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Al Jazeera shutdown in Israel spells 'dark day for democracy,' say media groups

FILE - An employee of the Qatar-based news network and TV channel Al Jazeera is seen at the channel's Jerusalem office, July 31, 2017.
FILE - An employee of the Qatar-based news network and TV channel Al Jazeera is seen at the channel's Jerusalem office, July 31, 2017.

Israel's decision to shut down Al Jazeera in the country puts audiences at risk of missing out on news and may herald a concerning turn for the future of free expression, analysts say.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that his government had unanimously decided to shut down the Qatari-owned news outlet over national security concerns. The channel went off air in Israel shortly after the announcement, and the outlet's websites have also been blocked.

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

Al Jazeera's main office in west Jerusalem and its office in east Jerusalem were closed and equipment confiscated. According to Reuters, the Israeli satellite service Yes displayed a message that read: "In accordance with the government decision, the Al Jazeera station's broadcasts have been stopped in Israel."

Al Jazeera Managing Editor Mohamed Moawad described the action as "oppressive."

"This is a way of delegitimizing our coverage," Moawad told VOA from Doha. "It's oppressive. It's really devastating, because it means that Israel, which calls itself a democracy, is now joining the club of very authoritarian regimes."

Tension escalates after October attack

The longtime feud between Netanyahu's administration and Al Jazeera has been punctuated by sporadic shutdown threats over the years. But the dispute escalated following the October 7 terror attack by Hamas on southern Israel in which about 1,200 people were killed.

Israel's offensive in response has led to a humanitarian crisis and the deaths of more than 34,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory's health ministry.

In early April, Israel's parliament passed a law permitting the government to temporarily close foreign news outlets viewed as threatening state security. In November, Israel used emergency measures to shut down the Lebanese outlet Al Mayadeen over national security claims.

UN condemns shutdown

Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi has previously referred to Al Jazeera as "a propaganda mouthpiece" for Hamas and accused the outlet of exposing Israeli soldiers to potential attacks.

The new law allows the government to shut down Al Jazeera for 45 days, but that period can be renewed.

"The whole legal situation is really ambiguous," Moawad said.

The action against the international broadcaster has been condemned by the United Nations and media advocates. A primary concern among those is that the move may lay the groundwork for the Israeli government to shut down other news outlets.

"This is a dark day for the media. This is a dark day for democracy," the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem said in a statement on Sunday. The association called on Israel to reverse "this harmful step and uphold its commitment to freedom of the press — including outlets whose coverage it may not like."

Al Jazeera 'houshold name' in ME

In some parts of the world, audiences don't widely consume Al Jazeera. But in the Middle East, "it's a household name," said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst and former Al Jazeera reporter. "They're simply unmatched in the scope and the strength of their operation."

People in Israel will lose out on Al Jazeera's coverage, according to Odeh, who is based in Ramallah, while audiences around the region will no longer receive on-the-ground Israel coverage from Al Jazeera because the outlet's journalists can no longer report from Israel, including occupied East Jerusalem.

"Once, in any society, you normalize the idea that you can pick and choose what kind of media is acceptable, then there's no way you can put the brakes on that," said Odeh, who briefly served as a Palestinian Authority spokesperson in 2012.

Gideon Levy, a columnist at the Israel's Haaretz newspaper, also said the shutdown will make it harder for people in Israel to understand what's happening in Gaza.

"Israeli TV shows nothing from Gaza — nothing. So, anyone who really wants to see what's going on in Gaza needs CNN, needs BBC, needs Sky News and needs Al Jazeera English," Levy told VOA. "And they don't want us to see those images," he added, referring to the Israeli government.

The shutdown means that Al Jazeera reporters will now have to find a way to report on Israel from outside the country.

The channel remains accessible through Facebook and YouTube in Israel, according to media reports and analysts. To Haaretz's Levy, that means the impact is perhaps more symbolic than practical. He said he believes the shutdown was intended to garner support among Israel's right-wing base.

"The fact that this is being closed shows much more about Israel than about Al Jazeera," Levy said. "The government is not a TV critic."

'Allowing propaganda to really thrive'

The Al Jazeera shutdown is also an example of another press freedom issue that has imbued the Israel-Hamas war since it began: lack of media access to Gaza.

Since the war began, journalists have been able to enter the Gaza Strip only by embedding with Israel Defense Forces. Reporters and press freedom groups have criticized those trips as overly restrictive, with journalists able to see only what the military wants them to see.

"The fact that they are not allowing international journalists to enter Gaza is, in itself, a successful attempt to conceal what's happening in Gaza," said Moawad, who previously worked at VOA's sister outlet Alhurra TV.

The void created by a lack of access for independent media on both sides allows propaganda to flourish, according to Clayton Weimers of Reporters Without Borders.

"Press freedom has always been tricky in the Palestinian territories, and there has been a tendency towards propagandistic content being distributed," Weimers said. "One problem that we're seeing, though, is that the lack of independent media in place to cover this war is allowing propaganda to really thrive on all sides."

A simple remedy, he said, is that "if you allow the international media in to verify some of these claims, then you won't allow potential propaganda to thrive."

The Al Jazeera shutdown comes within the context of a war that has taken an unprecedented toll on journalists. As of May 8, at least 97 journalists have been killed since the war began, including 92 Palestinians, two Israelis and three Lebanese, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Michael Lipin contributed to this report.