‘The Mideast’s Only Democracy’ Goes to War on Press Freedom

Employees of Al Jazeera are seen at their Jerusalem office in July. Credit Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Employees of Al Jazeera are seen at their Jerusalem office in July. Credit Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel likes to describe itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. But with its recent moves to shut down the Qatari-backed broadcaster Al Jazeera’s operations in the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has chosen some strange, decidedly undemocratic bedfellows and sent a worrying message about its commitment to a free press.

Ayoob Kara, Israel’s communications minister, announced on Sunday a draft bill that would allow the government to close Al Jazeera’s Israel bureau, revoke its license to broadcast on local cable and satellite channels, and strip its journalists of accreditation.

Israel’s moves follow recent decisions by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to close Al Jazeera’s bureaus and block access to its website amid a broader diplomatic standoff with Qatar. Those countries variously accused Al Jazeera of promoting sedition, supporting terrorism and spreading false news — while offering scant evidence — before shutting it down.

With Israel jumping on the bandwagon, a greater concern has emerged: The future of press freedom as a cornerstone of democracy is under threat at a time when democracy itself is declining around the world.

Mr. Kara’s announcement came after a Facebook post by Mr. Netanyahu accusing Al Jazeera of inciting violence during recent protests in Jerusalem’s Old City over access to the Aqsa Mosque at the area known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The prime minister had had to back down from a decision to install metal detectors at the mosque after protests and violent clashes. By pinning the blame on Al Jazeera, Mr. Netanyahu sought to save face with his critics on the right.

Mr. Kara maintained that Israel’s actions were compatible with democracy, given this alleged incitement. But neither he nor anyone else from the government offered any specific evidence of incitement on Al Jazeera. The internationally recognized Johannesburg Principles set a high threshold for incitement: “Direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence” must be shown. These principles were adopted by international law experts in 1995 and endorsed by Abid Hussain, who was at the time the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression.

Mhamed Krichen, a senior news anchor at Al Jazeera and a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, rejected the charge. “Israel always accused us of incitement,” Mr. Krichen told me. “I remember Shimon Peres,” Israel’s former president and prime minister, “did it in a live interview on my show a few years ago, but only now it’s politically convenient for Israel to act on it.” (Paradoxically, by shutting down Al Jazeera, the Israeli government would be silencing one of the few Arab media outlets that regularly invite Israeli officials on air.)

By “politically convenient,” Mr. Krichen was alluding to Israel’s increasingly close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as to Mr. Netanyahu’s loss in the standoff over the Aqsa Mosque. Al Jazeera, Mr. Krichen said, showed live coverage of the protests and posted images of an Israeli officer kicking a man while he was praying.

The steps against Al Jazeera come amid an escalating Israeli crackdown on journalists more broadly. Israeli authorities recently raided the West Bank offices of the pro-Hamas channel Al Quds TV, the pro-Hezbollah channel Al Manar and the Russian government-funded broadcaster RT under suspicion of incitement. At the time of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ most recent annual census of imprisoned journalists, in December, Israel was holding seven in jail, four of them on incitement accusations.

Israel bills itself as a democracy while in the same breath defending its decision on Al Jazeera by noting the example set by Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy and Egypt’s military dictatorship. It is true that the government in Jerusalem will need to jump through more hoops than did the Arab states to shut Al Jazeera down. But if Mr. Netanyahu’s government succeeds, it will set a dangerous precedent within Israel.

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

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