On August 6th, Israel’s Communication Minister Ayoob Kara announced his plans to withdraw the credentials of Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English journalists and close down its Jerusalem bureau. The Doha-based news channel has been active in Israel-Palestine since 1996, but has recently been accused of ‘incitement’ by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has threatened to shut down al Jazeera for several weeks now, particularly as a result of the channel’s reporting of recent protests over the al Aqsa mosque compound. However, by Monday 7th, the logistical implications of this decision remained unclear. The director of Israel’s government press offices, which approves press credentials to journalists, said it would not issue press cards if it was convinced that these would imperil state security.
In an official statement, Al Jazeera condemned Israel’s decision to close its Jerusalem bureau, stating that the move ‘undermines’ Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East and that it will take legal action. Al Jazeera challenged the claims of Israel’s Communication Minister, drawing attention to the fact that ‘during the press conference, the minister could not substantiate his comments by referring to a single news bulletin or situation that proved Al Jazeera had not been professional nor objective during its coverage in Jerusalem.’ The statement ends with the network’s commitment to ‘continue to cover the events of the occupied Palestinian territories professionally and accurately, according to the standards set by international agencies, such as the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom).’
Other rights groups and media organisations have publicly denounced Israel’s decision to shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in Jerusalem. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that Israel should relinquish its ‘undemocratic plans’ and allow Al Jazeera and all journalists to ‘report freely from the country and the areas it occupies’. CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator, Sherif Mansour, declared that ‘censoring al Jazeera or closing its offices will not bring stability to the region, but it would put Israel firmly in the camp of some of the region’s worst enemies of press freedom.’ The Association for Civil Rights in Israel denounced what it described as a ‘declaration of war’ by the Netanyahu and Kara. ‘This joins a series of steps taken by the government against freedom of expression and against anybody that criticises government policy’, ACRI reported. Gideon Levy, a journalist at Haaretz, said to al Jazeera: ‘I’m deeply ashamed, ashamed as an Israeli, as a journalist. I’m ashamed as a viewer of al Jazeera and a contributor to al Jazeera. I’m ashamed even as a human being.’
Members of the public took to social media to voice their fury at Israel’s decision, with Twitter users expressing their thoughts under two Arabic hashtags – ‘We Are All Al Jazeera’ and ‘Israel Shuts Down Al Jazeera Channel.’ Dima Sarsour, a political commentator, tweeted ‘Israel is shutting down free press so u won’t get to see its aggressions and colonial oppression live to your screens. #AlJazeera #Jerusalem.’ Others quickly pointed out that Al Jazeera has previously hosted Israeli government and military figures – the first Arabic news channel to do so.
In the wake of Kara’s statement, many journalists and political analysts have noted the stark irony of the situation: in seeking to shut down Al Jazeera, Israel is following a path paved by other Arab nations, namely those that are currently blockading Qatar – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt. Al Jazeera challenged thus criticised Kara’s claims, judging ‘the justifications made by the minister of communications as odd and biased as they are in unison with the actions carried out by a number of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan) that have closed the network’s bureaus, shut down its cable and satellite transmissions, and blocked its websites and applications.’
Levy highlighted the need to understand this recent decision not as an isolated incident, but within a far wider context of Israel’s move towards the right. Indeed, the issue might better be approached not primarily as a legal one, but a moral one – provoking questions about the nature of the Israeli state and its dangerous pattern of fighting against alternative narratives or voices (as we have seen in recent cases where supporters of the BDS movement have been denied entry into Israel). By citing the pretence of security in defence of every decision, the Israeli regime continues to legalise actions that draw worldwide condemnation: home demolitions, arrests without trial, and now the closing down of Al Jazeera’s network. Israel’s claim to be the Middle East’s sole democracy bears little weight as the country continues to attack one of the prime institutions of democracy: press freedom. The spaces left for ordinary citizens to express themselves openly and honestly, are decreasing – provoking one important question: if Al Jazeera is shut down today, who will be shut down next?
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