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Israel's growing media censorship of the Gaza war

Israel's growing media censorship of the Gaza war
7 min read
29 May, 2024
In-depth: There are mounting concerns about how the so-called 'Al Jazeera law' could be used to ban any foreign media operating in Israel amid its brutal war.

Last week, the Israeli government returned broadcasting equipment it had seized from the Associated Press (AP) on the border of the Gaza Strip, where a live feed had been showing footage of Israel’s war on the besieged territory.

The Israeli government acted against the news agency after accusing it of violating a new media law by providing images to Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera.

“The shutdown was not based on the content of the feed but rather an abusive use by the Israeli government of the country’s new foreign broadcaster law,” an AP statement said.

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The agency stressed that it had complied with Israel’s military censorship rules prohibiting broadcasts of details like troop movements that could endanger soldiers.

The Israeli communications minister later cancelled the confiscation order following sustained criticism from the Biden administration and international journalism organisations.

Israel's repressive media law

Despite the equipment being returned, the incident raised fears among foreign broadcasting bodies operating in Israel about the possibility of being targeted for allegedly harming the country’s security under the restrictive new media bill.

At the start of April, the Israeli parliament passed a sweeping law allowing senior government officials to temporarily shut down foreign news organisations in Israeli territory perceived as a threat to national security for 45 days at a time, which could be renewed.

The new bill will stay in force until July, the end of the declaration of a special situation on the home front, or until the end of significant military operations in Gaza.

Earlier this month, Israeli authorities used the law to close Al Jazeera’s offices, confiscating its equipment, blocking its websites, and banning its broadcasts. The closure was the first time Israeli MPs had voted to unilaterally shut the operations of a foreign media entity in the country.

“It’s very clear that they’re trying to eliminate critical voices of news networks that are able to report on how the conflict is unfolding,” Inge Snip, who leads the newsroom of The Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), told The New Arab.

Denying international media the ability to operate freely in Israel poses a “danger” to informational integrity. “If an information vacuum is being created now, this violates the right of people within and outside Israel to know what’s happening,” the senior editor pointed out, adding that the right to information is already being harmed since Israel does not grant any foreign press independent access to Gaza.

The new legislation is widely referred to as the ‘Al Jazeera Law’ since it was fundamentally designed to prevent the Qatari news network from broadcasting from Israel. Al Jazeera, which was perceived in Israel as hostile even before the war, is one of the very few international broadcasters providing extensive reporting of the brutal military offensive in Gaza.

During the war, several Al Jazeera reporters, along with their family members, have been killed by Israeli bombardments, according to the broadcaster. Hamza Al Dahdouh, a journalist and camera operator for Al-Jazeera, who was also the eldest son of Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael Dahdouh, was killed by an Israeli strike in Rafah in early January.

More than three-quarters of journalists and media workers killed worldwide in 2023 died in Gaza. [Getty]

Wael Dahdouh previously lost his wife, son, daughter, grandson and at least eight other relatives in airstrikes in the Nuseirat refugee camp on 25 October. Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abudaqa, meanwhile, was killed in an Israeli drone attack in Khan Younis on 15 December.

Earlier in 2022, renowned Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead while she was covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank town of Jenin.

“On the face of it, it’s all very concerning. The law allows to outlaw foreign media with a very broad definition of them harming national security,” Haggai Matar, an Israeli journalist, and the executive director of +972 Magazine, told TNA. “There are endless possibilities there,” he continued, warning about a sweeping interpretation of harm to Israel’s security that may include posing risks to the country’s reputation abroad or harming its foreign relations.

Snip argued that Israel’s order to cut the AP live feed from Gaza reveals the extent to which the country’s authorities can go in deciding what is deemed to threaten national security. “The AP incident shows the leeway this law gives to Israeli government officials in squashing dissenting voices,” the CFWIJ newsroom’s head said.

Curtailing coverage of Gaza

Media groups have expressed concerns about the law’s implications for the free press in the country and international media coverage of the war in Gaza.

“We’ve seen under this government a trend in attempts to curtail press freedom, a really significant spike in how much the military censorship is intervening,” +972 Magazine’s director commented. In 2023, the Israeli military censor barred the publication of 613 articles by media outlets in Israel, based on data collected by the magazine, the highest number of articles banned by the censor in over a decade. It also redacted parts of another 2,703 articles last year.

The passage of the media law, with the major constraints it entails to the journalistic work of news outlets like Al Jazeera and AP, comes nearly eight months into the ongoing war in Gaza amid Israel’s near-total ban on international journalists from reporting from the besieged enclave, further undermining the freedom of press in an already restrictive media environment.

It also comes after the Israeli security cabinet in November approved a decision to block Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV in Israel.

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That same month, the Israeli Knesset adopted an amendment to the country’s counterterrorism law introducing a new criminal offence called the “consumption of terrorist materials”. The bill has raised fears among human rights groups as its broad terms could be potentially used to go after journalists relying on information from sources designated as “terrorist” by Israel.

In Matar’s view, the newly adopted foreign broadcaster law should be interpreted as a way for Netanyahu’s government to “appease” its right-wing base by showing it is going after critical media outlets, especially Al Jazeera.  On the other hand, it is also motivated by the government’s preoccupation with “controlling” news that the Israeli public can access about the war in Gaza.

The journalist, who’s also a board member of the Union of Journalists in Israel, thinks Israel’s “continuous refusal” to permit international media entry into Gaza, along with its effort to “discredit” the work of Palestinian journalists, clearly affect coverage of the war.

While the Israeli government has moved to implement a shutdown order on foreign media networks, Palestinian journalists, including those working for the few international news agencies still operating inside Gaza, are being killed by Israel at a record rate.

An estimated 107 reporters and media workers have been killed by Israel in Gaza since the war began. [Getty]

An estimated 107 reporters and media workers have been killed since the war began, according to the most recent count by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - making it the deadliest period for journalists since CPJ began gathering data in 1992.

While journalists in Gaza are at particularly high risk as they try to cover the conflict during Israeli military operations, Palestinian journalists in the occupied West Bank have also suffered systematic harassment by the Israeli army since the Gaza war began.

Palestinian reporters continue to be arrested, often without charge. The International Federation of Journalists says 76 Palestinian journalists or media workers have been detained by Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank and Gaza since the war began, with 50 still in prison.

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In addition, numerous incidents of journalists being assaulted, threatened, and intimidated have been reported in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) amid unprecedented censorship.

CFWIJ’s editor noted that for decades Israeli authorities, under military law, have arrested and held Palestinian journalists in indefinite detention, often without charge or trial.

But the level of censorship and repression of the media, both Palestinian, international, and, in the future, potentially Israeli, not only serves to hide the horrors of the Gaza war. It also sets a worrying precedent for the future of civil and political liberties.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec