Agence France-Presse (AFP)’s Global News Director Phil Chetwynd hit the headlines this month, not only when he took the bold step of being one of the first news agencies to issue a kill notice against the manipulated image of the Princess of Wales with her children, but also in explaining why – and declaring that the Palace was no longer a trusted source.

The ensuing media furore over the Kensington Palace pictures somewhat overshadowed his more critical interventions about the plight of journalists in Gaza, and the imperative for international support 

With three big global news events in recent years, how does the challenge of covering the Gaza war stack up against covering the ongoing Ukraine war,  which AFP has been covering, on the ground, “every single day for the past two years, often at great personal cost?”

Chetwynd spoke to the World Editors Forum about the challenges of managing journalists at risk.

See: Two years of war in Ukraine – then and now

You’ve described the conflict in Gaza as the ‘hardest coverage’ you’ve managed, ‘in 20 years of managing big coverages,’ including the Ukraine war – why?

Gaza is obviously slightly different to Ukraine, because one major power is squaring off against an organisation which is really hidden in the population, and hidden underground. And the media in Gaza is mixed in with the population, and facing the same threats as the population.

‘The difficulty with Gaza is that there’s simply nowhere to go. You can escape Ukraine; you can just leave the front if you choose not to cover it or you deem it has become too dangerous. But our teams and journalists in Gaza can’t do this. There is also an acceptance of a high level of civilian casualties from the Israeli side that clearly puts our staff in danger. So they’re two very different scenarios.’

The war in Ukraine has been a constant evolution of different threats that notably come from the use of drones, and the fact that journalists and anybody at the front can be clearly targeted. But the danger is not just at the front: you can be spied on and targeted by drones and artillery even if you are 20 kilometres from any front line.

This is a totally different type of war to what we have covered in the past; a digital war which reflects changing technology.

How do you respond to the allegation that Israel appears to be targeting Palestinian journalists?

It’s hard to know exactly what Israel feels about journalists working in Gaza. I think there is a tremendous trauma in Israel around the appalling attacks of October 7, which I totally understand, and which, therefore, puts a lot of people in their eyes under suspicion. 

‘My sense is that there’s a campaign of dehumanisation of Palestinian journalists and it is very hard for them to defend themselves.’ 

They are accused of not being impartial or having links to Hamas. But at the same time, Israel will not allow the international media into the Gaza Strip to work alongside their Palestinian colleagues to bring support and validate their work.

In previous Gaza conflicts our Gaza team has been supported by colleagues from Jerusalem and other parts of the AFP network.

It would certainly be harder to attack their work if international colleagues were on the ground as well and witnessing the same things.

The number of journalists killed in the current Middle East conflict is shocking, unacceptable. And there is certainly evidence some were targeted. A series of reports into the killing of a Reuters colleague and the serious wounding of two AFP colleagues in South Lebanon on October 13 points to a high degree of targeting.

It is rare to have this level of evidence. For many of the cases in Gaza we simply do not have this level of information.

This picture taken on November 3, 2023 shows a gaping hole following a strike on the Hajji building, which houses several offices including those of Agence France-Presse (AFP) news bureau in Gaza City. Bashar Taleb / AFP

What do you make of allegations that some Palestinian journalists  have links to Hamas, and even embedded with the organisation…?

’I can’t speak for every organisation; I can only speak for my AFP colleagues and declare that it is absolute rubbish. There is a very deliberate smear campaign underway to undermine all the reporting that is done in Gaza. The “embedded” allegation has now been withdrawn by the pressure group that raised it, but of course, the damage is done.”

Our team in Gaza has always worked hand in hand with our Jerusalem bureau; all the content from Gaza flows through our Jerusalem team. We do not pretend that our journalists in Gaza are totally free to report everything on the ground in Gaza, but we are able to use the network outside Gaza to address more sensitive issues around Hamas and its governance of Gaza. 

‘We have journalists in many countries around the world working under authoritarian governments with varying degrees of restrictions. They all have to know how to tread the line. In this sense, there’s nothing exceptional about having journalists in Gaza. There are limits to what they can report, but there remains a great deal they can report.’

Also Read: Death, exhaustion and suspicion: AFP journalists on the horrors of Gaza
And: View from Palestine: Warped lives and journalism

How does ALL of this impact actual reporting and coverage – and our understanding of it?

These unsubstantiated allegations put tremendous pressure on our people. Of course they feel as if they are put in a position where the onus is on them to prove something that they’re not. It’s one thing defending yourself against a concrete allegation – but how do you provide proof about the way you are alleged to think?

Many journalists are accused of having links to Hamas. But the whole territory has been governed by Hamas for the past two decades. The job of journalists in Gaza is to report on the territory. And so of course your work will bring you into contact with Hamas officials and leaders. You will attend government press conferences and there will be pictures of you with Hamas officials. But what does that prove? You are simply doing your job.

Again, I would stress, I am talking about our AFP staff who work according to the rules of an international news agency. This blanket questioning and attacking their work puts them in danger.

Palestinian journalists attempt to connect to the internet using their phones in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip on December 27, 2023. Said Khatib / AFP

What would you want the world to know about journalists in Gaza now?

The most important thing to bear in mind is that all of our AFP staff have lost friends, family members and colleagues in this war. Several members of our team have each lost more than 20 members of their extended family. And nearly all of them have seen their homes destroyed. The AFP office, a second home for many of our staff and a place of refuge, has also been almost totally destroyed by a strike.

‘I think they are managing to report because they didn’t have time to stop and reflect on the enormity of what has happened to them. I think if they did, they would probably collapse.’

Phil Chetwynd will be discussing ‘Newsrooms’ Existential Challenges’ with Maria A. Ressa, Co-Founder & CEO, Rappler in The Philippines and Jennifer Wilton, Editor in Chief of Die Welt in Germany, at the World News Media Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, end May. 

Also Read: Israël – Hamas: steady under fire

About Phil Chetwynd

After starting out in British regional newspapers, Chetwynd began his career at AFP as a correspondent in the Middle East and Asia before going on to hold some of the top editorial jobs at the agency, including chief Asia editor and global editor-in-chief.

As AFP’s Global News Director he leads the agency’s 1,700 journalists based in some 150 countries. He is responsible for implementing the agency’s visual-first multimedia strategy and driving the digital transformation of the company.

He has been instrumental in AFPTV’s emergence over the past decade as a major force in the video and TV news industry and he has built AFP’s position as one of the leading media voices in the battle against disinformation.

Under his leadership the agency has shown an unshakeable commitment to putting journalists on the ground, often in challenging locations where other media have pulled back, and telling human-led stories.
He sits on the board of First Draft News and Reporters Without Borders, and is a member of the World Editors Forum. 

Listen: (Podcast) Are journalists being targeted in Gaza?

Also Read: Faces of tragedy: the journalists killed in the Israel-Gaza war

AFP staff showed their support for their colleagues in Gaza, January 2024.

The post In the line of fire: Phil Chetwynd on Gaza’s journalists appeared first on WAN-IFRA.