The Media Today

Killing the Messenger

June 11, 2024
Inspectors and police raiding the Al Jazeera offices in Jerusalem. (Photo by Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto via AP)

On July 14, 2017, outside a holy site known to Muslims as Al-Aqsa Mosque and to Jews as the Temple Mount, three Palestinian citizens of Israel opened fire on two Israeli officers, killing them both. For years, Israel had imposed visitor restrictions on the area; after the shooting, in anticipation of mass demonstrations, police announced that Muslim men under the age of fifty would not be allowed at the compound. Palestinians arrived in protest; at least five were killed by Israeli forces. Al Jazeera covered the story. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, condemned the reporting, claiming that it incited violence; he called on law enforcement agencies to shut the network down. Ayoub Kara, who was communications minister at the time, announced a list of actions intended to banish Al Jazeera from the country. But putting the plan into effect required approval from the Knesset, the country’s parliamentary body, as well as the attorney general and the ministry of defense. At the time, the effort failed to gain traction.

Netanyahu has now gotten his wish: In April, the Knesset passed emergency legislation allowing the government to shut down foreign broadcasters who are believed to threaten national security. In May, Netanyahu’s cabinet voted unanimously to enforce what became known as the Al Jazeera law, halting the network’s operations in Israel. This week, the ban was extended. No single offending article or TV segment toppled Al Jazeera, though Netanyahu called it “Hamas’s mouthpiece.” (Israeli lawmakers have used that epithet, or similar, in referring to critical coverage elsewhere, too; Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, has referred to Haaretz—an Israeli paper—as “the Hamas daily.”) In a hearing ahead of the ouster, Israeli officials argued that Al Jazeera had used reporters to learn of Israeli military preparations and weaknesses in the field; as evidence, the officials shared a video from Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language channel, “The Israeli Merkava tank…How does it work and how can it be destroyed?” Netanyahu claimed that Al Jazeera personnel were guilty of “actively participating in the October 7 massacre and inciting against the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces.”

Hours after the cabinet’s vote in May, Israeli police raided rooms at Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel, where Al Jazeera kept offices, and seized equipment; the broadcast was taken off air. As a wartime measure, the foreign-broadcaster law is temporary; the expulsion was initially set for thirty-five days, and renewed for another forty-five. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has petitioned against the legislation; Haaretz reported that, at a hearing last week, Justice Yitzhak Amit, the head of a three-judge panel, said “there is no doubt that there is a violation of freedom of expression here.” That would include, another justice argued, “the right of the people of this country to be exposed to all types of materials.” Al Jazeera has been accused by other governments of platforming extremists and has been banished from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—but its extended ban from Israel, which the network plans to appeal, may have come to many as a disappointment. It should not have been a surprise, however, according to Amit Schejter, a professor of communication studies at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba. “Netanyahu has no respect for freedom of the press,” he told me.

Since October 7, Al Jazeera—one of the few international outlets with reporters on the ground in Gaza—has broadcast unfiltered images of war: dead children, strewn body parts, mothers crying, bombed universities, dilapidated hospitals, smashed aid trucks. Al Jazeera was one of the first outlets to report that Israel had attacked a refugee camp in Rafah and to challenge the Israeli government after the “accidental” death of volunteers with World Central Kitchen. “If civilians are being killed by tens of thousands and you show it, that’s because civilians are being killed by tens of thousands,” Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera’s Washington DC bureau chief, told me. The coverage takes pains to give equal consideration to Palestinians and Israelis. In an investigation into the events of October 7, Al Jazeera gave significant airtime to defense and security experts—including those from Israel, who suggested that Netanyahu’s government had ample evidence of an incoming Hamas attack and did not take it seriously enough.

For Foukara, the ejection comes with a sense of tragic irony: In 1996, when Al Jazeera debuted, in Doha, Qatar, the network broke a political and economic boycott of Arab nations against Israel by platforming Israeli politicians and perspectives—giving the “enemy” airtime. Al Jazeera’s Arab audience accused the network of being agents of the Mossad or the CIA. It is in a similar vein, Foukara believes, that Israel now claims the network abets Hamas by including interviews with Hamas leaders. “We’ve heard it here in the US about Al Jazeera, during the coverage of the US invasion of Afghanistan,” he said. “We heard it during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We’ve heard it from the US government about various US outlets—like the New York Times, for example, when they published things that the US government did not want out in the open.” Other outlets have covered the murderous assault on Gaza—but perhaps none so well-sourced among Palestinians on the ground, nor headquartered in an Arab country.

