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.

Reflections six months on from 7 October

The 21st century has simultaneously brought the world closer together and driven communities further apart. Technological advancements have enabled us to be more aware of the gift humanity can bring to the globe and of our unshaking ability to wreak so much damage.

This dichotomy of hope and hate has been sharply placed into focus in the Middle East.

This weekend marks the six-month anniversary of the horrific 7 October attacks on Israel.

Every night we turn on our televisions and witness the pain and suffering of peoples who yearn for peace.

1,269 children, women and men were brutally murdered by Hamas, with hundreds more tortured and taken hostage. This barbarity ignited a conflict between Israel and Hamas which, as of 5 March, has claimed the lives of 30,228 Palestinians and 1,410 Israelis.

Each person behind these faceless numbers leaves behind a pit of grief for loved ones which will never be filled.

The pain and suffering inflicted by the 7 October attacks have reverberated throughout communities, both in the Middle East and in countries across the planet. The war is leaving behind a trail of devastation and despair. Lives have been lost, families shattered, and entire communities torn apart. The aftermath of such violence cannot be overstated, and the scars it leaves behind run deep.

While Index on Censorship typically centres its efforts on defending freedom of expression, we cannot turn a blind eye to the urgent humanitarian crisis which has unfurled before us. It is crucial that we acknowledge the human toll of such conflicts and recognise the need for immediate action to alleviate the suffering of those affected.

In times of crisis, it is essential that the international community comes together to provide support and assistance to those in need. We must renew our efforts to secure a lasting peace in the region and work towards addressing the root causes of conflict.

This means prioritising humanitarian aid, securing the release of the hostages and ensuring that those devastated by the 7 October attacks receive the assistance they so desperately need. It also means holding accountable those responsible for perpetrating violence and ensuring that justice is served for the victims.

But beyond immediate relief efforts, we must also work towards addressing the underlying issues that fuel such conflicts. This includes addressing issues of inequality, injustice, and discrimination, which often serve as breeding grounds for violence and extremism.

As we reflect on the six-month anniversary of the 7 October attacks, let us not forget the human faces behind the headlines – the families mourning loved ones, the children traumatised by violence, and the communities struggling to rebuild in the aftermath.

As we look ahead, let us honour the memory of those we have lost by working tirelessly towards a future where such senseless violence is but a distant memory. Together, we can create a world where freedom, dignity, and human rights are upheld for all.

Iran: do you want the good or the bad news?

A great privilege of working at Index is, and always has been, the amazing people we get to encounter, those who look tyranny in the face and don’t cower. Iranian musician Toomaj Salehi is one such person. This week, the 2023 Index Freedom of Expression arts award winner donated the £2500 cash prize to relief funds for those affected by the floods in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province in an act of extreme generosity. We were informed of the donation by his family.

Salehi, whose music rails against corruption, state executions, poverty and the killing of protesters in Iran, has spent years in and out of jail. Today he is still not free – indeed he faces a court hearing on another new charge tomorrow. Our work with him doesn’t end with the award. But what solace to know that the money will make a tangible difference to the lives of many and that jail cannot stop Salehi from his mission to make Iran a more just country.

While Salehi, and others, confront the brutal face of censorship, those in the USA and the UK are this week dealing with the finer print – who owns what. The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that will require TikTok owner ByteDance to sell the popular video-sharing app or face a total ban. This is challenging territory. TikTok is guilty of its charges, shaping content to suit the interests of Beijing and data harvesting being the most prominent. So too are other social media platforms. If it is sold (which is still an if) we could see a further concentration of influential apps in the hands of a few tech giants. Is that a positive outcome? And how does this match up against the treatment of USA-based X? The social media platform, formerly Twitter, has Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding, the investment vehicle of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, as its second largest investor. Is the US Government holding X to the same standards?

Meanwhile, the UK government (which has expanded the definition of extremism this week in a concerning way) plans to ban foreign governments from owning British media, effectively saying no to an Abu Dhabi-led takeover of the Telegraph. We have expressed our concerns about the buyout before and these concerns remain. Still, we’d like to see the final proposal before deciding whether it’s good news.

We’ve also spoken a lot this week about the decision by literary magazine Guernica to pull an article written by an Israeli (still available via the Wayback machine here) following a staff-walk out. We stand by everyone’s right to protest peacefully, of which walking out of your office is just that. But we are troubled by other aspects, specifically redacting an article post-publication and the seemingly low bar for such a redaction (and protest), which hinged on the identity of the author and a few sentences. We can argue about whether these sentences were inflammatory – I personally struggle to see them as such – and indeed we should, because if we can’t have these debates within the pages of a thoughtful magazine aimed at the erudite we’re in a bad place.

