Freedom of the Press?

May 22, 2014
BY Josh Hasten/JNS.org
Bill to ban free Israeli newspapers sparks outcry
Free copies of the Israel Hayom are distributed in Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons)

Free copies of the Israel Hayom are distributed in Jerusalem.
(Wikimedia Commons)

With the Summer Assembly of Israel’s 19th Knesset now in session, a highly controversial bill has drawn the ire of many from a wide range of professional fields and political backgrounds, including Members of Knesset (MKs), legal experts, media watchdog organizations, free speech activists and journalists.

A measure describing itself as the “bill for the promotion and protection of the printed media in Israel,” but informally known as the “anti-Israel Hayom bill,” is set to be brought before Israel’s powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation in the coming weeks. The proposal seeks to outlaw daily newspapers in Israel whose business model includes free distribution to the general public.

There is little uncertainly that the bill’s initiators, from parties both on the left and the right, are specifically targeting the Sheldon Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom, whose free-distribution strategy has in recent years taken away a significant number of readers from its competition.

The text of the bill — submitted by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) and co-signed by Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid), Robert Ilatov (Likud Beytenu), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ariel Attias (Shas) and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) — claims that the measure seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” according to a Jerusalem Post translation.

But Professor Eli Pollak—chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (IMW), which calls itself the leading Israeli media watchdog organization—said the bill represents exactly the opposite of its stated goal.

“This legislation is anti-liberal and makes no sense in a free market where anyone can do what they want as long as it’s legal an ethical,” Pollak said. “It’s fair competition. There is no reason to try and close [Israel Hayom] down or stop their way of working.”

Israel Hayom has reported that two original backers of the bill, Shas MKs Yitzhak Vaknin and Yitzhak Cohen, recently decided to withdraw their support of the legislation.

MK Shaked also recently admitted to a Channel 2 television interviewer that the bill “won’t pass.” Analysts claim that Shaked — along with her party’s chairman, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett — initially supported the bill from the political right since it essentially targeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom has been accused of pro-Netanyahu bias.

Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda,” Bennett said in March, referring to the Russian political newspaper associated with the Communist Party. “It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister.”

IMW’s Pollak said there is “no question that the legislation [to ban free newspapers] is politically motivated.” He explained that “for years Yedioth [Ahronoth], which calls itself ‘the newspaper of the country,’ had a monopoly and nobody cared.”

“But when Yedioth’s and Haaretz’s [market] shares went down and other newspapers including Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon went up, that posed a problem for those that don’t want right-wing opinions to be heard,” Pollak said.

A 2011 survey by the Target Group Index (TGI) revealed that four years after its inception, Israel Hayom’s readership had surpassed that of Yedioth —formerly Israel’s most widely read daily newspaper — with a 39.3-percent market share over Yedioth’s 37 percent. Yedioth remained the most-read weekend newspaper.

The latest TGI survey, released in January 2014, said Israel Hayom remains the country’s most-read daily, with 38.6-percent readership compared to 38.4 percent for Yedioth in the second half of 2013.

Pollak cites MK Cabel’s political bias in going after Israel Hayom. He said Cabel was responsible for shutting down Arutz 7 broadcasting, the right-leading radio station in Beit El that in 2002 was denied a broadcasting license and had its studios raided and broadcasting equipment confiscated.

On the other hand, when Israel’s Channel 10 television station “was going to be closed down when it didn’t meet its financial commitments, [Cabel] defended it,” Pollak noted.

“This is a very clear political game, which won’t succeed because it’s wrong,” said Pollak. “In a democracy with freedom of the press and freedom of business, this can’t go through.”

Yossi Fuchs, a Ramat Gan attorney with 15 years of experience in Israeli constitutional law, agrees that the bill to ban free newspapers will never pass.

“I think [the bill is] not constitutional,” he said. “It totally goes against freedom of the press and contradicts Israel’s ‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.’”

Fuchs explained that while Israel does not have a formal written constitution, the set of “Basic Laws” passed since the country’s founding in 1948 have “the weight of constitutional laws.” Fuchs said one “can’t legislate a law which contradicts a Basic Law,” which he believes is the case with the bill purportedly targeting Israel Hayom. Even if the bill somehow gets a majority in the Knesset, “it is my assumption that it will fall in the Supreme Court,” he said.

Since it is clear by definition “that only one paper (Israel Hayom) stands to close based on the proposed legislation, [the bill] is problematic, since if it can be proven that any proposed law is written because of a vendetta, and not based on law, that is unconstitutional,” Fuchs added.

Ruthie Blum, a columnist who writes regularly for Israel Hayom, said that banning the distribution of a free newspaper “ostensibly to protect the paid print media from going bust” is “antithetical to the principle of a free market.”

“Not only would such legislation harm consumers, who deserve all the options that competition affords, but it would also be utterly pointless,” she said. “Today, most people read news and features on the Internet for free anyway. Especially appalling about this particular bill is that it reeks of a politically motivated attempt to keep the secular, Zionist and pro-Netanyahu government position at bay.”
Israel Hayom reported that after it published the contact information of the bill’s authors, the legislators’ offices were flooded with phone calls and emails from Israeli citizens expressing their adamant opposition to the measure. Requests for comment to several MKs who support the bill were denied or went unanswered.

In a recent interview with his own newspaper, Sheldon Adelson took aim at Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes, who was rumored to be behind the bill.

“It should be obvious to anyone who reads about this that the amount of power Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes has is unspeakable; he can tailor a bill just so he can eliminate competition,” Adelson told Israel Hayom.

Asked if the proposed Israeli bill would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Adelson said, “To restrict the circulation of information is an out-and-out violation, in both letter and spirit, of the constitution.”

“Freedom of speech is the basic hallmark of democracy, the first thing people refer to in a democratic system,” he said. “And to deprive the citizens of the freedom of getting information simply because somebody is threatening the MKs and somehow incentivizing them to eliminate a competitor means that the MKs are not doing their job.”

Full disclosure: JNS.org is a distributor of Israel Hayom’s English-language content.

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