In the years since Netanyahu first attempted to oust Al Jazeera, there have been other, sometimes violent, attacks: In 2021, Israel bombed a building in Gaza that housed offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, claiming the site hosted Hamas military assets. (Israeli officials provided no evidence to support that claim.) Journalists received an hour’s notice to vacate; there were no casualties. In 2022, Shireen Abu Akleh—a prominent Palestinian American journalist who worked as a reporter for Al Jazeera for twenty-five years—was killed by Israeli forces while covering a raid on a refugee camp in the West Bank; she was wearing a press vest at the time, and reports suggest that the shooting was targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists called Abu Akleh’s demise part of a “deadly, decades-long pattern”—some twenty members of the press had been killed by Israeli officers in about as many years, the vast majority of them Palestinian. “No one has ever been charged or held accountable for these deaths,” CPJ observed.

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Various theories have circulated as to why Netanyahu removed Al Jazeera at last: that it’s part of an attempt to gain leverage over Qatar, which has been negotiating a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas; that he aims to anger the Qatari royal family and force them from the negotiating table—a scheme that would serve to prolong the war and, ultimately, undermine the release of hostages. Schejter instead sees Netanyahu’s move as a reflection of internal political rivalries within the Israeli government. Until recently, the power to censor foreign networks based on national security belonged to Yoav Gallant, the minister of defense and a political rival to Netanyahu. The new legislation moved oversight to Shlomo Karhi, the communications minister and a Netanyahu ally. 

In many ways, the ban is symbolic—Al Jazeera’s team has been booted from Israel, but Foukara told me that reporters remain in Gaza, filing stories to the website and via the network’s subscription broadcast; Israelis with private satellite providers or VPNs can still access that coverage. “It does not affect world peace, it’s not going to make the war worse,” Schejter said. It has nevertheless been widely disruptive: at one point, Israeli officials confiscated broadcast equipment belonging to the AP, claiming that it was used to provide images to Al Jazeera. (The AP confirmed that the equipment has since been returned.)

More troubling is the threat to the physical safety of Al Jazeera’s journalists, who the network suspects have been targeted by Israel since the fall. In recent months, Al Jazeera has reported that Samer AbuDaqa, a cameraman, and the journalists Moustafa Thuraya and Hamza al-Dahdouh were killed in military attacks, along with other family members. Hamza al-Dahdouh was the son of Wael al-Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, who said in the aftermath, “They are taking revenge on us by killing our children—but that will not stop us.” The house of Anas Al-Sharif, an Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent, was bombed; his father was killed. Al Jazeera reported that twenty-two family members of Momin Al Sharaf, a Gaza correspondent, were killed while seeking refuge in a camp, and that Hazem Rejab, a reporter, Ahmed Matar, a photojournalist, and Ismail Abu Omar—all Al Jazeera Arabic correspondents—were severely injured. Abu Omar’s leg was amputated.

“These cannot be all accidents,” Ihtisham Hibatullah, a spokesperson for Al Jazeera, said. (An Israeli spokesperson declined to comment.) Al Jazeera staff and their family members are among many others in the press facing impossible pressure in their coverage of Gaza—more than a hundred have been killed. And yet, as Foukara told me, “At the end of the day, you have to do what you have to do as a journalist.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the practical limitations on Al Jazeera’s team.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, we wrote in this newsletter about Guillaume Meurice, a satirist on French public radio who was suspended after repeating a joke that he’d previously made on air calling Netanyahu “a sort of Nazi but without a foreskin”; Meurice had just been cleared in a legal complaint, and called the comment “my first joke authorized by French law.” Colleagues went on strike in solidarity with Meurice, calling his suspension a threat to free expression, but he has now been fired. Le Monde has more details (in French).
  • And, after the liberal pundit Jon Lovett returned from filming the latest season of Survivor, his cohosts on Pod Save America gave him a news quiz to catch him up on what he missed while he was away. Lovett was unsurprised by a New York Times story on a parasite eating part of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s brain, but couldn’t seem to believe the Alito flags story. “What are you talking about?” Lovett exclaimed. “‘It’s my wife’s flag’?”

New from CJR: In 2016, far-right outlets upended the media. Now a new brand of liberal ventures is claiming turf online.

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a CJR fellow.