Israel shuts down local Al Jazeera offices in ‘dark day for the media’ | Israel

Israeli authorities shut down the local offices of Al Jazeera on Sunday, hours after a government vote to use new laws to close the satellite news network’s operations in the country.

Critics called the move, which comes as faltering indirect ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas continue, a “dark day for the media” and raised new concerns about the attitude to free speech of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government.

Israeli officials said the move was justified because Al Jazeera was a threat to national security. “The incitement channel Al Jazeera will be closed in Israel,” the country’s prime minister posted on social media after the unanimous cabinet vote.

A government statement said Israel’s communications minister had signed orders to act immediately to close al Jazeera’s offices in Israel, confiscate broadcast equipment, cut the channel off from cable and satellite companies and block its websites.

The network, which is funded by Qatar, has been critical of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, from where it has reported around the clock throughout the seven-month war.

Al Jazeera said the accusation that it threatened Israeli security was a “dangerous and ridiculous lie” that put its journalists at risk.

“Al Jazeera Media Network strongly condemns and denounces this criminal act that violates human rights and the basic right to access of information,” the company said in a statement. “Al Jazeera affirms its right to continue to provide news and information to its global audiences.”

A pre-recorded “final report” listing the restrictions placed on the network by a reporter in Jerusalem was broadcast on the network after the ban came into effect.

Al Jazeera has previously accused the Israeli authorities of deliberately targeting several of its journalists, including Samer Abu Daqqa and Hamza Al-Dahdouh, both killed in Gaza during the conflict. Israel has rejected the charge and says it does not target journalists.

The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights also criticised the move. “We regret cabinet decision to close Al Jazeera in Israel,” it said on X. “A free & independent media is essential to ensuring transparency & accountability. Now, even more so given tight restrictions on reporting from Gaza. Freedom of expression is a key human right. We urge govt to overturn ban.”

Israel’s parliament ratified a law last month that allows for the temporary closure of foreign broadcasters considered a threat to national security.

The law allows Netanyahu and his security cabinet to shut Al Jazeera’s offices in Israel for 45 days, a period that can be renewed, so it could stay in force until the end of July or until the end of major military operations in Gaza.

While including on-the-ground reporting of the war’s casualties, Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language service often publishes verbatim video statements from Hamas and other militant groups in the region, drawing sharp criticism from Israeli officials.

A campaign of judicial reform led last year by Netanyahu’s coalition government, the most rightwing in Israel’s history, prompted great opposition and accusations of authoritarianism. Recent crackdowns on protesters against the Gaza war in Israel have also raised new concerns for free speech.

The Foreign Press Association, a NGO representing journalists working for international news organisations reporting from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza accused Israel of joining a “dubious club of authoritarian governments”.

“This is a dark day for the media. This is a dark day for democracy,” it said in a statement.

There was also some political opposition in Israel to the move, or at least its timing. The National Unity party, a centrist member of the ruling coalition, said that coming as ceasefire talks appeared close to failing, it could “sabotage efforts” to free Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Qatar established Al Jazeera in 1996 to build influence around the Middle East and further afield.

The small Gulf state, where several Hamas political leaders are based, was a key mediator in the talks but has been marginalised in recent weeks, which may have encouraged the Israeli government to act.

Israel has barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza to cover the conflict, which was triggered by Hamas attacks into southern Israel on 7 October last year in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed. Israel’s ensuing offensive has killed more than 34,000 people, mostly women and children.

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