Middle East

Israel orders shut down of Al Jazeera in the country, seizes equipment, in ‘dark day for democracy’

By Michael Schwartz, Tim Lister and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, CNN

CNN  —  Israel shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in the country and seized some of its communication equipment Sunday, prompting condemnation from the United Nations and rights groups over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s moves to restrict press freedoms.

The closure comes as ceasefire and hostage negotiations in Cairo show little sign of breakthrough after almost seven months of war, and international concern mounts over Israel’s expected military offensive in southern Gaza’s Rafah, where 1.5 million people are sheltering amid a devastating humanitarian crisis.

The Qatari-based news network, which has produced dogged, on the ground reporting of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, called the closure of its offices a “criminal act,” while critics said the move was a “dark day for democracy” and that it sets a concerning precedent for other international media outlets operating in Israel.

In a statement posted on X, Netanyahu said: “The government headed by me unanimously decided: the incitement channel Al Jazeera will be closed in Israel.”

The Israeli Ministry of Communications said Sunday it had closed the network’s Jerusalem offices, and confiscated its communication equipment. “In addition, the network’s broadcasts on cable and satellite were stopped, and access to its websites was blocked,” the ministry said.

Netanyahu’s government has long complained about Al Jazeera’s operations, alleging anti-Israeli bias and accusing the network of being a “mouthpiece for Hamas,” and the closure follows the passage of a sweeping law allowing the government to ban foreign networks perceived as posing a threat to national security.

Israeli cable providers ceased carrying the Al Jazeera networks by late Sunday afternoon, CNN journalists in the country confirmed. Al Jazeera’s cable channel in Israel now displays a message stating, “In accordance with the government’s decision, Al Jazeera channel broadcasts were stopped in Israel.”

Ofir Gendelman, the prime minister’s spokesperson to the Arab world, quoted Netanyahu as saying: “Al Jazeera reporters harmed Israel’s security and incited against IDF soldiers. It is time to expel the mouthpiece of Hamas from our country.”

Video obtained by CNN showed Israeli police accompanied by agents of the Israel Security Agency entering Al Jazeera’s broadcasting position in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Al Jazeera said the Israeli cabinet’s decision infringed on the human right to access information.

It continued: “Israel’s suppression of the free press to cover up its crimes by killing and arresting journalists did not deter us from performing our duty. More than 140 Palestinian journalists have been martyred for the sake of the truth since the beginning of the war on Gaza.”

Several of the network’s journalists working in Gaza have been injured or killed since October 7.

Al Jazeera again denied Israel’s “false allegations regarding our violation of the professional frameworks governing media work,” and called on media and human rights organizations “to condemn the Israeli authorities’ repeated attacks on the press and journalists.”

‘Assault on freedom of the press’

The move comes a month after Netanyahu vowed to shut down the television channel in the country following the passage of the new law, which placed a raft of restrictions on Al Jazeera in Israel.

Those restrictions included giving the government authority to take action against offices operated by the network and confiscate equipment and reporters’ press cards, as well as restricting its broadcasts and public access to its website.

Netanyahu said on X in early April that he intended “to act immediately in accordance with the new law” to stop the outlet’s activity in the country.

Al Jazeera has an office in Jerusalem, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza.

Since the start of the war, it has produced critical, on-the-ground coverage of Israeli military operations and their humanitarian impact on the embattled enclave.

The new law gave the prime minister and communications minister authority to order the temporary closure of foreign networks operating in Israel – powers that rights groups say could have far-reaching implications on international media coverage of the war in Gaza.

UN Secretary-General spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric on Sunday condemned the closure of Al Jazeera. “As we have said before, we stand firmly against any decision to roll back freedom of the press. A free press provides an invaluable service to ensure that the public is informed and engaged,” Dujarric said.

The Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel described the move as “a dark day for democracy” and “a cause for concern for all supporters of a free press,” while the Committee to Protect Journalists said it “sets an extremely alarming precedent for restricting international media outlets working in Israel.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch condemned the decision as an “assault on freedom of the press,” according to a written statement shared by Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel, and Palestine Director (HRW) on Sunday.

“Rather than trying to silence reporting on its atrocities in Gaza, the Israeli government should stop committing them,” Shakir said.

The move to close the network comes amid mounting concerns from press freedom groups about causalities among journalists operating in war zones there and what they describe as obstruction of journalistic work by Israeli authorities.

As of May 3, 2024, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ preliminary investigations showed at least 97 journalists and media workers have been killed since the war began.

The annual Press Freedom Index, released Friday by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said the war in Gaza saw “a record number of violations against journalists and media” since October.

Palestine – the term the organization uses for the Palestinian territories – is ranked 157th out of 180 countries and territories on the Press Freedom Index, and it’s the deadliest region for journalists, according to RSF. Israel is ranked 101, slipping four places from 2023.

The move to shut down Al Jazeera in Israel comes as negotiators met in Cairo on Saturday, in a bid to secure a ceasefire and hostage deal.

Negotiators have made progress on the technical aspects of a potential deal, but two Israeli sources say it could take a week to finalize the deal itself. Qatar has played a key role in ceasefire negotiations in the on-going war.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

CNN’s Simone McCarthy, Kareem Khadder, Eyad Kourdi, Hamdi Alkhshali and Abeer Salman contributed reporting.

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