Israeli Journalists Fear New Restrictions

Libel Law and Rules Endanger Middle East's Only Free Press

Free for Now: Israeli journalists, showed her interviewing nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu, have long boasted of the only truly free press in the Middle East. They worry that could be changing.
getty images
Free for Now: Israeli journalists, showed her interviewing nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu, have long boasted of the only truly free press in the Middle East. They worry that could be changing.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 05, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

Dalia Dorner
Dalia Dorner

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?’”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.