Speaking of a bad place, Russia goes to the “polls” today.

UK, USA continue attack of protest rights

After passing the Public Order Bill last year in the UK, which increased the powers of the police to restrict people’s fundamental rights to peaceful protest, the government is looking to restrict protest rights further. The new Criminal Justice Bill is currently being considered by parliament and contains measures designed to clamp down on protesters climbing on national monuments, hiding their face or carrying flares.

In their announcement of the new measures, the Home Office declared that the right to protest is “no longer an excuse for certain public order offences”. Additionally, attorney general Victoria Prentis KC is leading an attempt to outlaw the ‘consent’ defence for climate protesters, which argues that defendants have a lawful excuse for their actions due to their honest belief that those affected by their actions would consent to the damage had they understood the dangers of the climate emergency. This attack on what is one of the last remaining lawful defences available to climate activists has been described by environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion as “concerning”.

“The government would rather curtail our right to protest, and waste valuable court time and public money, than do what everyone agrees is necessary to protect us from the worst climate impacts and cut people’s energy bills,” a spokesperson for the group told Index.

“When political parties keep prioritising narrow private interests ahead of the lives, homes and security of its citizens the solution is to put people in charge through an emergency citizens’ assembly on the climate and nature emergencies.”

This is particularly alarming given the rise in environmental activists facing potential legal action. Hundreds of such campaigners in the UK have received legal threats, leading to claims that states and private companies are using the threat of costly legal action to silence critics.

Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, has previously expressed concerns over the UK’s increasing intolerance of environmental protests, calling the new laws “regressive” and warning of the “chilling effect” they will have on free expression. This statement came in the aftermath of the infamous case of Just Stop Oil campaigners Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker, who made history last year when they were handed the longest sentences for a peaceful climate protest in living memory. Both have been jailed for more than two and a half years after scaling a bridge on the Dartford Crossing, forcing its closure and causing gridlock for the traffic below.

The current ongoing conflict in the Middle East has increased concerns over protester safety. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, weekly marches have taken place in the UK and have become a source of contention in the free expression world. Suella Braverman, for example, stated that waving a Palestinian flag “may not be legitimate” and encouraged a “strong police presence” in response. There have been hundreds of arrests during pro-Palestine protests since the conflict broke out, raising questions over the line between incitement and free speech. In December, nine people were arrested in London after displaying a pro-Palestine banner. Five people were arrested the month before for taking part in a peaceful sit-in at King’s Cross station after refusing to comply with an order to disperse.

This pattern of increasing police powers to clamp down on peaceful protest demonstrates a worrying break from usual democratic principles, which could have serious consequences for free expression in the state.

Anti-protest laws are not just gaining traction in the UK. Similar incidents have occurred in the USA, marking a worrying trend. Earlier this month, freelance journalist Reed Dunlea was arrested while covering pro-Palestine protests in New York. He was officially charged, confusingly, with resisting arrest, but no reason has been given as to why he was being arrested in the first place, particularly as his press pass and media equipment was on full display.

Freelance photographer Stephanie Keith told Index that she saw Dunlea’s arrest in progress as she was covering the protests, but that it wasn’t clear what he was arrested for.

“I was across the street documenting an earlier arrest when I saw a number of NYPD [officers] slamming a fairly large man onto the ground,” she said.

Keith has been covering the recent pro-Palestine protests in the USA and said she has noticed attitudes towards protesters changing in the last few months.

“The NYPD have been much more intolerant of the Palestinian protest in the last two months,” she said.  “Protesters used to be able to march in the streets and now if anyone sets foot in the streets, they are arrested.

“The police have a very different attitude towards the protesters now than they did at the end of last year.”

This incident was one of many to have occurred under New York Mayor Eric Adams, a pro-police candidate. During his term, misconduct complaints against the NYPD have risen to their highest levels in more than a decade.

Outside of New York, the police forces of other US cities have also displayed an increasingly hostile attitude towards protesters. Following the racial justice protests of 2020 that broke out after the murder of George Floyd, at least 19 US cities were made to pay settlements totalling more than $80m to protesters who sustained injuries as a result of law enforcement action.

If such a trend continues, the UK and US will have serious questions to answer over their treatment of protesters. One of the most fundamental concepts of any functioning democracy is the right to peacefully protest. The charge sheet of both the UK and the US is not looking good and we must make sure we don’t look the other way.