Are people in Israel getting the full story on Gaza?
The world is seeing a completely different war from the domestic audience
03 Jun 24

A copy of Israel Today newspaper with the headline "Battle of Heroes". Photo: Chenspec

Israel’s decision to seize video equipment from AP journalists last week may have been swiftly reversed but the overall direction of travel for media freedom in Israel is negative.

Journalists inside Gaza are of course paying the highest price (yesterday preliminary investigations by CPJ showed at least 107 journalists and media workers were among the more than 37,000 killed since the Israel-Gaza war began) and it feels odd to speak of equipment seizures when so many of those covering the war in the Strip have paid with their lives. But this is not to compare, merely to illuminate.

The past few days have provided ample evidence of what many within Israel have long feared – that the offensive in Gaza is not being reported on fully in Israel itself. On Tuesday a video went viral of an Israeli woman responding with outrage at the wide gulf between news on Sunday’s bombing of a refugee camp in Rafah within Israeli media compared to major international news outlets. Yesterday, in an interview with Canadian broadcaster CBC, press freedom director for the Union of Journalists in Israel, Anat Saragusti, spoke more broadly of the reporting discrepancies since 7 October:

“The world sees a completely different war from the Israeli audience. This is very disturbing.”

Saragusti added that part of this is because the population is still processing the horrors of 7 October and with that comes a degree of self-censorship from those within the media. The other reason, she said, is that the IDF provides much of the material that appears in Israeli media and this is subject to review by military censors. While the military has always exerted control (Israeli law requires journalists to submit any article dealing with “security issues” to the military censor for review prior to publication), this pressure has intensified since the war, as the magazine +972 showed. Since 2011 +972 have released an annual report looking at the scale of bans by the military censor. In their latest report, released last week and published on our site with permission, they highlighted how in 2023 more than 600 articles by Israeli media outlets were barred, which was the most since their tracking began.

In a visually arresting move, Israeli paper Haaretz published an article on Wednesday with blacked out words and sentences. Highlighting such redactions is incidentally against the law and will no doubt add to the government’s wrath at Haaretz (late last year they threatened the left-leaning outlet with sanctions over their Gaza war coverage).

The government’s attempts to control the media landscape was already a problem prior to 7 October. Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his fractious relationship with the press and has made some very personal attacks throughout his career, such as this one from 2016, while Shlomo Kahri, the current communications minister, last year expressed a desire to shut down the country’s public broadcaster Kan. This week it was also revealed by Haaretz that two years ago investigative reporter Gur Megiddo was blocked from reporting on how then chief of Mossad had allegedly threatened then ICC prosecutor (the story finally saw daylight on Tuesday). Megiddo said he’d been summoned to meet two officials and threatened. It was “explained that if I published the story I would suffer the consequences and get to know the interrogation rooms of the Israeli security authorities from the inside,” said Megiddo.

Switching to the present, it feels unconscionable that Israelis, for whom the war is a lived reality not just a news story, are being served a light version of its conduct.

In the case of AP, their equipment was confiscated on the premise that it violated a new media law, passed by Israeli parliament in April, which allows the state to shut down foreign media outlets it deems a security threat. It was under this law that Israel also raided and closed Al Jazeera’s offices earlier this month and banned the company’s websites and broadcasts in the country.

Countries have a habit of passing censorious legislation in wartime, the justification being that some media control is important to protect the military. The issue is that such legislation is typically vague, open to abuse by those in power, and doesn’t always come with an expiry date to protect peacetime rights.

“A country like Israel, used to living through intense periods of crisis, is particularly vulnerable to calls for legislation that claims to protect national security by limiting free expression. Populist politicians are often happy to exploit the “rally around the flag” effect,” Daniella Peled, managing editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, told Index.

We voiced our concerns here in terms of Ukraine, which passed a media law within the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion with very broad implications, and we have concerns with Israel too. But as these examples show, our concerns are far wider than just one law and one incidence of confiscated equipment.

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Jemimah Steinfeld has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of the book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, which was described by the FT as "meticulously researched and highly readable". Jemimah has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to study an MA in Chinese Studies at SOAS.