The silencing of media in times of war

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Israel’s High Court of Justice this week heard a petition challenging new legislation allowing a ban on foreign broadcasters deemed a threat to national security.

Known as the Al Jazeera law, in honour of its inaugural target, this allows the communications minister, with the consent of the prime minister and the committee of national security, to impose far-reaching sanctions.

“There is no doubt that there is a violation of freedom of expression here,” the High Court panel’s head, Justice Yitzhak Amit, told the hearing.

Yet Israel’s May shuttering of Al Jazeera – described as a “terror channel” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – passed without much domestic concern.

Any outrage was limited to Israel’s small liberal left wing, even though in banning Al Jazeera, Israel joins the august ranks of countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.

The issue is, of course, rife with politicisation. Al Jazeera is headquartered in Qatar, as is part of the Hamas leadership, and is hardly free from bias. Nonetheless, this law can be used in the future to ban other foreign broadcasters that are deemed to pose an amorphous “threat to national security”.

And crucially, it includes an “override clause” that even Israel’s high court cannot overturn.

It’s important to note that countries often introduce special legislation affecting media in times of war and crisis, amid legitimate national security considerations.

Ukraine is an obvious case in point, not least because it faces such a particularly sharp threat from Russian disinformation.

A year before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky moved to shut down three pro-Russian TV channels judged to effectively be weapons in Russia’s information war.

Immediately after the full-scale invasion, all national news channels were united into a 24-hour broadcast, and a subsequent newly revised media law was intended to be muscular enough to withstand Russian malign influence.

Yet while criticism of the government in times of war – especially one being fought with a citizen’s army – is not easy, Ukrainian journalists have quite effectively held their leaders to account.

Reporting on corruption in the defence ministry, for instance, heralded the minister’s resignation of defence minister Oleskiy Reznikov and government pledges for greater transparency.

And critically, the Government’s moves in the information sphere have not gone unchallenged. Ukraine, with its history of authoritarian government and a media scene under the sway of oligarchs and political interests, knows all too well how fragile free expression can be.

While officials made clear that the telethon would be completely free of government intervention, not all outlets were included, and critics note that some of those excluded such as Espresso, Channel 5, and Priamyi, had often criticised Zelensky and to varying degrees were associated with his predecessor Petro Poroshenko.

And there was widespread criticism of the March 2023 media law for handing too much power to government intervention, with the same measures to counter Russian disinformation all too easily abused to limit critical voices.

In neighbouring Moldova, scores of pro-Russian outlets were banned under the state of emergency declared immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  More than two years later, the TV channels and websites remain blocked despite the end of the state of emergency, and many critics would argue that the country remains as vulnerable as ever to Russian propaganda.

What is needed to ensure that national security considerations do not become a tool to control free expression is a robust civil society push back and an ongoing debate on the boundary between freedom of speech and the fight against fake news.

In Israel, where the national narrative has become an inextricable part of the conflict itself, the public appears increasingly supine in the face of the official version of events.

Israel has long championed its diverse and outspoken media sector as a sign of a vibrant democracy, alongside robust laws that purport to protect free expression. But civil society and media are now experiencing repression from both official and non-state sources, with Palestinian citizens of Israel bearing the brunt.

Anti-war protests have been curtailed and violently repressed; Jewish and Arab teachers fired over left-wing posts on social media, while students have faced disciplinary actions for simply supporting a ceasefire.

Dissenting voices and journalists are being directly targeted and doxxed. Just after 7 October, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi suggested police be empowered to arrest those accused of spreading information that could harm morale or fuel enemy propaganda.

Haaretz journalist Rogel Alpher this week noted a column in Yisrael Hayom which called for articles in the penal law that mandate execution or life imprisonment enforced on those disseminating “defeatist propaganda” or “abetting the enemy”.

Of course, Israel is not about to start executing journalists. The vast majority of extreme proposals do not make it into law, just as most anti-war arrests do not lead to indictments. Even bans on specific outlets are not total; Al Jazeera can still be accessed with absolute ease online.

But this all helps create a chilling atmosphere, serving to normalise such actions and increasing self-censorship.

Israel’s Hebrew-language media has chosen to self-censor to such a large extent that Jewish Israelis experience what Esther Solomon, editor-in-chief of Haaretz English, describes as a  “cognitive gap” between the content they consume and what the rest of the world sees.

This means that anything confronting the profoundly uncomfortable reality of war and contradicting the accepted IDF narrative is seen as traitorous and a threat to national security.

The public acceptance of vaguely worded censorious media laws seems to fit all too well with the ongoing slow and creeping deterioration of Israel’s democracy.

The post The silencing of media in times of war appeared first on Index on Censorship.

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