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Monday, November 6, 2023



Shlomo Karhi, Israel’s communications minister, confers with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

GUEST BLOG / By Jon Alsop, The Media Today, writer/editor for the Columbia Journalism Review
--In the days after Hamas attacked Israel last month, Shlomo Karhi, the country’s communications minister, did something that was guaranteed to catch the attention of the American press: he called out Donald Trump, who had just criticized various Israeli officials and described Hezbollah as “very smart.” It is “shameful that a man like that, a former US president, abets propaganda and disseminates things that wound the spirit of Israel’s fighters and its citizens,” Karhi said. “We don’t have to bother with him and the nonsense he spouts.” 

 A few days later, Karhi was in the news in Israel linked to a similar language. But this time he and Trump would likely have agreed in principle: Haaretz, a liberal daily, reported that he was in the process of pushing through an aggressive clampdown on the news media. According to the story, Karhi wanted to be granted sweeping powers to arrest or confiscate the property of any civilians, including journalists, who spread information that in his view “undermines the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents in the face of the enemy” or “serves as a basis for enemy propaganda”—including in cases where the information is true. 

 Karhi denied that he had proposed this. But he did say, in an interview the same day, that he wanted to push through regulations with the explicit aim of shutting down the Israeli operations of Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar, where senior political leaders of Hamas are based. Last week, those regulations started to take shape. According to news reports, Karhi wanted the power to shutter Al Jazeera himself, but Gali Baharav-Miara, Israel’s attorney general, disagreed. 

Karhi accused her, in a social media post, of having a “warped worldview.” But eventually the pair reached an agreement, and on Friday, according to the Times of Israel, the government signed off on the regulations. They will allow Karhi to shut down foreign broadcasters—including by ordering TV providers to take them off the air and by closing their physical offices—though he will need the approval of the defense minister and other top officials, and, in a concession to civil-society groups, a court will have to review such orders. 

Wasting no time, Karhi pledged to propose a ban on Al Jazeera at the next meeting of Israel’s security cabinet, and accused the channel of inciting violence and abetting terrorist propaganda. (Al Jazeera has denied this. The channel did not respond to my request for comment.) It’s not new for the Israeli government to clash with Al Jazeera; as the Washington Post’s Laura Wagner reported last week, officials last threatened to shutter the broadcaster’s Jerusalem bureau back in 2017. The latest push is more narrowly tailored than it might have been, and contains layers of oversight. In the wake of the attacks earlier this month, Israelis watched pictures of Ismail Haniyeh, a top leader of Hamas, “sitting in a hotel room in Doha rejoicing over footage of Hamas terrorists carrying out atrocities,” Amy Spiro, a news editor at the Times of Israel, told me. “There’s not going to be a widespread outcry if Al Jazeera is banned.” 

 Still, Spiro said, there will be some outcry. International press-freedom groups have already urged the Israeli government not to shutter the channel, as have some observers inside Israel; they have warned, variously, that doing so would harm media pluralism at a critical moment, dent Israel’s preferred image as a self-assured democracy on the world stage, and make the censorship of other outlets more likely. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists noted that since the recent conflict began, Israeli officials have already banned J-Media, a news agency in the West Bank, citing national security. In a scathing editorial over the weekend, Haaretz characterized the new regulations as an undemocratic and unnecessary executive power grab, and accused Karhi of leading a “campaign to abolish freedom of expression.” As noted in this space previously, Karhi’s push to ban Al Jazeera follows his pursuit, prior to the Hamas attack, of a sweeping overhaul of Israel’s broadcast media (which I also wrote about recently) that many observers saw as a dire threat to press freedom and as part of a broader war on critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. 

That prior package was already far from certain to become law amid political chaos in Israel; now that the country is at war, opposition politicians have joined a unity government, one condition of which is that divisive domestic legislation be put to the side for now. It already seems clear that the Hamas attack will mark a profound rupture in Israeli politics.

