Are people in Israel getting the full story on Gaza?

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.

Israeli military censor bans highest number of articles in over a decade

The following article was first published by +972 Magazine, an independent, online, nonprofit magazine run by a group of Palestinian and Israeli journalists. Index on Censorship has reported on media freedom on both sides of the conflict since the 7 October attacks.

In 2023, the Israeli military censor barred the publication of 613 articles by media outlets in Israel, setting a new record for the period since +972 Magazine began collecting data in 2011. The censor also redacted parts of a further 2,703 articles, representing the highest figure since 2014. In all, the military prevented information from being made public an average of nine times a day.

This censorship data was provided by the military censor in response to a freedom of information request submitted by +972 Magazine and the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel.

Israeli law requires all journalists working inside Israel or for an Israeli publication to submit any article dealing with “security issues” to the military censor for review prior to publication, in line with the “emergency regulations” enacted following Israel’s founding, and which remain in place. These regulations allow the censor to fully or partially redact articles submitted to it, as well as those already published without its review. No other self-proclaimed “Western democracy” operates a similar institution.

To prevent arbitrary or political interference, the High Court ruled in 1989 that the censor is only permitted to intervene when there is a “near certainty that real damage will be caused to the security of the state” by an article’s publication. Nonetheless, the censor’s definition of “security issues” is very broad, detailed across six densely-filled pages of sub-topics concerning the army, intelligence agencies, arms deals, administrative detainees, aspects of Israel’s foreign affairs, and more. Early on in the war, the censor distributed more specific guidance regarding which kinds of news items must be submitted for review before publication, as revealed by The Intercept.

Submissions to the censor are made at the discretion of a publication’s editors, and media outlets are prohibited from revealing the censor’s interference — by marking where an article has been redacted, for instance — which leaves most of its activity in the shadows. The censor has the authority to indict journalists and fine, suspend, shut down, or even file criminal charges against media organizations. There are no known cases of such activity in recent years, however, and our request to the censor to specify its indictments filed in the past year was not answered.

For more background on the Israeli military censor and +972’s stance toward it, you can read the letter we published to our readers in 2016.

“Information pertaining to censorship is of particularly high importance, especially in times of emergency,” attorney Or Sadan of the Movement for Freedom of Information told +972. “During the war, we have [witnessed] the large gaps between Israeli and international media outlets, as well as between the traditional media and social media. Although it is obvious that there is information that cannot be disclosed to the public in times of emergency, it is appropriate for the public to be aware of the scope of information hidden from it.

“The significance of such censorship is clear: there is a great deal of information that journalists have seen fit to publish, recognizing its importance to the public, that the censor chose not to allow,” Sadan continued. “We hope and believe that the exposure of these numbers, year after year, will create some deterrence against the unchecked use of this tool.”

A wartime trend

Although the censor refused our request to provide a breakdown of its censorship figures by month, media outlet, and grounds for interference, it is clear that the reason for last year’s spike is the Hamas-led October 7 attack and the ensuing Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The only year for which there was a comparable level of silencing was 2014, when Israel launched what was then its largest assault on the Strip; that year, the censor intervened in more articles (3,122) but disqualified slightly fewer (597) than in 2023.

Last year, the censor’s representatives also made in-person visits to news studios, as has previously occurred during periods in which the government has declared a state of emergency, and continued monitoring the media and social networks for censorship violations. The censor declined to detail the extent of its involvement in television production and the number of retroactive interventions it made in regard to previously published news articles.

We do know, however, thanks to information revealed by The Seventh Eye, that despite the Israeli media’s proactive compliance — the number of submissions to the censor nearly doubled last year to 10,527 — the censor identified an additional 3,415 news items containing information that should have been submitted for review, and 414 that were published in violation of its orders.

Even before the war, the Israeli government had advanced a series of measures to undermine media independence. This led to Israel dropping 11 places in the 2023 annual World Press Freedom Index, followed by an additional four places in 2024 (it now sits in 101st place out of 180).

