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'Brazen Attack on Media Freedom': Critics Blast Israel's Move to Ban Al Jazeera

"The move sends a chilling message that the Israeli authorities will not tolerate critical coverage."

Al Jazeera logo

The Israeli government has announced that is attempting to oust Qatar-backed Al Jazeera from the country by shuttering the new agency's Jerusalem office and revoking its jouranlists' press credentials. (Photo: Osama Saeed Bhutta/Flickr/cc)

As journalists and free press advocates continued to condemn the Israeli government's move to shutter Al Jazeera's Jerusalem office and revoke its journalists' press credentials, the media network responded early Monday, denouncing "this decision made by a state that claims to be 'the only democratic state in the Middle East.'"

"Israel plans to shutter Al Jazeera's office and block its broadcasts. That's a disturbing attempt to stifle criticism."
—Freedom of the Press Foundation

The decision "comes in the context of a campaign that was initiated by a statement made earlier by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he accused Al Jazeera of inciting violence during its coverage of the al-Aqsa Mosque," the Qatar-backed media network noted in a statement.

Less than two weeks after Netanyahu promised on Facebook to expel Al Jazeera from the country, Israeli communications minister Ayoub Kara announced at a Sunday news conference—from which Al Jazeera was banned—that "Israel would revoke the press credentials of Al Jazeera journalists, effectively preventing them from working in the country, in addition to shutting down their Jerusalem bureau and preventing their broadcasting on Israel's satellite networks," Haaretz reported

"I will go through the [legislatorial] mechanism to create the authority in which I can act freely. We will try to end it as quickly as possible," said Kara. "We have based our decision on the move by Sunni Arab states to close the Al Jazeera offices and prohibiting their work."

Responding to Kara's accusations, Al Jazeera said Monday that it "finds 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."

Kara also accused Al Jazeera of trying to "incite" violence—"which in the right wing Israeli lexicon means reporting news about how the Israelis are militarily occupying and gradually expropriating the Palestinians," Juan Cole wrote for Informed Comment.

Describing the buildup to this decision, Cole wrote:

Netanyahu is widely seen to be blaming Al Jazeera for his own poor judgment, inasmuch has he put metal detectors in the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, provoking demonstrations in Jerusalem and Jordan. Netanyahu was forced into a humiliating retreat, and the Israeli public thinks he should have had better sense in the first place.

As Common Dreams reported last month, Israeli forces clashed with thousands of Palestinians during protests against the al-Aqsa mosque's new security apparatus—and Israel's decision to ban Palestinian men under the age of 50 from Friday prayers—which were seen "as the latest example of Israeli authorities using Israeli-Palestinian violence and tensions as a means of furthering control over important sites in the occupied Palestinian territory."

"After protests and deadly unrest," Al Jazeera reported, Palestinians celebrated when the "newly installed railings, gates, and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted were removed from the entrance to the compound."

Prior to the deadly clashes, Netanyahu had reportedly ignored his intelligence agencies' suggestions to remove the security devices, in an effort to ease the tensions and prevent the protests. After the Israeli authorities removed the devices, Netanyahu wrote in Hebrew on his Facebook page: "The Al Jazeera network continues to incite violence around the Temple Mount," referring to the holy site.

"I have appealed several times to law enforcement authorities demanding the closure of the Al Jazeera Jerusalem office," Netanyahu added. "If this does not happen because of legal interpretation, I will work to legislate the required laws in order to remove Al Jazeera from Israel."

"Perhaps Al Jazeera is a convenient scapegoat for Netanyahu's failures and his increasing lack of popularity at home."
— Mark LeVine, professor

Like Cole, Mark LeVine, a University of California history professor, posited that "perhaps Al Jazeera is a convenient scapegoat for Netanyahu's failures and his increasing lack of popularity at home," and noted the decision could be tied to two corruption investigations of Netanyahu.

LeVine also warned of what the efforts to oust Al Jazeera could mean for the Israel's future plans, considering that "among mainstream or major media outlets, few have been as successful and focused on placing the realities of the occupation before the court of world opinion as Al Jazeera." As LeVine wrote for Al Jazeera English:

The attempt to shut it down now could be the result of a determination that its coverage is, in fact, seriously harming Israel's standing internationally, and, perhaps even more worryingly, that the government plans on engaging in actions in the near future—from another all-out assault on Gaza to the de facto or de jure annexation of significant territory in the West Bank—that it cannot afford to have covered in the critical manner that Al Jazeera would provide.

In its statement Monday, the network vowed that "Al Jazeera will continue to cover the events of the occupied Palestinian territories professionally and accurately, according to the standards set by international agencies."

Rights groups as well as journalists, from Al Jazeera and other outlets, condemned the Israeli government's decision.

Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, called the decision a "brazen attack on media freedom," and said: "The move sends a chilling message that the Israeli authorities will not tolerate critical coverage."

"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," said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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