Tel Aviv — One of Israel’s proudest claims is that it boasts the only truly free press in the Middle East. But civil rights activists and journalists, including some of the country’s top names, say this could soon become a thing of the past.
On November 20, some 500 journalists from competing media outlets attended what was billed as an “emergency conference” in Tel Aviv to discuss what they deem unprecedented and immediate threats to their free expression.
The Tel Aviv conference, convened by an ad-hoc group of journalists, protested government-backed libel legislation that the journalists say could tie their hands and stymie investigative reporting. The Knesset bill passed its first reading by a vote of 42–31 the day after the conference.
The conference also protested the government’s recent decision to take a long-established left-leaning Israeli-Palestinian radio station off the airwaves, and the looming closure of the fiercely investigative Channel 10 due to the government’s refusal to extend its debt repayment to the state by a year. The television station has aired several probing reports on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who responded to one series of investigations last spring by serving the station with a $1.2 million lawsuit, which is ongoing.
These concerns come as the Ministry of Justice is also considering prosecuting Uri Blau, a journalist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, for publishing leaked military documents indicating that the army had assassinated two suspected Palestinian terrorists in possible violation of a Supreme Court order. Haaretz has argued that Blau was “doing nothing but his work as a journalist, and was acting according to the accepted norms in covering the defense establishment.” Critics warn that such a prosecution will make it harder to use leaks to expose wrongdoing.
“I think the Israeli media is still free, but I think we’re on the verge of a very big change for the worse,” said Eva Berger, dean of the School of Media Studies at the College of Management in Rishon Letzion. Berger is a former member of the Government Press Office advisory council.
Ben Caspit, a broadcast journalist and senior columnist with the daily newspaper Maariv, said he sees a “Putinization of Israel.”
“I never dreamed that I [would] see such things,” he said. “It’s happening live right now, and I don’t see any forces that can stop it.”
Bloggers, too, have been writing to express fury, saying that their expression is particularly endangered by the libel legislation the Knesset is considering. “Journalist Theodor Herzl must be turning in his grave,” blogger Shuki Galili wrote, referring to the liberal writer who founded modern Zionism.
The new law would allow successful libel plaintiffs to win maximum awards of $80,000 even if they cannot prove they suffered any actual harm. The sum represents a six-fold increase over the current maximum. In the event the media outlet in question did not offer the plaintiff the opportunity “to add his full response to the publication,” the damages can increase to $400,000.
This would begin an era of self-censorship and paralyze investigative reporting, according to former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who is now president of the Israel Press Council, the media’s ethical body. She told the Forward: “You can’t really [under the bill] write serious articles about our leaders and what they are doing; editors will say, ‘Why should I bother if I can get into such trouble?’”