Al Jazeera: A thorn in Israel’s flesh

The Israel-Hamas war, which end does not appear to be in sight at the moment, has claimed thousands of lives. As of last month, over 35,000 people (34,262 Palestinians and 1,410 Israeli) have been reportedly killed, including 97 journalists (92 Palestinians, two Israeli and 3 Lebanese) and over 224 humanitarian aid workers.

The war has also wrecked hospitals, schools and other vital public infrastructure, particularly in the Gaza Strip. A couple of journalists are victims of the conflict, too. Before now, this writer didn’t nurse the thought of authoring a piece on the brutal face-off between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine.

However, I have now been compelled to do so as a result of the way a party to the war – Israel – is aggressively clamping down on journalists and foreign media organisations. Even without being a pen pusher, everyone should be depressed hearing tales of power-drunk public officials and governments muzzle the press – the only institution worldwide playing the role of a watch dog for the society.

On May 6, 2024, a newspaper report titled, “War on Gaza: Israel shuts Al Jazeera’s office,” reads: “Israel ordered the local offices of Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite news network to close Sunday, escalating a long-running feud between the broadcaster and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government as Doha-mediated cease-fire negotiations with Hamas hang in the balance.

“The extraordinary order, which includes confiscating broadcast equipment, preventing the broadcast of the channel’s reports and blocking its websites, is believed to be the first time Israel has ever shuttered a foreign news outlet.

Al Jazeera reporters harmed Israel’s security and incited against soldiers,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “It’s time to remove the Hamas mouthpiece from our country.”

While the Israeli authorities may have succeeded, albeit temporarily, on stifling a credible media voice on its shores, it won’t, and cannot influence Al Jazeera’s operation across other parts of the world. Thus, the victory, if there is any, Israel has achieved with its media suppression agenda, is one that sure looks pyrrhic.

The pleasure of gagging Al Jazeera, also, is, of course, going to be fleeting for Netanyahu. Why is my optimism sky-high on that? It is because of what I gathered from a piece titled, “What if there was no Al Jazeera?” by Naziru Mikailu Abubakar, the Group Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of Digital Trust, some months ago.

First published in December 2023, the article revealed what made Al Jazeera to become a household name in the comity of global media organisations. More importantly, however, how and what made the Qatar-based network a thorn in the flesh of Netanyahu and the Israeli government, were also exposed in the essay, which partly reads:

“Imagine living in a world where you only hear one side of the story. A world where the media is controlled by a few powerful interests that dictate what you see, hear, and think. A world where the voices of the oppressed, the marginalised, and the diverse are silenced or ignored—a world where you are not represented or respected as a human being.

“This is the world that Al Jazeera challenges every day. And you don’t need to go beyond the current conflict in Gaza, which has killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians – most of them women and children – to notice that. The majority of the global media has turned its back on the Palestinians and sided with Israel.

“They give emphasis to less critical issues and ignore the constant and indiscriminate shelling and murder of defenceless women and children, allowing Israel and its partner in the genocide, the United States, to continue to manipulate the opinion of the unsuspecting public in Western capitals. Only Al Jazeera, a few other outlets, and local citizen journalists dare to tell the real story. But they do so at a considerable cost.

“For almost three decades, the Qatar-based network has been a global leader in journalism, covering stories that others shy away from, giving voice to the voiceless, exposing injustices, and holding the powerful to account. It has also been a target of censorship, harassment, and violence from those who fear its influence and independence.

“When the monarchy-ruling the tiny desert nation of Qatar decided to establish the Al Jazeera Television Network in November 1996, I doubt if they had anticipated the enormous power and influence it would have. Nearly three decades later, the station has produced some of the most outstanding journalism and documented the most touching stories of underserved communities.

“It has given voices to some of the most voiceless and marginalised societies, like the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and exposed the atrocities committed by the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in the Palestinian territories, to name a few.

“From the interview with Osama Bin Laden, the coverage of Arab Spring, sanctions, and censorship to the failed mission to set up the Americas network, the station’s journey has been that of resilience, innovation, and constant belief.

Al Jazeera has been at the forefront of covering the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially the recent escalation of violence in Gaza.

“It has deployed its reporters, producers, and local sources to provide first-hand reporting of the situation, showing the impact of the Israeli airstrikes and the resistance of the Palestinian people. It has also faced direct threats from the Israeli forces, who have targeted its journalists and their families not only for being journalists but specifically for working for the station and providing alternative narratives.

“These fearless journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh, whose brutal murder by the IDF in May last year sparked global outrage, and Samer Abudaqa, who was targeted and murdered by an Israel drone on the December 16 while filming an attack on a residential building in Gaza, continue to risk their lives to tell the stories of devastation and genocide that only Al Jazeera can afford to cover.

“Samer’s colleague and Gaza bureau chief, Wael al-Dahdouh, who had earlier lost his wife, son, daughter, and grandchild in November, narrowly survived the attack. One of the most vibrant female reporters, Youmna ElSayed’s family, got a direct call from the IDF that she and her family must evacuate from their home within hours. She told the network in a live interview that “we had nowhere to go. Nowhere is safe in Gaza”.

“This is the condition that Aljazeera and other local journalists find themselves in as they struggle to tell the world what is happening there. While the physical battle is being fought on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, another set of army is battling to control the narrative on our TV and mobile phone screens.

“The media space is full of fake and manipulated accounts of the events, some of it orchestrated by state-sponsored campaigns through influential individuals, groups or by profoundly ideological and partisan media outlets. Western intelligence agencies connived with their media outlets to shield Israel from the possible war crime indictment after it shelled al-Ahly Arab Hospital on October 17, only for Al Jazeera to debunk their false claims with uncontested evidence.

“The gap Al Jazeera is filling is not for the Qataris alone; they could have sat down and enjoyed their enormous wealth while the world is being controlled and manipulated by very few media outlets. However, while it’s fair to say the network has provided Qatar with soft power and enabled it to become a critical regional and global player, as evidenced by its role in the US-Taliban negotiation and the release of some hostages by Hamas, the public, especially we, in the global south, are the primary beneficiaries”.

Therefore, the international community, in good conscience, must stand by, and also lend its moral support to Al Jazeera, whose outstanding journalism works have been highlighting the plight of the oppressed across the world, protecting the sanctity of human lives from violation, and also checkmating some propaganda campaigns of the western media. The Israeli authorities should not always have their way.

Mahmud, Deputy Editor of PRNigeria, writes via [email protected].