Politics / May 7, 2024

Biden Must Condemn Israel’s Attack on Al Jazeera—Now

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government shut down the network’s operations in Israel. Press freedom advocates are raising an outcry, and Americans should back them up.

John Nichols
Israeli police raid the Jerusalem office of Al Jazeera on May 5, 2024.

Israeli police raid the Jerusalem office of Al Jazeera on May 5, 2024.

(Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Israeli security forces raided Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem offices and confiscated the network’s communication equipment Sunday, as part of a clampdown on press freedom that saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government halt Al Jazeera’s cable and satellite broadcasts within the country and block access to its websites.

The Israeli satellite service Yes reportedly displayed a message Sunday that read: “In accordance with the government decision, the Al Jazeera station’s broadcasts have been stopped in Israel.”

This jarring attack on a network that is broadly recognized for its bold coverage of news from across the Middle East—including its unrivaled coverage of the Israeli assault on Gaza—drew an immediate outcry from media outlets, independent journalists, and advocates for freedom of expression in Israel and around the world. It is an outcry to which President Joe Biden must add his voice, loudly, emphatically, and immediately.

This isn’t the time for a mumbled “expression of concern” from a State Department underling. This is a red-alert moment for press freedom.

Netanyahu’s decision—which came just two days after World Press Freedom Day—has been condemned by the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz (“Israel Must Not Shut Down Al Jazeera”) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which labeled the government’s claim that Al Jazeera is some kind of propaganda tool for Hamas “unfounded.” Far from being a legitimate response to security concerns, the association argued, the crackdown on Al Jazeera, which is headquartered in Qatar, was meant to “serve a more politically motivated agenda, aimed at silencing critical voices and targeting Arab media.”

Al Jazeera, which has often run afoul of Arab governments because of its fearless coverage of Middle East affairs, will continue to report from Gaza. But the shutdown of its news gathering and broadcasting in Israel is a deeply disturbing development for the region and the world. Coming at a time when Israeli forces are ramping up their assault on the city of Rafah ahead of a potential invasion, the raid and shutdown were condemned by international observers as a particularly outrageous form of censorship at a particularly turbulent moment. Middle East historian Assal Rad posted images from Rafah with the message, “This is why Israel is shutting down Al Jazeera. They don’t want us to see what they’re going to do in Rafah, the last refuge for Palestinians in Gaza,” while former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said, “Israel’s banning of Al Jazeera is one aspect of its War On Truth. It aims at preventing Israelis from knowing what goes on in Gaza.”

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The board of the Foreign Press Association, which represents international journalists working in Israel and Palestine, urged the Netanyahu government “to reverse this harmful step and uphold its commitment to freedom of the press—including outlets whose coverage it may not like.”

“This is a dark day for the media. This is a dark day for democracy,” declared the association, adding, “Israel’s decision to shutter Al Jazeera should be a cause for concern for all supporters of a free press.”

President Biden likes to count himself among the supporters of a free press. Since becoming president in 2021, he has gone out of his way to issue detailed statements highlighting the global struggle for freedom of the press. He did so again last week on World Press Freedom Day, releasing a message in which he explained, “The free press is an essential pillar of democracy,” and declared, “Journalism should not be a crime anywhere on Earth.”

Biden even drew attention to the horrific circumstances of journalists working in Gaza, saying, “2023 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in recent memory. One reason for that is the war in Gaza, where far too many journalists, the vast majority of them Palestinian, have been killed.” In fact, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “the severe toll on journalists” since Israel launched its assault on Gaza includes at least 97 journalists and media workers killed (92 Palestinians, two Israelis, and three Lebanese), while 14 more journalists have been injured, four are missing, and 25 have been arrested.

Biden was right to highlight the plight of journalists in Gaza. But the president cannot neglect the assault on journalism within Israel.

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The president’s World Press Freedom Day statement concluded with a bold announcement:

In the coming weeks, I will be taking executive action in response to the global crackdown on press freedom, as exemplified by the wrongful detention of journalists around the world.

