As press freedoms decline in Israel, people there see the war differently from the rest of the world

Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on a camp area housing internally displaced people in Rafah on May 27, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. Advocates say government restrictions and media self-censorship mean the realities of the Gaza war go largely unseen in Israel. (Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on a camp area housing internally displaced people in Rafah on May 27, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. Advocates say government restrictions and media self-censorship mean the realities of the Gaza war go largely unseen in Israel. (Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Warning: This story contains a photograph showing the body of a Palestinian journalist killed in Gaza.

Israel's brief seizure of The Associated Press's video equipment last week may have proven to be a step too far in that government's limiting of press freedoms amid the war in Gaza.

As international condemnation mounted, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi quickly reversed course and ordered the return of the AP's equipment, which was used to broadcast a live feed looking into the Gaza Strip from southern Israel. He cited a recent law that was just used to temporarily bar the news network Al Jazeera from operating in the country.

The move highlighted the Israeli government's attempts to control information — already a problem prior to the start of the war, said Anat Saragusti, press freedom director for the Union of Journalists in Israel.

"The extreme right-wing government of Israel, from the beginning of its term ... put the freedom of [the] press as a target," she told CBC News in an interview from Tel Aviv.

Josphat Kasire/The Associated Press
Josphat Kasire/The Associated Press

But the situation has dramatically worsened since the outset of the war. Both foreign and Israeli journalists are prohibited from entering Gaza without strictly controlled military embeds, while Palestinian journalists risk death to document what's happening on the ground.

More than 100 Palestinian journalists have been killed so far in Israel's eight-month offensive, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), though other estimates put that toll higher.

Press freedom advocates also warn of self-censorship among mainstream Israeli news outlets, saying they are failing to provide a full picture of the devastating war.

"The world sees a completely different war from the Israeli audience," Saragusti told CBC News in an interview from Tel Aviv. "This is very disturbing."

CBC News contacted Israel's Ministry of Communications for comment on claims that press freedom in the country is eroding and was referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

WATCH | World leaders condemn Israeli bombing at Rafah shelter site: 

A 'dangerous precedent'

The Israeli government has had Al Jazeera — which Netanyahu has referred to as a "Hamas mouthpiece" and a "terror channel" — in its sights since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the start of Israeli military operations in Gaza.

The attack killed roughly 1,200 people, with about another 250 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. Israel's subsequent ground offensive in Gaza has killed over 35,000 people since then, by Palestinian counts.

Al Jazeera is primarily funded by the Qatari government and has been critical of Israel's operation in Gaza, from where it has reported around the clock throughout the war.

Israel adopted a new law in April that allowed it to temporarily ban Al Jazeera, and any other "foreign broadcast networks deemed a national security risk."

On May 5, the government shut down the network's operations in the country and blocked access to its Arabic and English channels and websites. The measure is in place for 45 days, but can be renewed.

Karhi shared video of police and government officials raiding Al Jazeera's office at a hotel in occupied East Jerusalem.

The minister cited the same law in confiscating the AP's equipment last week, saying the agency was supporting Al Jazeera — an AP client like thousands of other news organizations worldwide, including Israeli outlets — by providing it with the live video feed of northern Gaza.

CPJ was among the groups criticizing the Israeli government for the law and the Al Jazeera ban, calling it a "dangerous precedent."

"We objected to the law more specifically because of this broad use, where [the government] can essentially decide that it doesn't like certain kinds of content and censor them, which is not the actions of a democratic country," said Jodie Ginsberg, the organization's CEO.

Submitted by the Committee to Protect Journalists
Submitted by the Committee to Protect Journalists

Controlling the message 

Press freedom in Israel was already slipping before the war, said Saragusti, with political attacks on the media beginning shortly after Netanyahu formed his current government in 2022.

Kahri, the communications minister, wanted to shut down the country's public broadcaster, Kan, and has accused the media of left-wing bias. He has also proposed broadcast licensing and regulatory reforms that critics see as benefiting right-wing outlets whose coverage is favourable to the government.

"[Netanyahu] understands that controlling the minds of people is a tool to control the country," said Saragusti.

Oded Antman
Oded Antman

And in the context of the war, she said, he's very much in command of his own message, having avoided interviews with Israeli news outlets since Oct. 7 and either releasing pre-recorded video messages on his social media accounts or holding press conferences with limited questions.

Netanyahu has, however, granted two dozen interviews to foreign outlets, and only in English, according to the Israeli media monitor The Seventh Eye. That included a recent appearance on CNN, during which he denied dodging Israeli news outlets.

LISTEN | Rafah airstrike strengthens calls for Israel to halt military offensive: 

A 'one-sided war' 

From the outset, Saragusti anticipated a "one-sided war," with Israeli media not portraying the scale of the destruction and casualties in Gaza — and she said that's exactly what's happened.

She said most mainstream Israeli news outlets practise a great deal of self-censorship when it comes to the devastation in Gaza.

"The major media outlets don't bother to show what's going on in Gaza because they want to align with the general sentiment of the people that are still processing, you know, their own devastation [after the Oct.7 attacks]," she said.

That's part of the reason why many Israelis struggle to understand why so much of the international community is criticizing Israel, she said.

But the other issue, she said, is that the Israeli audience "sees only what the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] wants them to see," and not the "atrocities and the humanitarian crisis."

Hatem Ali/The Associated Press
Hatem Ali/The Associated Press

The IDF provides much of the footage and images that appear in Israeli media, she explained, and what footage is gathered by journalists embedded with its soldiers is subject to review by military censors.

In 2023, more than 600 articles by Israeli media outlets were barred, according to the Israeli news website +972 Magazine, which obtained the data from Israel's military censor via a freedom-of-information request. That was the most since the outlet began tracking the data in 2011. And more than 2,700 articles had been partially censored or redacted prior to publication.

Ginsberg said some degree of censorship isn't unusual in wartime, for example to protect military movements.

But it also serves another purpose, she said, especially when rules are drafted broadly.

"That enables governments to not just restrict security-sensitive information, but any critical coverage also of their own practices," she said.

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