Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last-minute decision to ban a senior Al Jazeera correspondent from a government-sponsored conference in Jerusalem on Thursday sparked outrage among many of its participants, with even the head of the Government Press Office taking issue with the move.
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Late Wednesday night, Netanyahu instructed GPO Director Nitzan Chen to disinvite Al Jazeera's Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid al-Omari, from the event, which focused on the topic of freedom of expression in Israel and the need to balance it with national security considerations.
Chen, whose office operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and accredits both local and foreign journalists, said at the opening of the conference that he took issue with Netanyahu’s decision to ban Omari, but had no choice but to oblige him.
“We thought having Walid here would help strengthen the discussion, and we thought it was legitimate to have different views heard,” said Chen. “But the prime minister thought otherwise and we are obligated to fulfill his request.”
Chen added this was the first time in his five years in the job that the premier had intervened so blatantly in decisions taken by the GPO. Asked by Haaretz whether he had considered resigning over this unprecedented interference, Chen responded, “No comment.”
Several of the panelists said they had considered not showing up to protest the ban on Omari, but ultimately decided it was more important to have their dissenting voices heard.
This is not the first time the GPO has targeted the Qatari-based broadcaster. Last month, it decided to revoke the press accreditation of another Al Jazeera reporter, Elias Karram, over an interview he gave on another station, but that decision was later canceled.
In a post published late Wednesday night on Facebook, the GPO said it had been instructed by Netanyahu to take the legal actions required to close down Al Jazeera’s Israel bureau.
Speaking at the event, Josef Federman, chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, said his organization was discussing how to respond.
While Federman said his role was not to defend Al Jazeera’s reporting, he said he would defend “their right to report whatever they want.
“Israel is strong enough to handle whatever Al Jazeera throws at it, and I don’t think closing the station down is the way to respond,” he said.
Federman said that in the many briefings he had attended with Israeli officials, he had never received any evidence that Al Jazeera or any other foreign media reporting had jeopardized national security in any way.
“Basically, what it boils down to is that Israel doesn’t like what they say – and from what I see going on in this country right now, this is part of a broader trend,” Federman said.
“There are many people in the government who are trying to stop things they don’t like, and they do it by just trying to shut people up,” he added, citing as examples the government’s threats to cut funding to cultural institutions it sees as overstepping the boundaries of freedom of expression and Netanyahu’s recent attacks on the media.
Gideon Meir, a former diplomat and senior official at the Foreign Ministry, said he favored closing down Al Jazeera’s Israeli office, but only after proper legal action had been taken. He said he believed the television station was not a “real news outlet,” but rather “a propaganda tool that serves the Qatari government.”
At the same time, Meir said he was fiercely opposed to the ban imposed on the organization’s bureau chief on Thursday. “It was a terrible mistake and antidemocratic,” he said. “I’m all for free discourse, and he should have been here today debating us.”
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a media expert from the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, said the issue was not whether Al Jazeera published reports that were inaccurate or offensive, but whether hard evidence existed that its reporters endangered the security of Israel – in which case they should be prosecuted rather than denied their press credentials, she said.
“Yes, I’ve seen some of their reports and they’re disgusting and break every rule of journalism,” she said. “But I haven’t yet seen any proof that they are a security threat.”
Elad Man, a prominent media lawyer, agreed. “If they’ve committed some crime, then that’s a matter for the law enforcement authorities to deal with,” he said, “not the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Orly Goldklang, a senior editor at the right-wing Arutz Sheva news website, said that although she supported closing Al Jazeera’s office, she was not happy with the decision to ban Omari from the conference.
“It makes me uncomfortable that he’s not here,” she said. “I was in favor of holding a dialogue with him.”