Israel threatens Al-Jazeera with sanctions over Gaza coverage

Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza and the Occupied West Bank may be curtailed significantly if Israel makes good on its threat to impose sanctions on the Qatar-based TV network, which it accuses of siding with Hamas.
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BEIRUT/DOHA, MARCH 14, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Israel announced on Wednesday that it would be imposing sanctions on Al-Jazeera (Arabic) after accusing the Qatar-based TV network of taking the side of Hamas during the recent Israeli incursion in the Gaza Strip in which more than 130 Palestinians were killed.

Majalli Whbee, Israel's deputy foreign minister said the Israeli government would deny visas to Al-Jazeera's employees working in the Palestinian territories, but he stopped short of saying that Israel would strip Al-Jazeera's Israel-based employees of their work visas.

"We have seen that Al-Jazeera has become part of Hamas," Whbee told the Associated Press.

Officially, Al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar has received nothing explicitly stating that sanctions have been imposed.

"Al-Jazeera will take no official stance on the matter until we receive a formal letter from the Israeli government stating sanctions are being imposed on our activities in Israel and the surrounding Palestinian territories," Ahmed Sheikh, Al Jazeera's editor in chief in Doha told MENASSAT.

Walid al Omary, Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Jerusalem said earlier that Israel's sanctions were a means of trying a influence its coverage of events in Gaza, which Al-Jazeera maintains is unbiased and balanced.

'Bad public relations move'

Israel's attempts to limit the coverage of the situation in the Palestinian territories are "nothing new," said Habib Battah, a media analyst based in Beirut.

"Yes, it's a bad public relations move for Israel," Battah told MENASSAT. But he said that it's a symptom of a larger issue. 

"The media has become a weapon for all the conflicts in the Middle East. And what is most worrying is that governments – be it Israel or Arab governments – are deciding what is objective and balanced, which TV channels are proper, which TV channels they approve of."

Habib cited the Arab satellite TV charter that was signed by the Arab League's Information Ministers in early February as a pan-Arab initiative to curtail the activities of media outlets critical of their governments, and to restrict any kind of "real journalism."

Qatar, Al-Jazeera's home base, was the only Arab country to criticize parts of the charter.

Al-Jazeera is the most watched television network in the Arab world, with an estimated 40-50 million viewers per day, but it has not always been smooth sailing.

Since its launch in 1996, Al Jazeera's correspondents have been threatened, jailed and killed. 

Two U.S. presidential administrations have accused the network of being the mouthpiece of Al Qaeda due to its policy of airing unedited audio and videotapes of Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

And just as Israel is now accusing it of essentially being the media arm of Hamas, at least one Arab country, Bahrain, banned Al-Jazeera in 2002 for being a mouthpiece of... the Israeli government.

"Al Jazeera definitely has a reputation for providing coverage that caters to people's emotions, and emotions run high in the Middle East today," Battah told MENASSAT.

"For many people in the Middle East, Al-Jazeera is seen as friendly to the resistance movements against Israel, wheras Al-Jazeera's rival channel, al-Arabiya, is seen as friendly to the West and U.S. policies in the Arab world,"  Battah said.


President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank government has also complained that Al-Jazeera has shown bias against Abbas' Fatah party ever since Hamas' bloody takeover of Gaza in June 2007. 

At the same time, Ismail Haniyeh, the ousted Palestinian prime minister and Hamas leader, was seen praising Al-Jazeera for its Gaza coverage as recently as Wednesday. 

The Israeli decision also sparked debate within the Jewish state, and an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday discussed the pros and cons of boycotting Al-Jazeera.

Unnamed Israeli media experts on the pro-sanctions side accused Al-Jazeera of being "the media arm of an enemy state [Qatar] working on behalf of other enemy states."

But the Post also argued that to boycott Al-Jazeera would effectively deny the presence of Israeli perspectives in the homes of millions of Arabs.

And while it is difficult to make comparisons between Israel and the rest of the Middle East where the plurality of media is concerned, Israel's line of defense has always been that at least it allows Arab journalists to operate in Israel whereas Arab countries deny entry to Israeli journalists.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said it would send letters of complaint to the network and to the Qatari government about Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza. 

It remains to be seen whether denying Al-Jazeera access to Israeli officials will become the official policy.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera's editor in chief Sheikh told MENASSAT, "We will not alter our ways of covering the on-going crisis in Gaza regardless of what Israel decides."