 Karhi’s previous plans could be all but dead. Still, threats to the press inside Israel—including the push to ban Al Jazeera—cannot be entirely separated from the country’s preexisting political climate. Other trends that I noted in my piece about Karhi’s initial proposed overhaul—rhetorical hostility toward the press, for example, and stonewalling on the part of Netanyahu—have now spilled over into a wartime environment that is already posing its own challenges to free expression and other civil liberties. 

And it all comes in the context of a much longer history of military restrictions on the Israeli press that are in some ways universal, but in others peculiarly Israel’s own. The emergency authority on which Karhi has based his push to ban Al Jazeera is, at root, older than the state of Israel itself: Amit Schejter, a professor of communication studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told me that the idea carried over from the British colonial administrators whose rule preceded Israel’s founding in 1948, and has remained in situ ever since. 

So, too, has a regime of military censorship that still requires journalists to seek approval before publishing stories that touch on national security matters that pose a present danger to the state (in theory, things like the precise movements of soldiers or officials). Over the years, the courts have nipped and tucked at the scope of the censor’s remit; today, Spiro says, “it tends to be narrow.” (Its will can also be hard to rigidly enforce: while Israel-based reporters for foreign outlets have been bound by the censor, for example, their outlets have not been—and domestic outlets can run with stories that the international press has reported.) Still, a previous occupant of the censor’s office described herself as having “extraordinary power,” at least on paper, and over the years, the office’s rulings have frequently proved contentious, with news outlets sometimes claiming that it has abused its power to conceal facts that bear tangentially or not at all on national security. 

The office is, at a minimum, busy: +972 Magazine recently reported, citing freedom of information requests, that the censor blocked 159 articles and parts of a further 990 in 2022—and those were the lowest such figures in at least a decade. And, as +972 Magazine pointed out, these figures don’t reflect instances in which Israeli publications decide not to go ahead with a sensitive story in the first place. In general, Israeli media is “very patriotic, very serving of the government,” Schejter told me. “It’s what Israelis call social responsibility, basically acquiescing to the security concept that the government leads.” 

At times of pressing national crisis, Schejter said, this is especially true. While the institution of the military censor is unusual in a modern democracy, such dynamics are not so different elsewhere—not least in the US, where, despite the broad protections of the First Amendment, major outlets have often liaised with security officials before publishing information that could compromise troops or intelligence sources, or is otherwise considered sensitive. Since the Hamas attack, another parallel between Israel and the US has often been proposed: various observers—up to and including President Biden—have likened the attack to 9/11, and urged Israel not to repeat the errors that the US made in anger in the aftermath. 

Those observers have been referring, primarily, to rushed military intervention. But warnings could also be appended both to the broad post-9/11 curtailment of civil liberties and the way in which much, if by no means all, of the US media responded—with excessive credulity of official claims and the development, among the pundit class, of a hawkish consensus that contributed to a broader chilling effect on critical speech. Against this background, Israel has a robust, adversarial media culture, and since Hamas attacked, there has been evidence that it is still alive and well. 

The day after the attack, Haaretz published an editorial pinning responsibility on Netanyahu, and the paper has subsequently published a string of spiky editorials slamming him and his administration—accusing officials of risking an “eastern front” by failing to crack down on settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, for example, and accusing Karhi of having a “fascist worldview.” Indeed, criticism of government failures around the attack has been relatively widespread—even if, Spiro told me, much of the Israeli press feels “a call to arms to stand more united in a time like this.” Still, the overall climate for critical speech in Israel is hardly in top health. 

As noted last week in the Columbia Journalism Review, far-right protesters besieged the home of Israel Frey, an ultra-Orthodox journalist who is on the political left, after he prayed for victims in both Israel and Gaza, which Israel has battered with air strikes since Hamas attacked; since then, similar episodes have been logged. Anat Saragusti, who oversees press-freedom issues for Israel’s Union of Journalists, told me that one far-right activist has taken to chasing around foreign reporters; the atmosphere within Israel, Saragusti told me, is “very divisive and polarized.” Schejter told me that he worries about “a rise in self-censorship and a rise in the persecution of the Arab minority in Israel,” especially at universities. 

