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Challenges of reporting from Gaza: How inaccurate reports of a dead Irish aid worker went viral

Reports that an Irish person was killed in the World Central Kitchen strike were shared widely last week.

ISRAEL’S DEADLY ATTACK on a convoy of World Central Kitchen workers last week sparked fierce condemnation from the international community. 

Seven aid workers were killed by the IDF in what the army called a “grave mistake,” when three World Central Kitchen vans containing civilians and food supplies were fired upon. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, inaccurate reports emerged on social media that one of the workers who had been killed was an Irish citizen. 

The World Central Kitchen attack was estimated to have taken place on between 11.09pm and 11:13pm local time on 1 April. The timing of the strike, exacerbated by Gaza’s devastated media infrastructure, allowed these reports to proliferate, eventually being widely shared in Ireland.

Some of these early reports came from typically reputable sources, including Al Jazeera’s Israel-Palestine correspondent Hamdah Salhut. The reports were shared widely, seen millions of times on Twitter, and shared by some Irish elected officials, including Gary Gannon of the Soc Dems.

Asked by The Journal where he had originally seen the report of an Irish aid worker killed, Gannon provided a tweet by Ramy Abdu, chairman of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a nonprofit organisation whose board of trustees is chaired by Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University.

Abdu’s account has over 138,000 followers, and his tweet referring to a deceased Irish aid worker was heavily amplified. It has been seen 4.4 million times as of 10 April. 

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Abdu’s tweet, accompanied with photos credited to the Palestinian Press Agency, was published less than two hours after the strike, making Abdu one of the very first to publicly report that an Irish aid worker had been killed. Abdu’s original tweet mistakenly categorised the deceased as “UN employees,” something which Abdu clarified with a follow-up tweet.

Those killed in the Israeli air strike were: Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, Palestine (25), Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom, Australia (43), Damian Soból, Poland (35), Jacob Flickinger (33), USA-Canada, John Chapman, UK (57), James (Jim) Henderson, UK (33), and James Kirby, UK (47).

Reports of a killed Irish aid worker seemingly made it to the Irish social media ecosystem around the same time it was shared by Gannon, at 11.39pm Irish time, around an hour after Abdu first posted it.

At 11.41pm, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party tweeted: “Israel have just killed an Irish citizen working for the UN. 30,000 murdered Palestinians should have been reason enough. But immediate sanctions including expulsion of ambassador must be the reaction of government. And if Dáil needs to be recalled to sanction it then so be it.”

When it was later confirmed that no Irish citizen was among those killed, Ó Ríordáin followed up: “Those killed from the [World Central Kitchen] did not include an Irish citizen. But the substantial point remains – EU sanctions, an absolute Israeli boycott & the expulsion of the ambassador must happen now.”

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Gannon’s tweet, published at 11.39pm, read: “No life is worth more than another, we should have long since ceased diplomatic ties with Israel for the barbarism they’ve inflicted upon Gaza, but surely now, when an Irish Aid worker has been murdered by the IDF, we must now summon & expel their Ambassador to Ireland. Enough.” 

The first mainstream media account of an Irish aid worker among the deceased can appears to have been posted by the Twitter account of Hamdah Salhut, an Al Jazeera correspondent based in Israel and Palestine.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Salhut tweeted: “5 aid workers, including 4 foreigners, were killed in an Israeli air strike in Deir el-Balah. Among the foreign aid workers were Polish, Australian, Irish and UK passport holders. The humanitarians were working for World Central Kitchen.” Salhut did not respond to a request from The Journal for comment.

Another media organisation to publish the claim was the Quds News Network, a Palestinian news agency that has risen to prominence internationally due to its reporting from Gaza over the last several months.

The morning after the strike, the Quds News Network official account tweeted: “Israeli settler accounts on social media celebrate the Israeli army’s assassination of British, Canadian, US, Irish and Polish aid workers of the World Central Kitchen in Gaza.” The caption appeared alongside a screen-grab of a Telegram channel sharing photos from the attack.

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Much of the reaction has sought to highlight that the nationality of those killed has no bearing on the moral arguments against the Israeli strike. The manner in which the inaccurate reports spread is nevertheless instructive as to the difficulties facing those trying to get information out of Gaza. 

According to the latest report from the Centre to Protect Journalists, 95 journalists and media workers have been killed as part of the conflict.

In a statement issued in recent days, the organisation said: “CPJ is also investigating numerous unconfirmed reports of other journalists being killed, missing, detained, hurt, or threatened, and of damage to media offices and journalists’ homes.”

Irish journalist Hannah McCarthy, who has reported from Gaza as recently as January, explained that such a mix-up could occur for a multitude of reasons. Not least: the catastrophic emotional toll weighing on Palestinian reporters.

“They’re reporting on their own conflict,” McCarthy explains. “Sometimes journalists are reporting on their own friends and family having been killed. They’re dealing with everything the rest of the population is dealing with while trying to their job.”

As for the logistics of how such a report in error might be made, there are some plausible explanations. As McCarthy points out, British passport covers bear the title ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – a possible point of confusion for any media worker who may not be familiar with the geopolitics of Ireland and the UK. 

It is possible that on our part, however, that those watching from Ireland do not fully understand the constraints faced by Gaza’s media ecosystem. McCarthy points out the unusual nature of news being reported alongside photos of visibly dead bodies. In the case of the World Central Kitchen aid workers, their passports had been laid on their chests.

“Part of the reason Palestinians share these photos is the fear of not being believed,” McCarthy says, addressing the unique challenges faced by Palestinian reporters.

“When there’s more of a government apparatus, the spread of photos online can be shut down. If an Irish journalist went to a car crash and picked up a passport from someone who was just killed and went online and shared it, there would be pretty severe consequence. This is a different situation.”

When reporting on the death of an Irish citizen abroad, the convention within the Irish media is to confirm the person’s nationality with a family representative, an employer or a local authority in the jurisdiction in which they died.

In cases like the death of the aid workers last week, the latter option would have been near-impossible in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Generally, the Department of Foreign Affairs also confirms deaths of Irish citizens abroad, noting in such cases that ‘consular assistance’ is being provided to the family

“People probably had the very unpleasant experience of seeing a photo of their friend and waiting for it to be confirmed,” McCarthy says of the photos of the aid workers.

“There’s an urge to comment on stuff when it’s better to accept that someone needs to spend an hour, two hours, doing a preliminary search. Cross-checking stuff. That takes time,” McCarthy cautions.

“If stuff that intuitively would take time to cross-reference is coming out within minutes, it’s probably not 100% accurate.”