Israel reverses shutdown of Associated Press live Gaza broadcast after White House pressure

The view from the Israel AP live feed, which was taken down by Israeli officials  (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
The view from the Israel AP live feed, which was taken down by Israeli officials (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Israel’s government has reversed its decision to shut down and seize broadcast equipment belonging to the Associated Press under the same media law it used to shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in the country earlier this month.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement that both the White House and US State Department had “immediately engaged with the government of Israel at high levels to express our serious concern and ask them to reverse this action” after reports emerged that officials with Israel’s Communications Ministry had travelled to an AP facility in Sderot and took possession of gear that was then being used to broadcast a live feed of the Gaza skyline.

She also said that Israeli officials had “publicly committed” to allow the AP broadcast to recommence and return their equipment.

“The free press is an essential pillar of democracy and members of the media, including AP, do vital work that must be respected,” she said.

Israeli officials had claimed that the AP, which provides video footage to thousands of news organizations, violated the country’s new media law by allowing Al Jazeera to use its broadcast feed after Al Jazeera was banned from operating in the country on May 5th.

The ministry said it had acted “in accordance with the government decision and the instruction of the communications minister” and would “continue to take whatever enforcement action is required to limit broadcasts that harm the security of the state”.

Shortly after the shutdown became public, a White House official told The Independent: “We’ve been engaging directly with the government of Israel to express our concerns over this action and to ask them to reverse it.”

Asked about the Israeli move while traveling aboard Air Force One en route to New Hampshire, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the censorship of the US-based news organization “concerning”.

“We’re gonna be looking into it. And obviously this is concerning, and so we want to look into it,” she said.

Jean-Pierre added that both she and President Joe Biden have repeatedly expressed the importance of a free press, which she called a “pillar of our democracy”.

“You guys are the fourth estate. You guys hold us hold us accountable and make sure that the facts are out there and that is essential to the American people — to the world globally. And so we’re going to always continue to be steadfast on that. And certainly we’re going to look into this,” she said, adding that the reports from Israel were “concerning to hear”.

Israel’s new foreign broadcaster law was enacted by the right-wing government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was written to target Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar’s government, at the same time that Qatari officials have been hosting Hamas representatives for negotiations.

The Associated Press had been reporting nonstop since the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas militants, often from within Gaza and by presenting firsthand accounts of the damage from Israeli airstrikes.

Critics of Israel’s media law have accused the Netanyahu government of using it to suppress unflattering reporting on the seven-month-old war in Gaza.

Caitlin Vogus, the deputy advocacy director for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement that Israel “must immediately” reverse the decision and return the AP’s equipment and called for the Biden administration to “strongly condemn Israel’s escalation of its attacks on the free press”.

“If Israel wants to claim the mantle of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ it needs to act like it. Banning broadcasters because Israel disagrees with their coverage is the hallmark of an authoritarian state, not a democracy. Seizing equipment from the AP just for supplying a news outlet with video footage is disgraceful,” she said.