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Israel to return video equipment seized from US news outlet after intense backlash

Israel officials seized camera and broadcasting equipment from the Associated Press on Tuesday as it was airing a live video of Gaza, accusing it of violating a new media law. The move sparked intense backlash from the Biden administration, journalism organisations and the United Nations.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Jerusalem Published on: May 22, 2024 7:08 IST
Israel seizes AP equipment
Image Source : AP Israeli officials seized AP equipment in Sderot after it was broadcasting a live view of northern Gaza.

Jerusalem: The Israeli government has decided to return a camera and broadcasting equipment it seized from the Associated Press on Tuesday, after facing mounting criticism for interfering with independent journalism by blocking the news organisation's live video of Gaza. The AP’s live video of Gaza was back up early Wednesday in Israel, which earlier accused it of violating a new media law by providing images to the banned Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel.

Israeli officials used the new law on May 5 to close down Qatar-based Al Jazeera within Israel, confiscating its equipment, banning its broadcasts and blocking its websites. However, when it seized the AP equipment, the Biden administration, journalism organisations and Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid condemned the government and pressured it to reverse the decision.

Israel’s communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, said late Tuesday on the social platform X: “I have now ordered to cancel the action and return the equipment to the AP.” He said the equipment was confiscated as it was reporting the location of Israeli soldiers in Gaza to Al Jazeera, which put the forces at risk. The issue was re-examined by the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

“While we are pleased with this development, we remain concerned about the Israeli government’s use of the foreign broadcaster law and the ability of independent journalists to operate freely in Israel,” said Lauren Easton, AP’s vice president of corporate communications.

Why did Israel seize AP's equipment?

Officials from the Communications Ministry arrived at the AP location in the southern town of Sderot on Tuesday afternoon and seized the equipment. They handed the AP a piece of paper, signed by Karhi, alleging it was violating the country’s foreign broadcaster law. The AP was broadcasting a general view of northern Gaza, and Al Jazeera is one of its thousands of customers.

The AP complies with Israel’s military censorship rules, which prohibit broadcasts of details like troop movements that could endanger soldiers. The live video has generally shown smoke rising over the territory. The AP had been ordered verbally last Thursday to cease the live transmission, which it refused to do.

Reactions to Israel's decision

Following the seizure, the AP strongly condemned the Israeli government's decision. "The Associated Press decries in the strongest terms the actions of the Israeli government to shut down our longstanding live feed showing a view into Gaza and seize AP equipment. The shutdown was not based on the content of the feed but rather an abusive use by the Israeli government of the country’s new foreign broadcaster law. We urge the Israeli authorities to return our equipment and enable us to reinstate our live feed immediately so we can continue to provide this important visual journalism to thousands of media outlets around the world," said Easton. 

The White House reacted to the seizure of AP's camera equipment, saying it was a "concerning" situation. "We want to look into it. But we’ve always been clear — the importance of the work that you all do and the work that journalists do, and, again, how it is the pillar of our democracy.  It is part — certainly, part of our freedom," said Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. The US privately urged the Israeli government to reverse the decision, two senior US officials said.

"As soon as we learned about the reports, the White House and the State Department immediately engaged with the government of Israel at high levels to express our serious concern and ask them to reverse this action,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council. “The free press is an essential pillar of democracy and members of the media, including AP, do vital work that must be respected.”

Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid called the move against AP “an act of madness.” “This is not Al Jazeera. This is an American news outlet,” he said. “This government acts as if it has decided to make sure at any cost that Israel will be shunned all over the world,” Karhi responded to Lapid that the law passed unanimously by the government states that any device used to deliver Al Jazeera content could be seized.

Journalism organizations also condemned Israel’s seizure of AP equipment. “Israel’s record on press freedom already has been dismal throughout the war,” the Foreign Press Association said in a statement on Tuesday. “It has prevented independent access to Gaza for foreign journalists.” Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, called the incident "quite shocking". “Journalists need to be able to do their work freely. The Associated Press, of all news organizations, should be allowed to do its work freely and free of any harassment,” Dujarric told reporters.

Israel's closure of the Al Jazeera office

Israel has long had a rocky relationship with Al Jazeera, accusing it of bias against the country. Al Jazeera is one of the few international news outlets that has remained in Gaza throughout the war, broadcasting scenes of airstrikes and overcrowded hospitals and accusing Israel of massacres. Netanyahu has called it a “terror channel” that spreads incitement.

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operations of Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera will be closed in the country. It could include closing the channel’s offices in Israel, confiscating broadcast equipment, preventing the broadcast of the channel’s reports and blocking its websites, among other measures. “It’s time to remove the Hamas mouthpiece from our country,” Netanyahu said in a post on X.

"The government headed by me unanimously decided: the incitement channel Al Jazeera will be closed in Israel," he added. The head of Al Jazeera in Israel and the Palestinian territories described an Israeli government decision on Sunday to shutter the Qatari-owned station's local operations as "dangerous" and motivated by politics rather than professional considerations. Media groups warned of the serious implications for press freedom in the country after the decision.

(with inputs from agencies)

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