Since October, press freedom in Israel has further deteriorated, and the censor has found itself in the crosshairs of political battles. According to reports by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for a new law that would force the censor to ban news items more widely, and even suggested that journalists who publish reports on the security cabinet without the approval of the censor should be arrested. The chief military censor, Major General Kobi Mandelblit, also claimed that Netanyahu had pressured him to expand media censorship, even in cases that lacked any security justification.

In other cases, the Israeli government’s crackdown on media has skirted the censor and its activities entirely. Back in November, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi banned Al-Mayadeen from being broadcast on Israeli TV, and in April, the Knesset passed a law to ban the activities of foreign media outlets at the recommendation of security agencies. The government implemented the law earlier this month when the cabinet unanimously voted to shut down Al Jazeera in Israel, and the ban will now reportedly also be extended to the West Bank. The state claims that the Qatari channel poses a danger to state security and collaborates with Hamas, which the channel rejects.

The decision will not affect Al Jazeera’s operations outside of Israel, nor will it prevent interviews with Israelis via Zoom (full disclosure: this writer sometimes interviews with Al Jazeera via Zoom), and Israelis can still access the channel via VPN and satellite dishes. But Al Jazeera journalists will no longer be able to report from inside Israel, which will reduce the channel’s ability to highlight Israeli voices in its coverage.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Al Jazeera petitioned the High Court against the decision, and the Journalists’ Union also issued a statement against the government’s decision (full disclosure: this writer is a member of the union’s board).

Despite these various attacks on the media, the most significant threats posed by the Israeli government and military, and especially during the war, are those faced by Palestinians journalists. Figures for the number of Palestinian journalists in Gaza killed by Israeli attacks since October 7 range from 100 (according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists) to more than 130 (according to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate). Four Israeli journalists were killed in the October 7 attacks.

The heightened government interference in Israeli media does not absolve the mainstream press of its failure to report on the army’s campaign of destruction in Gaza. The military censor does not prevent Israeli publications from describing the war’s consequences for Palestinian civilians in Gaza, or from featuring the work of Palestinian reporters inside the Strip. The choice to deny the Israeli public the images, voices, and stories of hundreds of thousands of bereaved families, orphans, wounded, homeless, and starving people is one that Israeli journalists make themselves.

This article was previously published by +972 here.

Israel’s civil and human rights are under siege

Almost six months to the day since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli government made a decision to shutter the Al Jazeera bureau in Jerusalem. The Knesset vote was an overwhelming 71-10. “The ability of the Communications Minister to shutter press for political motivation is a complete and utter threat to democracy in Israel,” said Noa Sattath, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel’s leading human and civil rights organisation. “We want a journalist to be thinking about the truth, not about what a minister is thinking about them—this is a chilling effect. “

In addition to the attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the new law also effectively precludes the court from intervening in decisions regarding the closure of media outlets. In addition to closing Al Jazeera’s offices, the law allows removing its website and confiscating the device used to deliver its content. Al Jazeera, termed a “propaganda machine” not a news organisation by many in the Israeli government, was an easy target perhaps, especially during wartime, but it is especially in wartime that a democracy’s fortitude is tested.

In a new sixth-month survey of the impact of the war on human and civil rights in Israel, ACRI makes these points: “Even before the terrorist attack Hamas perpetrated on 7 October, and before the war broke out, Israeli democracy was facing severe threats. Combined together, laws designed to take over the judicial system [what Prime Minister and his government called ‘judicial reform’, but what opponents called a ‘judicial coup’ attempt] and a slew of other initiatives in different areas crystallised to produce a judicial overhaul, as part of which the government sought to undermine the pillars of democracy and reduce human rights protections. Some initiatives to take over the judicial system have been put on hold since the war began, partly because this was put forward as a condition for expanding the government [by member parties]. Other initiatives that threaten democracy have also been suspended.”

