The announcement of Israeli communications minister Ayoub Kara this weekend that he would revoke the press credentials of journalists working at Al Jazeera ’s office in Jerusalem and shut down the channel’s cable and satellite transmissions has been met with outrage.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has described this as a “declaration of war” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Amnesty called it a “brazen attack” on press freedom in Israel and Palestine and on its part Al Jazeera has said it will legally challenge the attack on independent journalism.
As one of the only dissenting media voices in a region where press freedom is limited, Al Jazeera has inevitably sparked controversy over the years. Where state TV often toes the government line Al Jazeera goes a long way towards holding these same governments to account.
To give some regional context on press freedom, Egypt’s military-backed government has recently overseen the blocking of a total of 133 websites on allegations that they disseminate content which supports terrorism and extremism. They are actually critical of authorities who have imprisoned and tortured thousands and massacred their own people in the street.
In May, Jordanian columnist Jamal Ayub was arrested for publishing an article critical of the coalition in Yemen led by Saudi, one of Jordan’s allies, which has targeted civilians. The government has tried a number of reporters and activists under an anti-terror law which uses vague language to limit free speech.
According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index report published earlier this year press freedom in the Middle East has actually deteriorated over the last year. This weekend, then, Israel reiterated that it is in line with its regional neighbours – or unsavoury dictators – in basically admitting they are afraid of anyone who opposes their rule.
But whilst it’s true that there is entrenched censorship across the region which affects many publications, at the eye of the storm is Al Jazeera. Jordan and Saudi have recently closed its offices, whilst the channel has been blocked in the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain.
As well as grinding down press freedoms Israel is also throwing its weight behind the boycott of Qatar. In June Saudi, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar and conditioned the restoration of relations on 13 demands, one of which was shutting down Al Jazeera, which is based there.
The quartet of countries said the severing of ties was on the basis that the channel supports terrorism but in reality the blockade has more to do with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. Along with other opposition members in Egypt, the Brotherhood has suffered a brutal crackdown by President Al-Sisi, the details of which have been documented by Al Jazeera.
Following the 2011 Arab Spring the UAE and Saudi Arabia were afraid the Muslim Brotherhood would be voted into power – as they were briefly in Egypt – challenge their ruling monarchies and all the privileges that come with that. To ensure this didn’t happen, shortly after the coup Saudi and the UAE promised Egypt a combined $12 billion, and with that effectively bought Al-Sisi.
On its part Israel has always been critical of Al Jazeera’s coverage of Palestine, accusing the network of having ties to Hamas. Actually, Israel feels very uncomfortable about the fact that Al Jazeera doesn’t hold back in reporting on Israeli army aggression against Palestinian protesters, Israeli bombardments of Gaza and its illegal settlement enterprise.
Yesterday Reuters reported that Kuwait had banned the distribution of the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat – which Kuwait denies – because of an article by Saudi writer Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed in which he criticised Kuwait’s handling of the crisis. Saudi and Emirati writers often say that Kuwait’s position is closer to Qatar than to the embargo countries.
Kuwait is mediating the crisis on the basis it is impartial. In the latest effort to solve it, a Kuwaiti delegation was sent across the region to deliver hand-written letters in the hope that it would put an end the dispute.
Whilst these writers quibble over whose side Kuwait is on Israel’s position is clear – that its interests are neatly in line with the Gulf countries and Egypt. If only the Arab countries could unite and show the same enthusiasm with boycotting Israel and demand freedom, justice and human rights for Palestinians.