x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Israeli government takes aim at press freedoms

Journalists and politicians are alarmed by a series of measures by the government that target press freedoms.

JERUSALEM // Israel has long prided itself as a democracy with a vibrant, independent media. Lately, however, journalists and politicians have expressed alarm at a series of measures by the ruling right-wing government that, they say, target press freedoms.

Citing censorship issues, Eva Berger, the dean of media studies at Rishon Letzion's college of management, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper she had quit a committee that advises Israel's Government Press Office (GPO).

She complained about Israel's security apparatus vetting applications for press credentials, the newspaper reported last week. It quoted her saying "this decision in the hands of the security establishment is to add insult to injury".

"I naively thought that in light of the [advisory committee's] dignified composition, it could be a dynamic and thinking council and could discuss any finding, based on the information it has," she said, adding this was not the case.

Her resignation coincided with the initial passage of a bill by Israel's Knesset, or parliament, last Monday to dramatically increase defamation penalties.

The proposed legislation, which critics call "the silencing law", would raise the maximum damages in a libel suit to 300,000 shekels (Dh290,000) from 50,000 shekels.

Journalists say it is clearly intended to silence them - the fines could be imposed on a party found guilty even without damages from the alleged defamation being proved.

"In other words, I can get sued for writing that the author of the bill is more dangerous to Israel's future than Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah combined," Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist, wrote in the +972 Magazine last Tuesday.

A clause in the bill also says journalists could be sued if comments in an article from, for example, a politician or a company under media investigation are not printed in full.

Mr Reider noted they could exploit this law by intentionally writing lengthy responses to media enquiries that journalists would be required by law to publish in full - "even if it's 5,000 words long".

The bill passed an initial vote of 42 to 31 and sparked fierce debate among Knesset members. Proposed bills generally need to pass three readings before they become law.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, backs the legislation.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot quoted an outraged Uri Orbach, a parliamentarian, criticising the measure because it would make it easier for public figures to sue for damages.

During the Knesset debate, he called it "a profitable deal for Knesset members, ministers, dignitaries ... I almost beg you: slander me".

The legislation's implications have frightened local journalists, editors and publishers, who convened an emergency meeting on November 20in Tel Aviv to discuss it.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel also harshly criticised the bill in a statement last week, calling it "a clear attempt to intimidate and stifle the country's media".

The issue raises further questions about the powers given to government officials for penalising alleged media transgressions.

This month, Israel's communications ministry shut the joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station Kol Hashalom, or All for Peace, for broadcasting into Israel without a licence.

A far-right member of Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party, Danny Danon, bragged he initiated an investigation over alleged Leftist incitement that led to the station's closure.

"A radical leftist station that becomes an instrument of incitement must not be allowed to broadcast to the public," he said.

The incitement accusation concerns alleged support by the station's presenters for demonstrations in favour of the Palestinian bid to win United Nations statehood recognition.

Broadcasting from Ramallah and licensed by the Palestinian Authority, All for Peace's Jewish co-director, Mossi Raz, told the British daily The Independent the station's closure was "political".

Despite the station's regular contact with Israel's communications ministry since its founding seven years ago, he said he the station had never been asked to be licensed in Israel.

"I am very concerned. There is no democracy here," he said.