has reached his onerous conclusions. Just as we wait with utter confidence for the results of the extraordinarily fair and thorough “investigation” by the Saudis into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, an enquiry ordered by the same Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman whom the CIA believes ordered his murder in the first place.

Unfortunately, “investigation” in the Middle East means obfuscation. It’s like the sign they leave on your hotel room handle when you wish to sleep. Do not disturb. Silence. And when you wake up, with luck, the nightmares will all have been forgotten.

 

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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