I will declare this crackdown on press freedom a grave threat to national security and will authorize measures, including sanctions and visa bans, against those who take abusive actions to silence the press.

Journalists and media workers are an essential part of any democracy, because well-informed dissent is critical to building stronger and more successful societies.

Today and every day, we recognize their courage, support their right to do their jobs, and stand with them for press freedom.

If Biden is serious about standing for press freedom, he should step up to a lectern today and condemn Israel’s assault on Al Jazeera. The president should not mince words. He should be blunt and unequivocal—as blunt as International Federation of Journalists General Secretary Anthony Bellanger, who has described the shutdown as a “further departure by the Israeli government from the respect for a free media expected of a democracy.”

“Banning journalists and shutting down broadcasters,” says Bellanger, “are moves straight from the despots[’] playbook.”

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Israeli security forces raised the Al Jazeera broaddcast network’sJerusalem offices and confiscated the network’s communication equipment Sunday, as part of a clampdown on press freedom that also included the halting of Al Jazeera’s cable and satellite broadcasts within the country and the blocking of its websites.The Israeli satellite service Yes reportedly diplayed a message Sundaty that read: “In accordance with the government decision, the Al Jazeera station’s broadcasts have been stopped in Israel.” This jarring assault on the network drew an immediate outcry from media outlets, independent journalists and freedom of the press advocates in Israel and around the world. It is an outcry to which Joe Biden must add his voice, loudly, emphatically and immediately. This isn’t the time for a mumbled “expression of concern” from a U.S. State Department underling, This is a red alert moment for press freedom that has been condemned by the leading Israeli newpaper Haaretz (“Israel Must Not Shut Down Al Jazeera”) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which labeled the government’s claim that the internationally-respected network was some kind of propaganda tool for Hamas — which attacked Israeli kibbutizim and a music festival on October 7 — “unfounded.” Far from being a legitimate response to security concerns, the association argued that the crackdown on Al Jazeera, which is headquarted in Qatar,  was meant to “serve a more politically motivated agenda, aimed at silencing critical voices and targeting Arab media.” Coming at a time when Israel is assaulting the city of Rafah, the shutdown of Al Jazeera’s operations within Israel was condemned by international observers as a particularly outrageous form of censorship. Middle East historian Assal Rad,posted iamges from the assault on Rafah with the message,This is why Israel is shutting down Al Jazeera. They don’t want us to see what they’re going to do in Rafah, the last refuge for Palestinians in Gaza,” while former Greek Finance Ministere Yanis Varoufakis said, “Israel’s banning of Al Jazeera is one aspect of its War On Truth. It aims at preventing Israelis from knowing that what goes on in Gaza.” The Foreign Press   The group said that claims that the broadcaster was a propaganda tool for Hamas were “unfounded”, and that Sunday’s ban was less about security concerns and more to “serve a more politically motivated agenda, aimed at silencing critical voices and targeting Arab media”.

The Foreign Press Association (FPA) urged the Israeli government to reconsider its decision, saying the shut down of Al Jazeera in the country should be “a cause for concern for all supporters of a free press”.

Biden has since becoming president gone out of his way to issue detailed statement highlighting the global struggle for freedom of the press. He did so again just last week on World Press Freedom Day, issuing a statement in which he explained that “the free press is an essential pillar of democracy” and declared, “journalism should not be a crime anywhere on Earth.” Biden even drew attention to the horrific circumstance of journalists working in Gaza, saying, “2023 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in recent memory. One reason for that is the war in Gaza, where far too many journalists, the vast majority of them Palestinian, have been killed.” In fact, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “the severe toll on journalists” since Israel launched its assault on Gaza includes 97 killed (92 Palestinians, two Israelis and three Lebanese), while 14 more journalists have been injured, four are missing and 25 have been arrested. Biden was right to highlight their plight. But he must also recognize that the assault on journalism takes many forms and that Israel    

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