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04:44, 19 August 2017 Saturday
Update: 04:04, 08 August 2017 Tuesday

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In Israel too, democracy 'has its limits'
In Israel too, democracy 'has its limits'

By threatening to shut down Al Jazeera’s offices, Israel appears to be taking page from its professed enemies' playbook

Hussain Abdul Hussain

Israeli Telecommunication Minister Ayoub Kara thinks his country should censor pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera. “Even democracy has its limits,” Kara told a recent press conference.

In what could have been taken out of the playbook of the most autocratic Arab tyrants, Kara added: “Freedom of expression is not the freedom to incite and foment strife.”  

To make things worse, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of “the only democracy in the Middle East”, as Israel is often described here in Washington, supported his minister’s assertion.

Kara is an Arab-Israeli Druze member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

Perhaps it is this Israeli attitude toward freedom of expression that has landed the country at 91st place on the 2017 Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.

In this regard, Israel is not far removed from Arab countries like Tunisia, at 97th place, or Lebanon -- where Israel’s arch-enemy Hezbollah rules -- at 99th place.

In America, freedom of expression is one of the most inalienable rights that citizens enjoy, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

America’s debate over freedom has often been heated, and once made its way to the Supreme Court, the highest legal authority in the land. Unless a person enters a crowded theater and shouts “fire”, thus causing death through stampede, the court saw fit to impose no limits on freedom of expression.

Throughout the decade that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Washington expressed frustration with Doha-based Al Jazeera, often criticizing the channel’s broadcasts of videos put out by Osama bin Laden, then considered the world’s top terrorist.

U.S. security agencies were not bothered by the publicity that Al Jazeera might have given to bin Laden, but were concerned that -- through his video messages -- the Saudi-born jihadist might give coded orders to his followers to launch more attacks.

Yet despite all the hate, U.S. authorities never shut down Al Jazeera’s offices or withdrew accreditation from the station’s journalists.

Rather, it was the country’s largest cable carriers that decided to drop Al Jazeera English. And after the station bought out former Vice President Al Gore’s channel and replaced it with Al Jazeera America, U.S. cable carriers found themselves forced to distribute the channel’s American stream -- even if Al Jazeera America later crumbled under the weight of its editorial failure.

So if post-9/11 America never censored Al Jazeera, what inspired Tel Aviv to shut the channel’s offices in Israel? According to Kara, “The safety of our citizens and their wellbeing supersedes freedom of expression during times of terror.” 

In its attempt to kill Al Jazeera, Israel clearly borrowed its arguments from the channel’s Arab detractors, such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. 

For four years now, Egypt’s putschists-cum-rulers have argued that Al Jazeera represents “a terrorist channel”. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, like almost all other Arab autocrats, including Syria’s brutal tyrant Bashar al-Assad, often accuses opponents -- violent or not -- of being terrorists.

In the case of Al Jazeera, al-Sisi’s supporters say the channel “glamorizes terrorism” -- whatever that means.

Because Al Jazeera has given voice to many of the opponents of al-Sisi and his Arab allies, the Egyptian president has cracked down on the channel’s journalists and shut down its operations.

And now that the quadripartite alliance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain seem to have made new overtures to Israel, the Israelis have an opportunity to make common cause with these Arab states against Al Jazeera, which for decades has been a thorn in the side of the Israeli government.

Going after Al Jazeera is the second point that Israelis have cited as being a “common cause” with the four-nation Arab bloc after a shared fear of Iran.

A few days before Israel announced its intention to censor Al Jazeera, Israeli government spokesperson Afikhay Adraii praised Saudi Arabia for classifying Hamas as a “terrorist” group, perhaps raising the number of “common causes” to three.

Instead of encouraging Arab nations to adopt certain democratic practices, like elected government and a free press, Israel seems to be endorsing bad Arab habits, like silencing opposition voices under false pretexts.

Diversity has long been shunned in many Arab countries, and now that Israel is making new Arab friends, it too appears to be following suit.

What Israel and the Arab countries that have censored Al Jazeera fail to understand is that freedom of expression is unlimited. One does not have to agree with Al Jazeera’s editorial line to fight for the channel’s right to operate.

Unless Al Jazeera airs and endorses calls to commit violent acts, it is allowed to broadcast whatever it wants to.

Fortunately, despite Kara’s statements and Netanyahu’s praise, it seems Israel’s law and institutions will ultimately prevent the government from shutting down Al Jazeera.

Israeli daily Haaretz has pointed out that it is not up to Kara to suspend the accreditation of journalists. Only the Israeli security agencies can revoke such accreditation.

Spite, gossip and absurdity appear to have hit an all-time high in Arab politics, especially since the four-nation bloc decided to harass Doha. Now it seems the current Israeli government, too, wants to take part in the Arab silliness. 

Israel, however, might prove luckier than its Arab peers. In Israel, institutions seem to play their roles and draw clear lines between opponents of Israel and violent terrorists. In Arab countries, by contrast, it is unfortunate that there are no adults watching over the shoulders of the executive power to curb possible excesses.



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