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And the Prize for Photography Goes to ... Hamas?

In their quest for prestigious industry prizes, did the Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters, and other news organizations sidestep journalistic ethics?

Alison Leigh Cowan
May 02, 2024
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar kissing photojournalist Hassan Eslaiah, posted on Eslaiah's X account in 2020


Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar kissing photojournalist Hassan Eslaiah, posted on Eslaiah's X account in 2020


In March, the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, the oldest journalism school in the country, bestowed its “Team Picture Story of the Year” on the Associated Press for a collection of photos that gave a starring role to one of the wire service’s Gazan-based freelancers, Ali Mahmud. Kicking off the portfolio was the picture he took of the nearly naked body of Shani Louk, a young Israeli woman, face down in the bed of a truck. Her captors’ weapons are pointed skyward and off to the side—not in the direction of the photographer, who was close enough to catch the excited looks on their faces.

Sharing the award was Hatem Ali, another Gazan-based freelancer, whose touching image of a Palestinian boy with a bandaged head helped round out the 20 images in the AP’s entry. But other shots that Ali took earlier of the Oct. 7 atrocities, which were not part of the submission, raise serious ethical and legal issues starting with the abductions he witnessed of Yaffa Adar, an 85-year-old grandmother who rolled by in a golf cart, and Yarden Bibas, bleeding as he was led away to Gaza on a motorbike.

The feeds that the Associated Press and other leading media companies accepted from Mahmud, Ali, and other freelancers on Oct. 7 should have raised red flags from inception about how the photographers came to be there, whether their entry into Israel was lawful, and how they made their way through the carnage in close proximity to Hamas terrorists.

Apparently, holding out for impartial freelancers in a place like Gaza, where admiration of contentious figures like Hitler is widely expressed, may be too high a bar for the Western press to satisfy.

Yet, not once during the competition’s 86 minutes of deliberations, conducted over Zoom on Feb. 20, did any of the judges—Pinar Istek of the Chicago Tribune; Anita Baca of the Associated Press; David Guzman of The Dallas Morning News and Joe Cavaretta of the South Florida Sun Sentinel—express any ethical peep about the photos they were shown or curiosity about how Louk’s photo was obtained. No one asked whether the photographer wore a press vest that identifies wearers as members of the Fourth Estate, or how he came to have access to such brutal scenes without falling prey himself.

Baca recused herself from any discussion of the AP’s entry because she works there, (though she did not feel constrained by her recusal to refrain from criticizing other portfolios when they were reviewed). All three of the remaining panelists then voted unanimously to award first prize to the AP. Their appreciative assessment makes clear just how much the Louk photo clinched the deal.

That decision has generated much outrage, visible in the petition circulating on demanding that the award be rescinded. It now has 162,000 signatures and hundreds of caustic comments leveled at the media.

“This is the kind of picture the world needs to see,” Mike Petchenik, an alumnus of the journalism school at Missouri, who spent 22 years in television news, acknowledged in an interview. “I still question singling out the person who took it as some kind of hero.”

Since then, administrators of the award have quietly removed the announcement they had on Instagram congratulating the AP for its win. “While we understand the reactions to the pictures,” they wrote in a statement they are releasing only to those who request it, “we also believe that photojournalism plays an important role in bringing attention to the harsh realities of war.”

“By that logic,’’ Petchenik countered, “the Hamas fighters who strapped GoPros on their heads to document what they did should win the Peabody, because they were gathering information to disseminate to the world, too. It’s no different.”

Springtime is prize season for journalists, a time for reflection and self-congratulation. This year, some of the biggest plums have gone to Gazan photographers who followed Hamas into Israel and captured the terror organization’s atrocities in real time. That spectacle is likely to be repeated next week when the Pulitzers are announced on Monday. The true winner is Hamas, who orchestrated the documentation and amplification of its terrorist conquest in the media.

News organizations reject any notion of complicity. They insist that what their freelancers did on Oct. 7, often at great peril, was no different than what war correspondents have done throughout time in the grand tradition of industry giants such as Robert Capa, James Nachtway and Nick Ut.

The problem, however, is not merely one of misjudgment or negligence in vetting the sympathies or sidelines of freelancers. As the case of the al-Jalaa tower—the building which AP shared with Hamas for 15 years, and which the IDF destroyed in the last war in 2021—revealed, the issue is the broader questionable arrangements Western news organizations operating under terror regimes often make.

It is one thing if stressed-out photo editors, struggling to find boots on the ground to document breaking news, find themselves in bed with dodgy characters, who celebrate the atrocities they memorialize with their cameras. It is quite another to pretend that decisions made months later to nominate people for awards, lionizing them for their supposed bravery and heroism, have anything to do with covering a war or the need to keep readers informed—and isn’t, instead, a cynical use of ill-gotten gains in order to score prizes.

