Vote on plan to shutter Al Jazeera delayed as legal concerns surface

Attorney general expresses hesitation over Communications Minister Karhi’s bid for authority to shut down foreign media outlets

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The security cabinet pushed off a vote Monday night on controversial regulations proposed by Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi that would empower him to shut down foreign media outlets, following concerns voiced by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.

Karhi’s proposed regulations are designed to shut down the Al Jazeera news station, which he has accused of harming national security and inciting violence, although critics such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have argued that the proposals would harm freedom of the press.

The proposed regulations, which have undergone several revisions, would give the hard-right Likud communications minister the authority to instruct the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council to revoke a foreign media’s broadcast license, shut down its offices, and seize its equipment if he believed that the outlets broadcasts were harming state security.

Such a decision would need the approval of the security cabinet.

Karhi’s office has said it cannot provide details of broadcasts that have given rise to concerns about Al Jazeera due to security restrictions, although the Kan public broadcaster reported that the Mossad has supported closing the Qatari media outlet for, among other things, allegedly exposing the location of the IDF’s mustering zones on the Gaza border as well as other sensitive locations.

Because of the attorney general’s concerns about the current formulation, the security cabinet decided on Monday night that the defense establishment will formulate a more in-depth legal opinion to justify the minister’s proposed regulations and that the regulations will then be brought to the full government cabinet for approval, a spokesman for Karhi said.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 9, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool Photo via AP)

The attorney general was reportedly concerned by the suggestion that the powers listed in the regulations would be granted to the communications minister and not the defense minister, and that the orders against a foreign media outlet would not need the approval of a district court.

As the debate in the security cabinet was underway, Karhi took to Twitter to denounce Baharav-Miara’s “warped worldview” and called on the cabinet to approve the regulations regardless.

“It would be clear to any thinking person that this process needs to be carried out,” Karhi wrote. “[But] what does Barahav-Miara say…? That there is a constitutional obstacle to passing regulations that would close Al Jazeera.”

The Attorney General’s Office describes Karhi’s characterization of her position as “false and misleading,” noting that she only received the legal positions of the various branches of the security services on the issue on Sunday.

“The attorney general will present to the cabinet a version of the emergency regulations which empower the defense minister to close the offices, and prevent broadcasts in Israel, of foreign media outlets that harm state security,” her office said in a statement to the press Monday night.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said giving Karhi the power to shut down media outlets would “lead to the silencing of critical voices, the imposition of fear on media outlets under the cover of security, while the voices of minorities and positions opposing the government, and the exposure of governmental and military failures, would be silenced in a manner which would stymie [efforts] to rectify them and hide crucial information from the public.”

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