Yet, there are enough new curbs and potential curbs on human and civil rights to warrant a 14-page document from ACRI. Sattath, the ACRI director, explains: “The government has pushed forward with existing trends such as targeting Arab society, restricting freedom of movement, increasing the prevalence of firearms in public spaces, and accelerating the annexation of the West Bank. Given the general climate in a time of war, these efforts are met with less resistance. In other fields, such as prisoners’ rights, the state of human rights has taken a significant turn for the worse, while the public remains entirely indifferent. Human rights violations are often carried out via emergency regulations (Hebrew), an undemocratic tool that allows the government to enact laws, seriously violating the principle of separation of powers.”

In addition to the actual censoring of media, the mainstream media has self-censored in Israel, aware of—and even setting—the tone among the public. Nightly newscasts cover soldiers in the field, the hostages, and other security concerns but rarely focus on the situation for Palestinians, including the humanitarian concerns in Gaza.

Additionally, people have been detained by the police for a “like” on social media after the Ministry of Justice removed the State Prosecutor’s oversight on charges for offences of freedom of expression during the war, so that police don’t need approval before investigating such cases. Police were directed to detain people for social media posts until the proceedings’ end and prosecute them even for a single publication. This change led to a surge in arrests of Arab citizens regarding social media posts; arresting without cause.

Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of widespread hate speech online incriminating Jewish social media spots promoting hate against Arabs, but enforcement disproportionately targets Arab citizens and residents.

By November, there were 269 investigation cases for incitement and support for terrorism, resulting in 86 expedited indictments for incitement to violence and terrorism. Suspects faced prolonged detention and even remand until trial, a departure from due process.

Additionally, there are significant violations of policing of peaceful demonstrators, along with unlawful detentions of protesters and unauthorised visits to the houses of suspected protest organisers by the police. The police (which is federalised in Israel), led by far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir, seem to be pre-imagining what steps he anticipates for them and taking them–all with no retribution so far.

Security prisoners in Israeli prisons have faced much worse, with protocols, including lawyers’ visits, upended. Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of guns in the streets with a free-for-all dispensation by Ben Gvir’s office to create private militias both inside Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where actions by Jewish settlers against Palestinian residents have multiplied.

These are just a few key examples of what Israelis are facing. Even when the war ends and when the current government falls, much of the backtracking in Israeli society will be hard to reverse.

Sport faces growing censorship problem over the Israel-Gaza war

When Turkish football team Antalyaspor faced Trabzonspor in a Super Lig match earlier this month, few could have predicted the fall-out that would follow off the pitch. Israeli winger Sagiv Jehezkel scored the equaliser for Antalyaspor in the second half, and in celebration he revealed a message written on his wristband that said: “100 days, 7-10”. The words referenced the length of time that Israeli hostages had been held by Hamas since the group launched an attack on Israel on the 7 October, killing an estimated 1,200 people.

In Turkey, the backlash was fierce. Jehezkel was arrested and detained in Antalya on the charge of “incitement to hate”. After being released, he was sacked by Antalyaspor and returned home to Israel, landing in Tel Aviv the next day.

According to local media, Jehezkel has stated that he did not mean to provoke such a storm. He said: “I am not a pro-war person. I want the war to end. That’s why I showed the sign.” Antalyaspor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

He is not the only footballer to lose his club for voicing an opinion on the conflict. When Israel began their retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which has so far reportedly killed more than 26,000 people, Dutch international Anwar El Ghazi posted a message of support for Palestine on his Instagram story. After a back and forth with his club – German side FSV Mainz 05 – El Ghazi made a further statement on social media announcing that he had no regrets over the now-deleted post and reiterating his argument that he stands “for humanity and the oppressed” and against “the killing of all innocent civilians in Palestine and Israel”. Mainz were unhappy with El Ghazi’s stance, calling his position on the conflict “unacceptable”. A few days later, his contract was terminated.