At many shops, the prize machine springs into action in December, when editors are mulling which work to nominate for awards. Work that catches management’s eye often appears in flattering compilations of the year’s best photos. Making the cut can burnish the credentials of contributors, especially when they are freelancers or unknowns.

Two photos that Reuters’ Gazan-based freelancer, Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa, brought back from Israel on Oct. 7 were selected for just this privilege. They appeared in The New York Times’ 2023 “Pictures of the Year” compilation and in several retrospectives Reuters culled from 1.3 million photographs it ran last year.

The Times took the tamer of Fayq’s two images, showing the symbolic moment a yellow earthmover pierced the border fence separating Israel and Gaza, a photo it had also honored by featuring it the day after the attack on the front page of its print edition—above the fold. For its round-ups, Reuters favored a more graphic shot that Fayq took of a lynched Israeli soldier encircled by a mob.

The roughly 100 prize-worthy images the Timesshowcased were pitched to readers as a “tribute to the brave photographers who scrambled into harm’s way to capture them.”

The Times has yet to acknowledge, however, the findings of a bombshell report that came out three weeks after the paper placed that feather in Fayq’s cap. The report, from media watchdog group HonestReporting, offered videotaped evidence that Fayq appeared on Instagram Live upon his return to Gaza from Israel on Oct. 7 and regaled viewers with 16 seconds of footage he took of the lynched soldier and his own chuckling account in Arabic of going into Sderot together with attackers who dragged three Israelis out of their safe room but “left the dog.”

He then exhorted all those watching to take advantage of this “one-time” opportunity to go into Israel and return with plunder, everything from Jeeps and motorbikes to soldiers and “settler women,” adding that “perhaps, I saw at least 50 female settlers that young people were taking.” The video can be viewed here with English subtitles.

Excerpts show Fayq ghoulishly goading Gazans to enter Israel to participate in the pogrom: “You can go … park your motorbike there … you will return back with a Jeep, motorbike or bicycle or anything,” he says in the video. “Whoever can go, go. It is a one-time event that will not happen again.”

While Reuters quickly declared the freelancer’s conduct “unacceptable,’’ the Times has refused to issue a response of any kind. Multiple requests for comment about the matter, made in writing in the weeks since April 5, have gone unaddressed by the Times, and both organizations continue to present Fayq’s work in their compilations and prize submissions as the work of a legitimate journalist.

Things get sticky, of course, when stalwarts of the Western press need extra hands to cover wars, and no one has the time or inclination to vet the volunteers. Even that does not explain how the AP ended up partnering for so long with Hassan Eslaiah, a freelance photographer who has hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram. Up before dawn on Oct. 7, his unparalleled, real-time access to gruesome scenes inside Israel—including the torching of homes inside a kibbutz and video of Israeli children shrieking, “Mommy, mommy, there are terrorists outside!”—was partly explained in November when an Israeli journalist unearthed a 2020 photo of Eslaiah happily getting kissed by Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind behind the Oct. 7 attack.

Once that kiss became public, the AP cut ties with Eslaiah, whom it described as an “occasional” freelancer. Never mind that he had also been flagged for his affiliation with a Hamas-owned television station and antisemitic rants on social media that the AP was apprised of some years ago by at least one watchdog group that published its concerns.

Two still-unfolding lawsuits, brought by victims of the attacks and their families, mention Eslaiah along with some of the characters now winning prizes but do not name them as defendants.

One federal complaint, filed in Miami on Feb. 21 under U.S. anti-terrorism statutes, seeks to hold the Associated Press responsible for freelancers it brought aboard without sufficient checking to make sure that they were not helping entities like Hamas, a recognized foreign terrorist organization that Americans are barred from funding or supporting. The second case, brought a few days later in Jerusalem district court, seeks damages from both the AP and Reuters.

News organizations have yet to answer the charges in court, but have reacted indignantly to all probes. Carefully written statements they have issued these last few months to members of Congress and others absolving their news “staff” of any wrongdoing on Oct. 7 sidestep the fact that freelancers are not considered formal members of the staff so much as piece-workers who come and go. The companies also make a big show of verifying the “accuracy” or “authenticity” of materials they are given, but remain silent in their statements on what they do to vet contributors or gauge their impartiality.

In that vein, when reached for comment a Reuters spokesperson sent the following statement on April 30: “As part of our newsgathering, we occasionally pick up newsworthy images from those who witness or report on events unfolding on the ground when we verify that those images accurately reflect the events depicted.

Our approach to vetting material supplied by individuals outside our newsroom is consistent with industry practice.

Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa is not a Reuters journalist. He is a photographer from whom we occasionally acquired images in October and November 2023 and we have not used his photos since.”

Apparently, holding out for impartial freelancers in a place like Gaza, where admiration of contentious figures like Hitler is widely expressed, may be too high a bar for the Western press to satisfy. How else to explain the reluctance of The New York Times to part ways with Soliman Anees Hijjy, a Gazan freelancer who helped it nab a much-coveted Peabody and other goodies in 2022? The paper distanced itself from Hijjy once his worshipful social media posts about Hitler came to light—only to bring him back in October to help photograph the war in Gaza.

