Democracy and capitalism at stake as bill to ban free Israeli newspapers advances

Click photo to download. Caption: Distribution of the free newspaper Israel Hayom on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

After recently advancing in the legislative process, a controversial bill to ban free print newspapers in Israel has reignited a debate in the country about journalism’s relationship with democracy and capitalism.

On Nov. 12, the bill—initiated by Member of Knesset Eitan Cabel (Labor)—passed a preliminary reading in the Israeli Knesset in a 43-23 vote (with nine abstentions). The proposal is widely viewed as an attempt to shut down Israel Hayom, the only Hebrew-language print newspaper that is distributed to the Israeli public free of charge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the recent Knesset vote by saying the bill “shames the Knesset,” according to footage by Knesset Channel television cameras. Cabel, meanwhile, denies that putting Israel Hayom out of business is his intention. The bill’s text claims that it seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” according to a Jerusalem Post translation. But critics of the legislation are asking: at what cost? 

“Freedom of speech requires an open marketplace of ideas, and such a marketplace requires competition not only among the ideas put forth in the press, but also among the ability of various newspapers to survive in the commercial marketplace,” wrote renowned Jewish-American civil rights attorney Alan Dershowitz in an op-ed published by Israel Hayom in April. Dershowitz explained that “some of the most important publications in history have been given out for free or at nominal cost.”

Political supporters of the bill say that the free distribution of Israel Hayom gives it an unfair market advantage, which by consequence hurts free enterprise and democracy. That business model, supporters argue, could force the closure of Israeli newspapers that charge for their print editions and exhibit political positions that contrast with the alleged pro-Netanyahu slant of Israel Hayom—ultimately making that editorial approach the only one available to the Israeli public.

“This is a bill in favor of pluralism and multiple opinions,” Cabel told the Jerusalem Post. “It is a battle so that, in a few years, we do not become a country with only one newspaper.”

“At every point where there was a contradiction between the national interest and the prime minister, [Israel Hayom] always preferred the prime minister,” Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party leader Naftali Bennett has said.

Ironically, Bennett’s opinion echoes what opponents of the bill say is its hidden agenda— a personal grudge against Netanyahu and his government.

“Although I have problems with Haaretz’s positions, and that is an understatement, I wouldn’t want the Knesset to vote to close it,” said one of Netanyahu’s cabinet members, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. “It is strange that those who see themselves as liberal want to close a newspaper.”

MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud), whose political positions have been opposed by Israel Hayom, said he still rejects the bill.

“I am certainly in the group that has been attacked [by Israel Hayom] and the reason is well-known—I have clear ideological disagreements with the prime minister. So what? I will fight until my last drop of blood for Haaretz and Israel Hayom to be able to express their views. Who are you, democrats or Bolsheviks?” he said.

Politics aside, critics of the bill believe the measure flies in the face of capitalism and is motivated by the desperation of Israel Hayom’s reeling competitors. According to market research by Target Group Index (TGI), Israel Hayom has been the top-read daily newspaper in Israel for more than four years. The latest TGI survey on the subject said Israel Hayom has a 39.8-percent market share—which is more than five percentage points higher than the next-highest-read Israeli print newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

In fact, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes is 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,” American-Jewish philanthropist and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Israel Hayom, said in an interview with his newspaper earlier this year.

The future of democracy in Israel is also at stake, analysts say. On Nov. 12, the same day the bill passed in its preliminary Knesset vote, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler—head of the Media Reform Project at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI)—submitted a legal opinion  to the Knesset that opposes the bill. Altshuler argued that the bill “impinges on the right of freedom of expression and the press, and is a threat to democracy.”

Altshuler’s opinion did acknowledge that Israel Hayom poses a problem for the Israeli newspaper market. The problem “is not that Israel Hayom is distributed for free,” she wrote, but rather that the newspaper is driving down the cost of advertising. 

Advertisements cost nearly three times lower in Israel Hayom than in Yedioth Ahronoth, but this issue “is not mentioned at all in the proposed law, despite its tenfold impact on the newspaper market that the bill seeks to assist,” Altshuler wrote.

IDI’s opinion urged the “transparency and full disclosure of economic and political interests underlying press coverage.”

“This includes both general disclosure and the need to deal with branded content that is being published in order to promote a political agenda, the achievements of a government ministry, or a particular member of Knesset, without disclosure that it is sponsored content,” wrote Altshuler, who called on Israel’s state comptroller “to issue an opinion or statement whether a situation in which a wealthy person funnels money to a media outlet without a business model, with the aim of supporting a particular political candidate whose identity is clear, constitutes a violation of Israel’s election financing laws.”

On the issue of a newspaper’s ownership, Dershowitz wrote that in the U.S., the Supreme Court has “ruled that spending money is protected speech and that laws limiting such speech are generally unconstitutional.” Even the Supreme Court justices who dissented on that ruling “agree that imposing any constraints on newspapers owned by wealthy families (such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe) would run afoul of our First Amendment,” according to Dershowitz.

Yossi Fuchs, an attorney with 15 years of experience in Israeli constitutional law, explained that unlike America, Israel does not have a formal written constitution. What Israel does have is a set of “Basic Laws” which have been passed since the country’s founding in 1948 and have “the weight of constitutional laws,” he told JNS.org in July.  One “can’t legislate a law which contradicts a Basic Law,” said Fuchs, who believes that is the case with the proposed bill to ban free newspapers. 

As such, the notion that the bill’s preliminary passage in the Knesset could imminently shut down Israel Hayom might be premature. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “to become law, a regular state bill must pass three readings in the Knesset,” while private bills have four readings. 

Voice of Israel radio’s Knesset insider Jeremy Saltan, who is also a Central Committee member of the Jewish Home party, explained on the “Josh Hasten Show” that the bill’s next destination is the Knesset House Committee, which must review the law and send it back to the Knesset for another vote, followed by another House Committee review and a final Knesset vote. The next Knesset vote might not be imminent because the House Committee is chaired by MK Yariv Levin—a member Netanyahu’s Likud party. 

Even if the bill does somehow pass a final vote in the Knesset, “it is my assumption that it will fall in the [Israeli] Supreme Court,” Fuchs told JNS.org.

Full disclosure: JNS.org syndicates the English-language content of Israel Hayom.

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Posted on November 17, 2014 and filed under Israel, News.