Upon losing his club, El Ghazi posted once more. “Stand for what is right, even if it means standing alone. The loss of my livelihood is nothing when compared to the hell being unleashed on the innocent and vulnerable in Gaza,” he said.

The player is now suing Mainz for wrongful termination of his contract, while the club is making a counter claim as they seek financial compensation to help fund his replacement. The final hearing is set to be held in June.

Mainz told Index they were unable to comment on the incident as legal proceedings are ongoing.

These two cases sum up the uncomfortable relationship sport has with politics and free speech, and how this has been exacerbated by the Israel-Gaza war. Due to the divisive nature of the conflict, sporting bodies are struggling to navigate the line between freedom of expression and the potential to incite hatred and in doing so have fallen into a worrying trend of censorship. 

The reluctance or inability of those involved to comment on the incidents may also show the difficulties people have when talking about this topic, as they can’t, or won’t, speak up due to the potential backlash and further repercussions. This is fairly unsurprising given the experiences of those who have expressed an opinion on the conflict. In another case, footballer Karim Benzema was accused of having “notorious” links to Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by France’s Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin. His crime? Posting a message of support for the inhabitants of Gaza on X (formerly Twitter). Benzema has filed for defamation against Darmanin; his lawyer Hugues Vigier told French news outlet RTL that the claims were “false” and accused the Interior Minister of “sowing division in France”. 

It is not just players who are facing the threat of censorship. Many of football’s national governing bodies, including England’s Premier League and EFL, have also banned supporters from displaying Palestine or Israel flags during games. As a result, there have been a number of accusations levelled at English clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United of censoring fans who display any show of support for the Palestinian cause by removing them from stadiums. 

Other sports have also been caught up in the censorship storm. Former athlete Emilie Gomis, who clinched a silver medal in basketball for France at the London 2012 Olympics, recently stepped down from her role as an ambassador for the Paris 2024 Games after posting an anti-Israel video to her Instagram story. Elsewhere, in South Africa, cricketer David Teeger was stripped of his captaincy of the country’s under-19s side after dedicating an award he won at a Jewish community event to “the state of Israel and every single soldier fighting so that we can live and thrive in the diaspora”, in a decision described as a “sinister” and “discriminatory” by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Another cricketer, Australia’s Usman Khawaja, was charged by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for wearing a black armband during a test match against Pakistan in support of those in Gaza. ICC regulations do not allow players to display “messages of political, religious or racial causes”, and the player had previously been warned by the governing body after wearing shoes with the messages “all lives are equal” and “freedom is a human right” written on them. Khawaja argues that it is not a political statement but a “humanitarian appeal”.

Further debate over the right to free expression in regard to the conflict is inevitable with the growing calls to ban Israel from competing in sporting events. One post on X by The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for “pressure” to be put on sporting bodies to ban Israel from international tournaments and games “until Israel ends its grave violations of international law”. The statement was reposted by the BBC’s Gary Lineker, who later deleted it.

Despite cries to keep politics out of sport, it is not possible to separate the two. Sport does not exist in an apolitical vacuum, and is impacted even on the front lines; the Palestinian Football Association says 88 top-tier athletes have been killed by Israeli forces during their military bombardment, 67 of whom are footballers. Just this month it was reported that the coach of Palestine’s Olympic football team Hani Al-Masdar was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The attempts by governing bodies in sport to prevent athletes and fans from expressing a view on the conflict, while not necessarily malicious, pose a serious risk to free speech. While the cases of Sagiv Jehezkel and Anwar El Ghazi are extreme, they are the product of sport’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to political censorship, which makes having an opinion on the war in Gaza increasingly difficult. For people to feel unable to wade into the issue in fear of backlash is cause for concern in itself. Despite a long history of athletes being involved in political activism, sport still hasn’t found a way to ensure free expression for all is upheld.