Similar issues surround Yousef Masoud, a freelance photographer now helping The New York Times land big prizes for its coverage of Gaza. Masoud has a post on his Facebook page, there since March 22, 2013, on or around his 21st birthday, ostensibly citing Hitler. Translated from Arabic it reads: “Hitler said, give me a Palestinian soldier and a German weapon, and I will make Europe crawl on its fingertips.”

Asked about the post on April 5, shortly after I spotted it, Meaghan Looram, the paper’s director of photography, referred all questions to a Times spokeswoman. She eventually replied 11 days later that “editors were not previously aware of’’ the Facebook post and “may have more to say on it soon.” A follow-up query sent on April 19 prompted the reply that the paper would be “in touch if we have any updates.”

Like Hijjy, Masoud has proven to be a valuable asset for the paper. A man of talent, he was freelancing for the AP on Oct. 7, as he has for years, when he crossed into Israel illegally through a breach in the fence with two cameras he typically uses and photographed the jubilant scene around a still-smoldering tank for about an hour.

The Timesmuch vaunted ethics code plainly states that staff “may not commit illegal acts of any sort” in pursuit of the news. Nonetheless, the Times looked away from its own standards when it brought Masoud aboard shortly after Oct. 7, knowing, as it must have, from his very photographs, that he entered Israel illegally to take them. “He has since done important work for us,” the Times acknowledged in a statement it released about Masoud last fall in English and Hebrew. More recently, Looram, the paper’s top photo editor, praised his work as “fearless and compassionate.”

Masoud’s body of work inside Gaza has helped the Times bring home two highly prestigious Polk awards—often seen as a precursor to Pulitzers. He shared one Polk for “Photojournalism” with another Gazan-based freelancer, whose work has appeared in the Times since 2021. Both winners can also take credit for photos they took that are sprinkled throughout the scoops that won the paper’s staff a second Polk for “Foreign Reporting,” (along with photos that Mohammed Fayq provided Reuters and Hatem Ali gave the AP).

The photos Masoud took on Oct. 7 for his former client remain a touchy subject. Times’ representatives assert there is no evidence that he was embedded with Hamas on Oct. 7 or “complicit in the attack.”

Despite some initial indications to the contrary from a timestamp that the AP now blames on a glitch, the Times is comfortable from the review it undertook in November of the metadata that Masoud was still at home as of 7 a.m., half an hour after the rocket-fire began, and only entered Israel sometime after 8:15 a.m., according to its spokespeople. That greatly discounts the possibility that he was tipped off that the attack was happening that morning. The paper declined to say whether he wore a press vest.

Seeking to distinguish him from others out and about that day, the Times also maintains that he did not linger much inside Israel or photograph any “abductees or acts of brutality,” as it told one of its own reporters in November.

That has not erased all concerns, however, as evidenced by conversations that took place behind the scenes before winners of the Polk were confirmed in February. John Darnton, a former Times man and foreign correspondent who is now the curator of the Polk awards at Long Island University, checked in at the Times about Masoud before announcing the judges’ pick, a practice he told me in an interview he follows whenever there are questions in the air.

“The Times is able to provide a timeline account of his whole morning,’’ Darnton reported. He said he might feel differently had Masoud been tipped off ahead of time, but absent that, he said he came away persuaded that any swipes directed at Masoud were unwarranted.

That has not assuaged Israeli officials who view any breach of their borders as a serious matter. After Masoud won the award, the Israeli Consulate in New York expressed some of that dismay in writing to the Polk Award selection committee, that a respected prize was going to someone “whose work is deeply tainted.” As had happened several times before when the paper’s handling of Oct. 7 coverage had been questioned, the moment the challenge made the news in Israel, Patrick Kingsley, the Times’ bureau chief in Jerusalem, swung into action with angry phone calls to critics, followed by letters from the company’s legal department.

Swiftly, a letter responding to the Office of the Consulate General of Israel arrived from David McCraw, the deputy general counsel of the Times, and was posted for good measure on the paper’s website. “These attacks on Mr. Masoud are an attack not just on The New York Times but on photojournalists who are doing essential work in conflict areas,’’ it asserted. “They put their lives at risk daily working under conditions that often require them to rush into danger to bear witness and document important events.’’ The letter closed with a stern warning, invoked in prior letters, that critics were endangering the lives of journalists with their unsupported allegations.

On Sunday, Kingsley referred all requests for comment about his own heavy-handed conduct to company spokespeople. The statement from the company that followed claimed that it is “entirely appropriate and proper” for a senior correspondent to contact officials and newsmakers to ensure “they have the facts”—and, one gathers, the Times has the Pulitzer.

Alison Leigh Cowan is a reporter and editor, formerly with The New York Times, living in Connecticut.