Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally intervened to bar an Al-Jazeera journalist from a government conference on press freedoms Thursday that used the pan-Arab broadcaster as a case study.
Bureau chief Walid Omary’s exclusion from attending a seminar titled “Limits of free expression: the dilemma between national security and freedom of the press — Al Jazeera as a case study,” came a month after Netanyahu threatened to shut the Qatar-based outlet’s Israel offices.
The move drew criticism from the Foreign Press Association, which said it was “deeply disturbed” by the decision, adding that it “raises serious questions about the government’s commitment to freedom of the press.”
The FPA said the decision was also “part of a disturbing and growing trend of incitement against the media by the prime minister.”
“Stifling critics and shutting down stations are actions associated with dictatorships, not a democracy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves to boast that Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy. We urge the government to uphold the ideals that he so proudly embraces,” the FPA said in a statement.
The Government Press Office said Thursday that the prime minister is still pushing to strip Al-Jazeera reporters of their credentials and close their offices, but the move faces legal hurdles.
Last month the office threatened to revoke an Al-Jazeera reporter’s credentials after a 2016 interview surfaced in which he expressed support for Palestinian “resistance.”
The reporter, Elias Karram, was allowed to keep his press card following an investigation and hearing in which he said he condemned any use of violence.
Netanyahu said in July that he wanted to expel the Qatari broadcaster from the country, accusing it of inciting violence.
Netanyahu made the comments as tensions soared over metal detectors Israel installed at entrances to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem following a terror attack outside the compound on July 14, in which three Arab Israelis shot dead two police officers using weapons smuggled into the holy site. The enhanced security measure were later rolled back.
At the time, Al Jazeera condemned what it called “arbitrary accusations and hostile statements.” It said the network would “take all necessary legal measures in case they act on their threat,” saying its coverage was professional and objective.
On August 6, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara followed up on Netanyahu’s comments by saying he would take steps to close Al Jazeera’s offices in Israel.
Later that month, the Foreign Ministry warned Netanyahu against shutting down the broadcaster’s’s offices in Israel, saying that the move could harm the Jewish state’s image worldwide.
The Foreign Ministry also warned that the expulsion of Al Jazeera could supply additional fodder for Israel’s international critics and see the country grouped with nations with limited freedom of press.