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Police minister pans commissioner for urging social media shutdowns

Barlev laments ‘unfortunate’ remarks by Shabtai, says he’s ‘glad that we are protecting freedom of expression in Israel’

Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, right, and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev look at a display of illegal weapons during a ceremony in Ma'ale Adumim, after a large police operation against illegal gun dealers, September 7, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, right, and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev look at a display of illegal weapons during a ceremony in Ma'ale Adumim, after a large police operation against illegal gun dealers, September 7, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev on Thursday criticized the chief of the Israel Police for saying that during times of civil unrest the government should shut down access to social media networks.

“I really don’t agree with him,” Barlev told the Radio 103FM station when asked about the remarks made by Commissioner Kobi Shabtai. “It was an unfortunate thing to say. I don’t know… the context in which he said it, but certainly in a democratic country freedom of the press also extends to social media.”

Barlev, the minister responsible for the police, declined to reveal what he has said to Shabtai about the matter but told the radio station, “I am saying quite clearly that it is not the role of the police chief to determine such things, even if in his opinion there is an extreme incident of one kind or another.”

Such matters, Barlev said, are under the purview of the public security minster, the defense minister, and the government.

“I am glad that we are protecting freedom of expression in Israel,” he said.

Shabtai asserted in an interview published Wednesday that during Arab-Jewish violence in May 2021, social media platforms helped drive civilians to the streets to participate in riots, and that closing them down for a limited period is a necessary step despite democratic norms.

“I am of the opinion that in such circumstances the [social] networks need to be blocked,” Shabtai told Yedioth Ahronoth in an interview to be published in full on Friday.

“The social media networks were the ones that drove people out [into the streets]. I’m talking about a broad shutdown of the networks. Put out [the fire], calm everything down, and when the situation is calm open back up,” he said, in an excerpt from the interview published Wednesday.

“We are a democratic country but there is a limit,” Shabtai added.

Facing a torrent of criticism for his remarks, the police chief’s office clarified in a statement later Wednesday that he was referring to “a scenario in the most extreme circumstances in which there is a danger to Israeli democracy and to the security of the state, in the event that there is an uprising that combines broad elements of terrorism within the State of Israel.”

His statement added that he was referring to blocking “those inciting to carry out terror attacks and take to the streets when there are hundreds of thousands of such comments fanning the flames of the event.”

Three people were killed and hundreds more hurt in days of violent unrest in cities with mixed Arab-Jewish populations in May 2021, some of the worst inter-communal violence since the state’s founding,

A report by the state ombudsman into the disturbances released in July specifically noted the police’s failure to adequately monitor social media platforms.

The report pointed to a three-year delay in the rollout of a social media monitoring system, meaning that when the riots broke out, the police did not have an operational, broad intelligence-gathering system for online platforms.

Shabtai’s comments drew strong condemnation from politicians on both the left and right who called the proposal undemocratic.

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