By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Committee to Protect Journalists on Sunday condemned the Israeli cabinet’s decision to ban the Al Jazeera news network in Israel. The network’s office was closed and its equipment was confiscated. Israeli cable channels were forced to delete Al Jazeera from their offerings, and even its website has been blocked for Israeli residents. Since Israeli news channels do not show the effects of the government’s total war on Gaza civilians, the Qatar-based channel had been one of the few sources of comprehensive coverage of the Gaza campaign for those Israelis who know English or Arabic.

On April 1, the Israeli parliament, dominated by the country’s far right parties, passed a law permitting the government to halt the broadcast of foreign channels in Israel “if the content is deemed to be a threat to the country’s security during the ongoing war.” Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi called Al Jazeera an “incitement channel” and a “mouthpiece of Hamas.” It was a ridiculous charge for anyone who actually watches the live stream of Al Jazeera English.

Carlos Martinez de la Serna, the New York-based director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “CPJ condemns the closure of Al-Jazeera’s office in Israel and the blocking of the channel’s websites. This move sets an extremely alarming precedent for restricting international media outlets working in Israel. The Israeli cabinet must allow Al-Jazeera and all international media outlets to operate freely in Israel, especially during wartime.”

The Israeli military has killed some 140 journalists in Gaza. Since it has sophisticated drone surveillance and facial recognition programs and other forms of electronic surveillance, Al Jazeera reports that some of the surviving journalists are convinced that their vehicles and convoys were deliberately targeted despite being clearly identified as “press.”

One of the corruption cases being pursued in Israeli courts against Netanyahu has to do with his pressuring an Israeli newspaper to give him favorable coverage by threatening that otherwise the late casino mogul Sheldon Adelson would flood the market with free newspapers, hurting the profits of Yedioth Ahronoth.

The following video clip won’t be seen by my readers in Israel because their government departed from democratic principles.

Banning foreign news channels and reporters is not a new thing in the Middle East, or the wider world, but it has usually been done by governments that the US denounces as autocratic. Israel has now joined their ranks as a censorship regime.

For instance, the US State Department says in a report critical of press censorship in Syria, “On July 8, the Ministry of Information canceled the accreditation of the BBC in areas under its control following the outlet’s June 27 investigative report into the regime’s involvement in the captagon drug trade, according to local media.” The report adds, “citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some foreign Arabic-language networks.”

The cancellation of Al Jazeera’s accreditation by the Netanyahu regime and its jamming of Al Jazeera in Israel would be hard to distinguish from the press policies of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

As for Iran, the State Department says, “The government jammed satellite broadcasts, a continuous practice since at least 2003.” It adds, “The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limited their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local ‘minder.’”

State slams Iran, saying, “Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government and human rights defenders or to deter criticism of government policies or officials.”

Yet the April 1 law passed by the Israeli Knesset appeals to exactly the same grounds, “protecting national security,” to permit expulsion and banning of foreign correspondents and channels.

That is, there may be a difference in degree between Iran’s press censorship and Israel’s but there is not a difference in kind.

The grounds cited by Israel for closing down foreign news operations in the country are not different from those used by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The State Department notes, “Expanding the definition of sensitive data, the FSB published in 2021 a list of topics that could be ‘used against the security’ of Russia, including information and assessments of the country’s military, security sector, and space agency, Roscosmos. Individuals who collected information in the specified categories could be subject to designation as ‘foreign agents.’”

Just the government headed by Netanyhau, which had directed funding to Hamas for years before the October 7 attack, snarkily implied that Al Jazeera was overly friendly with Hamas, so the Russians use xenophobic grounds to censor, according to the State Department: “During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with ‘undesirable foreign organizations’ to restrict free expression. For example, in January, the independent Russian news outlet Meduza was added to the list of ‘undesirable organizations.’”

Russia has forced many journalists to register as “foreign agents:” “The law allowed authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as ‘foreign agents’ if they disseminated foreign media to an unspecified number of persons, receive funding from abroad, or, after a 2020 amendment, ‘carry out the interests of a foreign state.’ The amendment specified that a foreign journalist ‘performing the functions of a foreign agent, incompatible with his professional activities as a journalist’ could be declared an individual ‘foreign agent.’ They had to register and mark their content as produced by a ‘foreign agent.’”

This is clearly how Netanyahu views Al Jazeera journalists.

This fear of international journalism also afflicts the government of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, of which State observes, “The government prohibited ordinary citizens from listening to foreign media broadcasts and subjected violators to severe punishment. Radios and television sets, unless altered, received only domestic programming . . .The government attempted to jam all foreign radio broadcasts.”

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

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