Already, numerous Arab and Jewish Israeli demonstrators have been arrested, protests have been broken up, and a top police chief told anyone wanting to “identify with Gaza” that he would happily put them on a bus there. In a recent editorial about these trends, Haaretz warned that a “McCarthyite persecution” of Israel’s own citizens has begun. And, while top defense officials have accepted some responsibility for the Hamas attack, Netanyahu so far has not—and has refused to even take journalists’ questions about it. 

One person close to him says such a thing “is not in his emotional make-up.” As appeared in CJR last month, a lack of access has been one facet of a broader war on the press that Netanyahu has waged since he returned as prime minister last year; he has granted numerous (mostly smooth-talking) interviews to US anchors but only a handful to the domestic press, and then mostly to friendly outlets. Since the Hamas attack, Netanyahu has not made himself available for a sit-down at all, communicating instead through video messages posted to social media. 

 The level of domestic anger at Netanyahu and his allies is such that they will surely not be able to avoid scrutiny. But if the past is prologue, they will try. Karhi’s push to shutter Al Jazeera is not best understood as an outgrowth of this survival instinct—but he owes his position to Netanyahu, and his prior efforts to radically overhaul the media landscape must at least be kept in mind going forward. They have always deserved more international attention. 

 In the days after the invasion, Karhi did another interview that did not garner as much US media interest as his comments on Trump. “I keep hearing ‘apologize, take responsibility, ask for forgiveness,’” Karhi said. “For what?” The backlash was swift, and an hour later, Karhi backpedaled, claiming his words had been taken out of context. “Of course, there is responsibility for leadership,” he said. “My intention was to say that we should not be dealing with that during a time of war.” 

 Other notable stories: Recently, the New York Times published an editors’ note acknowledging its early coverage of a blast at a hospital in Gaza last week—which Hamas quickly blamed on Israel, only for Israeli and US intelligence officials to later attribute responsibility to a misfired rocket from a Hamas-allied group—“relied too heavily on claims by Hamas” and “left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.” 

The BBC has issued a similar mea culpa, but other major outlets that amplified the Hamas claim without first verifying it have yet to do so; when CNN’s Oliver Darcy reached out to several of them, they either defended their coverage or did not comment. (NPR’s David Folkenflik is also out with an assessment of the coverage.) 

Recently, news organizations asked Tanya Chutkan, the judge overseeing Trump’s federal trial on charges that he illegally subverted the 2020 election, to allow them to broadcast the proceedings live. Their requests face “a distinctly uphill fight,” Adam Liptak wrote for the Times yesterday, since long-standing rules and precedent bar live TV broadcasts from federal court—but one petition, filed by the parent company of NBC News, has proposed “an intriguing backup argument,” Liptak writes, arguing that if nothing else, the current rules allow for the proceedings to be taped for posterity. (NBC has also argued that the letter of the rules allows for a relay of video via its studios.) In media-business news, G/O Media is looking to sell Jezebel, one of the sites in its portfolio; Axios has more. 

Elsewhere, the Daily Beast reports that staffers at the recent news startup The Messenger are “increasingly anxious” that the site is already struggling financially (The Messenger denies this) and about its recent partnership with an AI company, and have “quietly been pushing to unionize the newsroom.” 

And Semafor reports that a global nonprofit that aims to replace “parachute” journalists with local women correspondents exaggerated its audience numbers in a bid to woo donors. Iran sentenced Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi—who covered the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, an event that sparked widespread protests in the country last year—to lengthy prison terms. 

In other international press-freedom news, a Russian court extended the pretrial detention of Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian American journalist who works for the US state-backed broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, following her arrest on charges that she failed to register as a foreign agent. 

And New York magazine listed the forty-nine “most powerful New Yorkers you’ve never heard of.” Among those who made the cut: the publicist Amanda Silverman, the Times columnist and editorial board member Mara Gay, and that paper’s managing editor Carolyn Ryan, who “can choose who gets plum postings and order up new beats” and yet “remains inscrutable to much of the newsroom she helps run.” 

 Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop. 

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