Lapid called move against US news agency 'an act of madness'

Karhi reverses decision to seize AP equipment that broadcasts live feed of Gaza

Live feed resumes hours after communications minister says confiscated camera, equipment being returned; AP welcomes reversal but concerned about government impeding press freedom

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi arrives at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 8, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi arrives at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 8, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi on Tuesday night backtracked on his order to confiscate equipment from the Associated Press news agency that was broadcasting a live feed from southern Israel of adjacent northern Gaza and said the equipment would be returned.

Israeli officials had seized a camera and broadcasting equipment belonging to the Associated Press in Sderot earlier on Tuesday, accusing the news organization of violating a new media law by providing images to the banned Al Jazeera network.

The Qatari satellite channel is among thousands of clients that receive live video feeds from the AP and other news organizations.

In confiscating the equipment, the Communications Ministry also alleged that the feed showing northern Gaza exposed troop movements, a claim which Israel’s Channel 12, after reviewing footage from the feed, said was unfounded.

Hours after the Communications Ministry accused AP of causing “great harm to national security” by allowing Al Jazeera to broadcast its feed, Karhi said in a late-night statement that he had reversed the decision.

By early Wednesday, the AP’s live video of Gaza was back up.

“The Communications Ministry acted today to confiscate equipment that, despite repeated warnings, transmitted to Al Jazeera about the positions of our forces in the northern Gaza Strip while putting them at risk —  in accordance with security opinions and the government’s decision,” Karhi said.

“Since the Defense Ministry wishes to examine the matter of the broadcasts from these locations in Sderot regarding the risk to our forces, I have now ordered a cancellation of the operation and the return of the equipment to AP, until a different decision is made by the Defense Ministry,” he added.

The Defense Ministry on Wednesday stated that it was not involved in the decision to seize the AP equipment or to return it.

In this image from video, Israeli officials seize AP video equipment from an apartment block in Sderot, southern Israel, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Josphat Kasire)

The so-called Al Jazeera law, which gives the government temporary powers to prevent foreign news networks from operating in Israel if they are deemed to be harming national security, was passed by the Knesset last month.

AP said it had not previously been told that the position of its live camera was an issue and had only been informed that there was concern about its images appearing in real-time on Al Jazeera.

Following Karhi’s backtrack, AP’s vice president for corporate communications Lauren Easton said that while the news agency was “pleased with this development, we remain concerned about the Israeli government’s use of the foreign broadcaster law and the ability of independent journalists to operate freely in Israel.”

She had earlier urged Israeli authorities to return the wire service’s equipment and allow its journalists “to reinstate our live feed immediately so we can continue to provide this important visual journalism to thousands of media outlets around the world.”

The decision to confiscate the equipment — which was reportedly not coordinated with the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — also sparked concern at the White House, which said it was engaging directly with Israel to ask that the move be reversed.

AP video equipment is laid on the floor of an apartment block in Sderot, southern Israel, shortly before it was seized by Israeli officials, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Josphat Kasire)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid had slammed Karhi for the seizure, calling it “an act of madness.”

“The confiscation of the equipment of AP, the largest news agency in the world, by Shlomo Karhi’s men is an act of madness. This is not Al Jazeera, this is an American media outlet that has won 53 Pulitzer Prizes,” Lapid said.

“This government behaves as if it has decided to make sure, at any cost, that Israel will be ostracized all over the world.”

Responding to Lapid, Karhi tweeted that his officials are “dedicated professionals” who uphold the law, and derided Lapid, saying: “We will continue to act decisively against anyone who tries to harm our soldiers and the security of the country, even if you don’t like it.”

Karhi also said the decision was made to confiscate AP’s equipment “following the orders signed unanimously by the government, with the overwhelming support of all the security forces [which] state that devices used to deliver Al Jazeera content must be seized from any person or corporation.”

The Foreign Press Association (FPA), which represents international journalists in Israel, also condemned the seizure, calling it “the latest in a series of chilling steps by the Israeli government to stifle the media.”

“Israel’s record on press freedom already has been dismal throughout the war. For the entire conflict, it has prevented independent access to Gaza for foreign journalists. Now it has taken another step backward away from the democratic ideals it claims to uphold,” the FPA said.

AP said earlier Tuesday that it has been broadcasting a general view of northern Gaza and that the agency complies with Israel’s military censorship rules, which prohibit broadcasts of details like troop movements that could endanger soldiers. The live shot has generally shown smoke rising over the territory.

The AP acknowledged that the seizure followed a verbal order Thursday to cease the live transmission — which the news organization refused to do.

A screenshot taken from AP video showing a general view of northern Gaza as seen from southern Israel, before it was seized by Israeli officials on May 21, 2024. (AP Photo)

The so-called Al Jazeera law empowers the communications minister to order “content providers” to cease broadcasting the channel in question; order the channel’s Israeli offices to be shuttered; order the channel’s equipment be confiscated; and order the channel’s website to be taken offline, if the server is physically located in Israel, or otherwise block access to the website.

Such orders will be valid for 45 days but can be renewed for further 45-day periods.

Israeli officials used the law to temporarily close down the offices of Al Jazeera on May 5 as well as confiscating the channel’s equipment, banning its broadcasts and blocking its websites.

Most Popular
read more: