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Israel has often touted itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. So why is the government trying to revoke al-Jazeera’s press credentials and close its Jerusalem office?
Ayoob Kara, the minister of communications, announced on 6 August 2017 that he was taking a series of steps aimed at closing down the state-owned Qatari news outlet because it is used by militant groups to “incite” violence. He was referring to its interview with a Palestinian militant group, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses of encouraging unrest around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in July 2017.
The announcement came just weeks after Saudi Arabia led a Gulf blockade of Qatar and conditioned removal of sanctions on the closure of the broadcasting network.
Israel has long opposed al-Jazeera, claiming that it broadcasts biased coverage of conflicts and violence involving itself and the Palestinians Territories. ‘I’ve appealed to law enforcement agencies several times, demanding that al-Jazeera’s office in Jerusalem be closed. If this does not take place because of legal interpretation, I will work to enact the required legislation to expel al-Jazeera from Israel,’ Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post.
Press freedom advocates criticized the move, calling it a step towards censorship and the latest sign of deterioration in press freedom in the country. Uri Dromi, director of the Jerusalem Press Club, issued a press release stating the following:
‘The Jerusalem Press Club (JPC) views with concern the suggestion that the Israeli government should close down the al-Jazeera offices in Israel. There is a rule of law in Israel, and al-Jazeera, like all other media outlets, should abide by the law. Otherwise, such a move does not conform with Israel being a democracy that upholds the freedom of the press.’
He continued in a separate email to Fanack that ‘it is not fair for us to host International Freedom of the Press Conferences year after year and not speak up when our own country crosses the line.’
Dromi served as government spokesman under Yitzhak Rabin from 1992-96. “I took the press cards of journalists who violated censorship but never took action against media outlets whose reports I didn’t like. I used to argue, call the editor etc. but all in a free discourse, not by using the administrative powers I had. Persecuting media outlets which have not broken the law is wrong and it makes Israel seem aligned with the likes of Turkey or Russia,” he explained.
“Israel has been practising censorship under the guise of fighting terrorism for a long time,” said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Earlier this month, the Foreign Press Association filed a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court, claiming Israeli forces had restricted media access to East Jerusalem and verbally and physically harassed journalists.
Al-Jazeera responded in a statement that it would ‘take all necessary legal measures in case they [Israel] act on their threat’.
However, the ban may be nearly impossible to implement, since an amendment to the law must be made, which can only happen at the end of October 2017 when parliament reconvenes. It would then have to pass through government ministries and be approved by the attorney general, who would have to determine if such an amendment is legal and not an impediment to freedom of expression. Only then could such a bill go to a Knesset committee for further debate.
What’s more, most al-Jazeera viewers in Israel do not watch its broadcasts through national cable or satellite companies, but through private satellite dishes that receive hundreds of channels from Arab countries, over which Israeli authorities have no control.
In the meantime, Israel’s reputation as a democratic model in the region with freedom of speech for all is being tarnished.